“Who are we?” organizer Paolo Peguero asked the crowd as they gathered with placards of protest ready to take to the avenue. “Residents,” they shouted back. “What do we want?” she continued. “Compromise,” they cheered in unity.
Currently, 26 blocks of 34th Avenue from 69th Street to Junction Boulevard is closed to traffic each day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, with the exception of emergency vehicles and local traffic.
The stretch is part of the city’s Open Streets Initiative, which created 83 miles of recreational space where residents could safely bike, walk and play during the pandemic.
The program, which was originally set to end last October, was extended indefinitely. Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation making the makeshift parks permanent.
Open Streets advocates now want to lengthen the stretch in Jackson Heights and turn it into a 24/7 expanse.
“We want to inform other residents about what is going on in our neighborhood because many don’t realize what’s happening,” said Peguero, leader of 34th Avenue Open Streets Compromise, a group of residents who say their concerns have gone unheard.
“We’ve tried for months to express how we feel to the Open Streets Coalition and the DOT,” Peguero added, noting she has already collected around 1,200 signatures from residents who are opposed to the plan.
Peguero said she and others are willing to compromise, despite how they’ve been portrayed on social media sites such as Streetsblog.org - a website that advocates for reducing the city’s dependence on cars - which claims the group is “anti-Open Streets.”
“Perhaps we can have certain days or do studies to see when people use the area the most,” Peguero suggested. “We just want to be part of the process.”
A lack of vehicle access, fewer parking spots and a decrease in quality of life were among the complaints of marchers.
“I’ve lived here for 47 years and I’ve never been through anything like this,” said Louise Ross. “The noise never ends, vendors, many who don’t have permits, are crowding the streets and boom boxes are screaming into the night. This is being shoved down our throats and we were never asked about it.”
Ross said she also worries about the elderly and disabled who need services like Access-A-Ride, which provides door-to-door transportation for those with health conditions.
“Emergency vehicles can’t get down here without stopping, getting out and moving the metal barriers,” she continued. “And what about people with cars with no space to park, what are they supposed to do? Fold them up and put them in their pockets?”
Darren Allicock, who has lived in Jackson Heights for more than 15 years, said he worries the neighborhood changes are going to displace longtime residents.
“Why the focus on Jackson Heights now?” he asked. “All of a sudden there’s an influx of money. Are they trying to attract people from Manhattan and gentrify this neighborhood? It's always been a diverse place and now it’s just one-sided.”
What’s more, Allicock said the park is attracting picnickers who leave their trash along the avenue and fail to pick up after their dogs.
“Our building staff winds up cleaning up,” he said. “There are no rules as it is now.”