In Convo: Open Streets, Vanderbilt Ave.
A roundtable with Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, Vanderbilt Ave. Open Street Organizer, Saskia Haegens, and Jackson Chabot, Open Plans' Director of Open Space Advocacy.
Exasperated Infrastructures is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. 50% of revenue generated from this post will be donated to Vanderbilt Open Streets. The other 50% will help me keep going. Wow, what a good deal.
Back in April ‘22, I got a chance to partner with Open Plans to organize a roundtable about the Vanderbilt Ave. Open Street on the Vanderbilt Ave. Open Street. The four of us talked about the benefits and challenges of starting and maintaining an Open Street in New York, what it would take to bring Open Streets everywhere, and how you—New Yorker or not—can help keep our streets safe.
Spoiler: the answer is to get involved with your neighborhood goings on, talk to your neighbors and pressure your representatives to fight for progressive policies, like safe streets for everyone and productive streets for those who want them to be.
Thanks to Brooklyn Borough President and avid cyclist, Antonio Reynoso, and vice-chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, which operates the Vanderbilt Ave., Saskia Haegens, for their time and commitment to the Open Streets problem, and thanks to my co-conspirator, Jackson Chabot, Director of Open Space Policy for Open Plans, for helping to organize this fun talk.
This interview has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity.
Jackson Chabot: Good afternoon, everyone. We are here on Vanderbilt Avenue. My name is Jackson Chabot. I'm the Director of Public Space Advocacy at Open Plans, a nonprofit that advocates citywide for public space. We're really excited here to have you phenomenal guests. We've got a few questions. We're going to let our guests introduce themselves.
Saskia Haegens: Hi, I'm Saskia Haegens. I am the vice-chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and we organize the Vanderbilt Open Street.
Antonio Reynoso: I’m Antonio Reynoso. I’m the Brooklyn Borough President and I love Vanderbilt.
Sam Sklar: And I'm Sam Sklar. I run a newsletter called Exasperated Infrastructures…where I'm exasperated about infrastructure.
JC: Amazing. So we've got six or seven questions this afternoon, and then a lightning-round, quick-hitting set of questions. So the first kickoff question is for the two of you, Saskia and Borough President Reynoso. So let's start borough-wide, and then we'll come back to Vanderbilt.
How do you see your role as it relates to public space, mobility, and accessibility for Brooklyn and for Vanderbilt?
AR: Yeah. The first part and the most difficult part, is introducing public space and people not feeling like it's encroachment. I think a lot of folks, one, want to participate in the decision-making or whether or not [an open] street should go in, but because they've never seen it, they've never experienced it, many times it's met with pushback. My job is more of an ambassador and advocate: that if we're going to do it, let's do it right.
What we're seeing in some of these communities is related to equity: is that they do it [open a street], DOT doesn't really follow up, there's no real volunteer program, and then it becomes very sloppy. Some days you have gates, and some days, you don't have gates and because of that inconsistency, it gives easy fodder to the people that want to push back to say, “We told you it doesn't work.” That's something that I have to do: when [an Open Street] happens, we introduce it and we do a good job of maintaining it to make it so that in places that don't have these spaces, they can be successful.
JC: One of the reasons Vanderbilt is so wonderful is because it is consistent. Saskia, I'd love to hear your opinion, and what that takes.
SH: I first want to point out Vanderbilt is a volunteer-run Open Street. We are a volunteer community organization that took it upon ourselves to run Vanderbilt (as well as the Underhill) Open Street. We think that's one of the things—that community approach—that makes Vanderbilt unique. But it's also a big operation. We have, between the two Open Streets, at least 100 volunteers that have pitched in, some moving barriers, and some spending many hours each week making this a success, which already tells you the enormous amount of labor and love that goes into it; and a bit of frustration as well.
Our role as a community partner is to make it happen: to set up the barriers and to make sure there's a program here. Everything you're seeing is done by volunteers. The other thing I want to point out, jumping onto your first point, is that the Open Streets program gave us a unique opportunity to do something really transformative that otherwise probably would never have happened. If we had told people a few years ago that we were going to close down the street, dine in the street, have people picnic, and have kids play on Vanderbilt, I don't think people would have believed us, or would have believed in it, or would have even supported it. But the Open Streets program allowed us to just do that. People saw it, they loved it and now we have a lot of support—the majority of people in the neighborhood and surrounding support this program. Part of it is because they have seen it, and they have enjoyed it. And I think that's one thing that's making this work now.
What opportunities do you see for Open Streets and public spaces going forward?
SH: I think [Vanderbilt] showed people what we can do with public space, right? How we can use public space in a different way than we're often used to. Vanderbilt on a weekday is a very busy street with traffic everywhere. Now, it's effectively a plaza. It's a transformative program. We've now seen how we can use public space in a different way to be enjoyed by people instead of just being used for traffic—and especially with climate change in mind, especially thinking about how much open public space we have in the city—that really presents an opportunity. But that being said, it's also currently not available everywhere. There are a lot of neighborhoods missing out and I think the big opportunity or the big challenge is to make sure it's distributed equitably throughout the city.
JC: Borough President, what do you think the opportunities are? Looking across the borough some communities have a lot of public space: we have Prospect Park just up the way and we've got Fort Greene Park in the other direction. Some communities just don't have it yet. So what do you think the opportunities are?
AR: It's building good models. I want to move from Open Streets to public plazas. It’s happened in other cities in other countries—like Barcelona, which took one of its biggest, busiest streets and just turned it into a public plaza, and it was a huge success. So I think it’s an evolution. It’s moving from Open Streets into public plazas more aggressively. On whether or not we can get there... it’s going to take a lot of advocacy and work and I hope that we can do that. That's the future of it.
In some places, they will thrive and in other places, they won't. And what helps is that if we make it permanent, then you can't fail if it's forever there. A very small group of people can affect change either way: they can shut something down or build something up. You're always contending against that. So I would just say the goal here is to eventually have Vanderbilt become a public plaza, and the successful ones become public plazas. And once people see that model, there'll be people from other parts of Brooklyn, from central Brooklyn and East New York, they'll come to Vanderbilt one day and say, “Wow, this is amazing.” But the first thing they'll say is: “Why is this not in my neighborhood…?” and it can be—talk to your elected official so we can start getting to work on it.
We need one hugely successful model, and once we have that I really feel like it can spread.
JC: It feels like what both of you are saying in different ways is we need to be sustainable and we need to be systemic. And I think a large part of what I see is what Saskia and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council are doing, providing the management in addition to the funding component of it all to make it sustainable over the long run. Those are really critical elements.
SH: That's a key point here. As much as we love running this, we also have a lot of questions like, “What will this look like x years from now?” It's fun to do this with a group of volunteers but it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of labor, and we have to find funding for the program. I don't know for how long that's sustainable. Or let me put it differently. I don't think that's a long-term, sustainable model. We put up, let's say, 90 of these metal barriers, three days a week, from April through November. That's about 100 days that we’re moving 90 barriers onto the street, and off of the street. It's fun, but at some point, we need to move to something more permanent, not only in terms of the operational component but also in terms of what the street looks like. I like the sound of plazas!
We kind of talked about the next question, which is the hurdles, but is there anything either of you wants to add as we think about the opportunities, and conversely the challenges?
AR: It is the funding and how we sustain it long term. A lot of people think that there's no money in this city for anything, but there is—it's just priorities and how we set them and political will. And we don't necessarily have that right now. This Mayor seems to be a lot more bike-friendly, per se, and maybe that's a way to get in, but hopefully bringing him to Vanderbilt, and seeing the success of Vanderbilt inspires him.
I'll give an example of how priorities are set. We have a ferry system that is deeply subsidized by the City of New York. That's helping a very small population in our city that seems to be very affluent and privileged. And then we have this where there's a ton of equity—it’s absolutely free. That means it doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, you can walk down the street and enjoy it. This is where the money should be or could be. And it's about priorities. It's about the political will. Can you make it so that the subsidy is $1 less, per rider, and put even half of that into this? It can make all the difference. The budget comparable is not even close. But that's just one angle.
We’ve got to be very careful. A lot of people want to see Citibike expanded, and Citibike is subsidized as well. We're having a million riders a day when the weather's warm. So it's also something that we could be prioritizing.
A lot of it is political will—we've got to be very careful about who our leaders are. If you want somebody who cares about this, who can make a difference, then you’ve got to elect those people. And if you don't, we're just going to have to wait another four years, another eight years, or fight tooth-and-nail for something that is so practical and makes so much sense for us.
SH: We're also very aware here in Prospect Heights that we have people available to volunteer on a program like this, and we have resources available—part of our funding comes from a GoFundMe campaign. That's also something to be aware of, that part of the reason certain areas don't have Open Streets is that they don't have an existing organization behind them to back it with the volunteer experience, labor, and other resources, which is something the city should address. And again, yes, it comes down to political decisions and funding.
JC: It sounds like what you're describing, as well, is a democracy, and people getting involved in Vanderbilt’s program or getting involved in Open Streets or in public spaces can lead to democratic outcomes, like knowing your neighbors at a basic level or participating in the Census. There are many potential benefits.
But there are also a lot of economic benefits. Vanderbilt and Tompkins Avenue, for example, in Bed-Stuy has been another street with a lot of tremendous economic benefits; think Berry Street, as well, in North Brooklyn. Specifically for Vanderbilt, though, and for the borough, how do both of you think that the city and the Department of Transportation can support, educate, and bring along business owners who might say, “I don't see the benefit of Open Streets…” yet.
AR: It's data and information. One thing that business owners care about is the bottom line. Can we show them that having an Open Street is actually good for their business and that it is actual economic development? I've had disagreements with businesses on Grand Street, for example, where I'm from, where they didn't want the bike lanes to be put in.
They said that they needed the parking spaces because that's how they get their customers. We did a survey and 86% of the people get there by walking, public transportation, or cycling. The cars are actually just business owners and sometimes the workers just constantly feeding meters. They're not turning over spaces. There's this perception from these business owners that these parking spots were valuable for them and brought them business. And that's not the case. What can bring the business are these types of environments. The outdoor dining was…
JC: …legislation that you championed, so big ups there…
AR: …it was great because I was able to show these small businesses that care about parking over everything…unless it's their spot. No, we can use those two parking spots to give you 10 tables and 20 chairs, to be able to serve your food outdoors. We’ll expand your square footage for your business, and see how much money you can make. Making it that's one thing—having the outdoor dining space—but the other thing is actually having the foot traffic and showing that people want to be in these types of spaces. That you end up being in a central corridor for your community is valuable. That is real.
Vanderbilt can be a big help with that. Are we collecting data as to how many people are walking through here? How much more money businesses are making now, than before the Open Street. The Economic Development Corporation or the City should be doing that…
JC: …or the Chamber of Commerce.
AR: We’ve got to be careful about imposing all this on a volunteer group and start allowing for the city to engage more thoughtfully, but again, they won't do it if they're not prioritizing it, because they don't have the political will. And that's something we might have to contend with, initially, while we get people in place who are going to be committed to this type of work.
Can you speak to the economic development benefits, and explicitly the benefits for businesses and jobs an Open Street might bring?
SH: For the first part, I definitely want to echo what Antonio is saying: talk to the restaurant owners on Vanderbilt. We have about 25 businesses directly participating in the program and they will all tell you that Open Streets saved them during the pandemic and they're relying on Open Streets to this day. You can collect those data. We've worked with DOT on merchant surveys, exit surveys, and interviews with customers leaving businesses. They’re collecting some of those data. But I think a lot more can be done there for sure.
We've done some counts ourselves, last year in the spring: how many pedestrians and cyclists are coming through to show the traffic that we're attracting. We get hundreds and hundreds of cyclists per hour—some are passing through (the street also functions as a safe bike lane). But a lot of them also stop here. Vanderbilt is a destination as well in that regard. So it attracts a lot of people. Vanderbilt has become a destination because of Open Streets.
As I mentioned, we're a volunteer organization. What we realized after the first year is setting up 90 to 100 barriers every weekend, 100 times a year is a lot of work. So we've hired marshals who assist us with that. It's a combination of paid marshals—we have five or six people working with us now every weekend—the restaurant staff, and we have a bunch of very dedicated volunteers who like lifting barriers, so it's a combination of components. The marshals help with the setup and breakdown, which is a lot of work. It takes about an hour to open the street and close it to traffic and it takes up to an hour to wrap up at the end of the day. During the day, they circulate, make sure barriers aren't removed, help out with sanitation as well, and are the “presence” on the street.
What advocacy and policy tools do we have to continue this work, that elected officials can use to support marshaling the streets and helping to organize them?
AR: It's a tough one because the equity issue is a huge problem. The next step is not necessarily whether or not we think this is successful, and we want to advocate for it, it is whether or not everyone has access in different places, or the equity to make it happen. But there is a very clear distinction between like what's happening here and what's happening in some other parts of Brooklyn, and the other parts of Brooklyn are more black and brown and poor. And the conversation is that they don't want or, or that they don't like open streets. No amount of people that are running up and down Vanderbilt are going to be able to make a difference. More white affluent faces have got to make a case to black and brown people that they should have this, which is why I think the best advocacy is showing people in those areas that it works. So it's doing a good job here, throwing events that would attract those types of people.
Are we doing Afro-Latin jazz? Are we doing Afro-Caribbean work here? Are we throwing events—hip-hop and R&B events that are more culturally aligned with what's happening in central Brooklyn to bring people from there to here.
And once they see it, once they experience it, they can bring it to their communities. But if we don't do that, it’s going to be hard to advocate outside of the places that are already successful, which is going to make places like Vanderbilt better…but we're not going to establish new places in areas that I think would actually benefit more than the folks here around Vanderbilt. So the advocacy that I would say should exist is figuring out a way to bring people that don't have access to this here, and making that a part of the programming in an aggressive way.
JC: That's a great point. I was thinking of an event around Bachata music.
SH: We are doing a salsa social on June 4th, I believe. [Ed. I was there and it was packed.]
AR: I'll see if I'll be there.
SH: We do try to make the programming diverse and attract different people—plus I think you make a very good point: once people see it, they’ll have an idea of what public space could be. It's very hard to imagine if you haven't seen it.
Before Open Streets, I don't think that a majority of people would have voted in favor of doing an Open Street on Vanderbilt or doing something like this, but now 80 to 85% of people that we poll want to keep it. I think you have to see it; you have to experience it.
We do this bi-weekly call with other Open Streets organizers. There's a lot of experience and expertise to be shared, right? That's a funny thing about this program: we’re all inventing it as we're doing it. A lot of us are replicating things and sharing ideas with people who want to set up Open Streets.
How was Vanderbilt chosen as a street over streets parallel to it?
SH: This program started at the height of the pandemic. And at that point, you could submit as a community organization, as a neighborhood organization, to sponsor a local Open Street. (It was not as involved as now to sponsor and run an Open Street.) DOT selected a number of those and at that time we received police wooden barriers and a “good luck.”
And then you had an Open Street. It did not look like then what it looks like today. And that's also why a lot of them failed because there were just some wooden barriers dropped off. And that was it. You really needed a community organization or volunteer organization behind it to keep running the program.
AR: In the process of choosing them, we wanted to make sure that there was some organization or some group of interested people, but it was a deeply political process. Whatever Council Member wanted to do one, got it done. Where there are pedestrian and bike-friendly Council Members, there are more Open Streets. It was very black and white. And if a Council Member didn't want one that was being introduced by DOT, there would be a lot of conversations about letting it happen.
So there were some Open Streets in areas where Council Members objected. In some of those cases, they shut them down because there was proactive support to shut them down. Without an elected official trying to promote or push an Open Street, it's hard for it to be sustained. I think I had four Open Streets in my district [Ed. CD34]. And I'd been asking for more, and they knew that. So they're [DOT] always like, “Throw everything in Reynoso’s district”, when I represented the 34th District. But it's a very political process.
DOT is not going to do anything where they have to expend political capital. So the last thing they want to do is spend days, weeks, months arguing with a Council Member about whether or not they want an Open Street. They're going to go to where it's easy.
What can an everyday New Yorker do to support the Open Streets program?
SH: Talk to your elected officials, and tell them to support it. Tell them to back it.
AR: And show up—actually go to the Open Street frequently, to make sure you're a positive contributor to the greater good here. If that means that once a week, you’ve got to go to a restaurant or once a week, you’ve got to pace back and forth and make sure that it's alright. Volunteer if you have one year near you.
It's unfortunate, but it's a lot of work from private citizens for this to be successful. Vanderbilt is successful because regular people decided that they would do something about it. Emulate that model and other ones can be successful.
What’s your favorite public space?
AR: Lithuanian Square.
JC: Where's that?
AR: A little triangle park that’s no more than 650 Square feet where I had my best childhood experiences. It's on Union near South 3rd and Hewes St.
SS: My most recent favorite was Calvert Vaux [Ed. It’s pronounced VAUCKS!] Park which is down in very deep South Brooklyn near Gravesend.
JC: I like Herbert Von King in Bed Stuy.
Best Block Party memory?
SH: Hanging out on the median on Vanderbilt.
AR: For me, it was on Cooper Street between S. 3rd and 4th. We used to have it but because we got a little rowdy, it got shut down. When I was young, I remember celebrating Dominican Independence Day. And that block party was unbelievable.
SS: Last year, when I was working on Brandon West's campaign for City Council, we were walking up and down the street, and we stumbled upon a street in Park Slope, where there was an all-female jazz band that set up on a stoop and played for the community. It was outstanding. And I hope they're doing it again.
Last one: most memorable chance encounter in public space?
JC: I'll kick it off here. There's this guy that I now know as a friend, but we met on the bike lane just before Kent Avenue going into North Brooklyn, and he's an artist. So I followed him on Instagram. And now I see him all over the city biking. So he's my biking friend from the chance encounter.
SH: I can't think of one specific one. But what I'll say is that I've met so many of my neighbors because of Open Streets. And that's been one of the most rewarding things about it. Now, when I hang out here, I run into people I know that, before this, I would never have met.
AR: For me, it's just cycling. I’m usually biking somewhere. And because I'm the Borough President and I was just a Council Member, a lot of people recognize me. And it's a lot of fun. Most of them are just telling me to wear a helmet (in a good way) right now: “Reynoso you have to wear a helmet!” I’m always running into constituents. And I think the cycling community loves to see me on my bike. And when they see me, they're just, “You're really on a bike?” “Yes, I do this every day.” This is how we live—just running into my constituents, running into Brooklynites, is awesome.
SS: Still hoping for a Spike Lee sighting on Vanderbilt Avenue.
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