I May Have Gotten Killed Trying to Enjoy a Midwood Open Street

Just one week into the start of a two-street stretch of Avenue K in Midwood being open to pedestrians during the day, the street is already off the list, and I may be partially to blame. 

The Avenue K open street was included in the latest addition (TO EDITOR, I DO MEAN “ADDITION” AND NOT “EDITION”) of Open Streets to the overall program that was announced on June 24. I visited the open street last Thursday around 9 a.m. and had to set up the barricades myself as motorists sped and drove recklessly through what was supposed to be a quiet and peaceful street.

I left shortly after placing the final barricade because a man confronted me. The next morning, this open street vanished from the list on the DOT website.

The stretch of road from East 15th Street to East 17th Street was one of the latest additions to the City Council-mandated Department of Transportation (DOT) Open Streets program to give people more space for exercise and travel during the pandemic. 

In an email exchange, Shawn Campbell, community board 14’s district manager, wrote that the community board did not know about the Avenue K open street until receiving an “inquiry” from a resident and learned of its demise through Twitter. 

When asked repeatedly about where this information was on Twitter, Campbell declined to comment. Multiple attempts by email to ask DOT where to find the information went unanswered. 

The questions were first sent to DOT Tuesday afternoon and were being handled by multiple people. After following up around lunchtime on Wednesday, DOT’s only response was to refer back to a tweet from the DOT account sent in response to a question from my Twitter account about the status of the open street on Avenue K. The tweet confirmed the removal of the Avenue K open street and provided a link to the current list of Open Streets. 

According to Campbell, DOT does not consult with the community board and the community itself on Open Streets, which is also why he would not provide further comment about the Avenue K open street and why it was removed. 

DOT declined to comment about the process behind creating, implementing, and removing Open Streets or how DOT would improve community engagement and coordination with the local partner in the future. 

The New York Police Department’s 70th precinct was the local partner for the Avenue K open street, and a phone call to the precinct’s Community Affairs arm revealed that the open street was removed from the list following a complaint. DOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why the open street was removed and what the process was.

Without the barriers being put into place and without community engagement, some of these Open Streets stretches go mostly unnoticed by pedestrians and residents and cause confusion for motorists, which was the case on Avenue K in between East 15th and East 17th streets. 

Most people are also not willing to run out into live traffic to set up the barricades as angry motorists look on because the local partner with DOT did not set up the open street. Most people are not willing to be confronted by strangers because the local partner did not set up the open street.

After dragging the barricades into place myself amidst the uncomfortable stares from motorists, the man who confronted me accused me of ruining the neighborhood and not having permission to set up the barricades that I expected to be set up by the 70th precinct. 

KCP Gonzo Journalist Michael Eric Rosenthal on his bicycle. Contributed photo

“People need to get to work,” he said, during a pandemic and in reference to closing two streets with plenty of redundancy around it. His comments also assume that everyone in southern Brooklyn who works or has somewhere important to go uses a car, which is beside the point that the Avenue K open street was a part of a City Council-mandated DOT program.

Speaking over the phone, someone from Community Affairs at the 70th precinct said that civilians were supposed to set up and remove the barriers for Avenue K’s open street themselves during operating hours. The mayor’s office press release from June 24 that listed the newest Open Streets indicated that the local precinct should have been responsible for setting up the barricades. 

DOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment when asked if civilians are allowed to move the barricades themselves and if the 70th precinct was responsible for the Avenue K open street. 

The one time that I placed the barricades myself last Thursday may have been the only time this open street was ever in use. DOT declined to comment on how many times the open street was set up on Avenue K. 

DOT declined to answer how pedestrians should handle and report an open street that needs to be set up or fixed. 

Using 311 only works sometimes and could take a while. 311 did not respond to multiple tweets from my account about the Avenue K open street on the day that I was there. 311 did not respond to multiple tweets and direct messages sent by my account about the disappearance of Avenue K from the list over the course of almost four days before DOT’s Twitter account confirmed that the Avenue K open street was removed. 

William Reda, a spokesperson for 311, said that 311 transfers Open Streets questions to DOT’s borough offices. He added that 311 wouldn’t have information about why an Open Street was created or removed.

Questions about why 311 ignored my initial complaint about the Avenue K open street not being set up went unanswered, as did questions about my multiple requests for days afterward about the status of that open street and what citizens should do when 311 does not reply to Open Streets inquiries.

DOT does not monitor its social media accounts 24/7, and 311 did not appear to refer my question because DOT directly responded to a tweet from my account that was a reply to another DOT tweet.

Avenue K’s open street appears to only be the second street in the program to be removed from the list. The more popular Rhinelander Avenue open street in the Bronx’s Morris Park neighborhood was part of the original Open Streets rollout and was scaled back and eventually eliminated in part from pressure from the community board and the local council member. DOT quietly removed two streets from downtown Brooklyn’s Willoughby Street recently as well. 

Avenue K was removed even more quietly than when it was added and will remain something that most Midwood residents will never even know existed.

DOT’s Open Streets program has seen mixed results. When these streets work, plenty of people use them for travel and play. Kids ride bikes and scooters in the street with their families and draw on the road surface with chalk as they hear the birds chirp instead of the rush of cars. They can provide space for socially distant fresh air in areas that do not have many parks or could use supplemental open space for existing parks. 

With the coming addition of Cool Streets, which will be Open Streets that have fire hydrants modified to safely spray water to keep residents from overheating, the status of the current Open Streets calls into question how well these Cool Streets will work. 

These streets also may not reach communities that have mostly missed out on Open Streets, like communities of color and large swaths of southern Brooklyn. 

DOT declined to comment about Cool Streets and why people should have faith in them working.

A few weeks after implementation, if not sooner, some of these Open Streets run into problems. They don’t get set up, they don’t get set up well, or the barricades get destroyed and not replaced. 

The streets are still open to cars for local access, but they must yield to all other road users and not exceed 5 MPH. Without enforcement and mid-block barricades in addition to ones at intersections, some Open Streets suffer from motorists using them for through travel while ignoring the low-speed limit, leading to fewer people using the open street in what becomes a negative feedback loop leading to even more cars breaking the rules.

The City Council passed legislation that mandated DOT create 100 miles of Open Streets. Over the past couple of months, DOT has slowly implemented more of these Open Streets and pop-up bicycle lanes but is still only at 67 miles, which now does not even include the one-tenth of a mile that was open on Avenue K and does not seem to have a replacement. 

Southern Brooklyn was mostly left out of the program until some of the recent additions, but Midwood will be without an open street again, after hardly having one in the first place.

DOT declined to comment about future Open Streets in southern Brooklyn and if a replacement open street will be found for Avenue K. 

City Councilmember Kalman Yeger (D-Midwood, Flatbush, Borough Park, Bensonhurst), who represents the Avenue K open street, did not respond to requests for comment.

Editor’s Note: Anecdotally, there is a one-block stretch of Prospect Park West, a major thoroughfare to get to Southwestern Brooklyn from Grand Army Plaza, that is an open street, forcing motorists to zig-zag through Park Slope to get home to neighborhoods like Borough Park, Kensington and Bensonhurst.

 

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