How the 31st ave open street reimagines Astoria's public spaces
The two blocks, which are closed to traffic every weekend afternoon of the summer, are a place for the local community to flourish.
On a warm weekend in April, the sun shined as Astoria residents played chess, navigated fitness obstacle courses, dropped off baby items in donation tubs, and enjoyed a bilingual children’s play about composting. This eclectic array of activities, which marked the start of the 31st Avenue Open Street’s 2023 season, weren’t confined to the sidewalks — they populated a road that is usually swarmed with traffic.
Two blocks of central Astoria — 31st avenue between 33rd and 35th streets — are closed to vehicle traffic every weekend afternoon from the end of April through October. On a regular day, 31st avenue is noisy with the rumble of vehicles and visually congested by a parade of cars not only chugging along in the streets, but also parked along the curb. On an open streets day, the air is full of bright, neighborly chatter. The road feels open and spacious, dotted with chairs, tables, and people instead of cars. Even the breeze feels like it has more room to blow.
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) began the Open Streets program during the Covid-19 pandemic to provide more outdoor space for people to gather safely. It has continued to liven up streets across the city every week during the summer months. The city government works with local partners to make these events happen — in Astoria, that local group is the 31st Ave Open Street Collective.
A third place
The open street is a third place — a location where members of a community can gather outside of their homes and their workplaces. “When you don’t have a third space like this, there isn’t an opportunity to really meet people,” Cormac Nataro, an open street volunteer, said. “You can go to a coffee shop, but it’s not really a place where strangers are talking to each other.”
Nataro is a board member of the 31st Ave Open Street Collective volunteer organization, which began as a loose gathering of local community members when the program first began in 2020, and solidified after registering as a nonprofit in New York in the fall of 2022. The group is also applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Nataro has lived in Astoria for six years and has been a part of the collective for about half that time. “Even when I had just joined [the collective], I already met way more of my neighbors than I ever had just living here before.”
Nataro emphasized the importance of spaces like the open street for building healthier communities. “Having a shared street space — where you can be sitting down, you can be riding a bike — creates organic opportunities to meet your neighbors,” he said.
A car-free space
On April 22, the NYC DOT promoted the open streets’ citywide return after the fall and winter break as a celebration of “car free Earth Day.” The idea that car-free spaces are valuable to communities is a growing movement.
More and more, “people are realizing, in a neighborhood where the majority of people don’t own a car, why is the majority of public space dedicated only for car use?” Nataro said. “What if we looked at the other needs people have beyond needing access to parking or private vehicle transportation?” For Nataro and other volunteers, the open street is an opportunity to reimagine the neighborhood.
“Three of our neighbors have been killed by reckless drivers in the past three months,” the 31st Ave Open Street Collective tweeted on April 11, 2023. “When will our leaders get serious about street safety?” Last weekend, a car crashed into an outdoor dining shed on 33rd street, “enabled by the notoriously dangerous design” of the street “which encourages drivers to speed,” the collective wrote. The open street’s existence carries more weight for many volunteers and attendees as the danger posed by cars and the incidence of traffic injuries and deaths become increasingly salient.
An ever-changing street
The group has made a lot of tweaks to the program this year, according to John Surico, a transportation journalist who joined the collective in 2021 and also serves as a board member. The main differences are that there are no longer noisy portable gas generators on the streets, hot food is no longer served in order to support the restaurants lining the area, and live music is limited to once-monthly, strictly timed sets to curb noise disturbances for those who live nearby. “All of it is in response to feedback,” Surico said.
When the 31st avenue open streets first began in 2020, it spanned five blocks and was closed to traffic daily. Volunteers said that although the space has gotten smaller over the years, it’s better utilized by participants. The open streets are now a staple DOT program, with a 2021 law making the policy permanent. However, the New York Times reported last August that many open streets have shrunk or faced criticism from local residents. The successful ones rely on dedicated, organized advocates to fight for their longevity, which don’t exist in every community.
Organizers in Astoria see the open street as more than just a way to kill time on a Saturday afternoon — it’s a real opportunity for a better community. “The status quo is that the street should be used for cars,” said Nataro. “You don’t really question that most of the time, but then when you look around and you see something like this you realize, wait yeah, this is a much better use for this space.”
During the first hour of the first day of the open street — way back in April — volunteers in orange shirts gathered and rolled out barricades to close off the soon-to-be pedestrianized blocks, as they now do at the start of every weekend.
“I was joking to one of the other volunteers, when we were getting ready to move the barriers, that it’s the Cinderella moment,” Nataro said. “It’s immediate. As soon as the barriers go in, people just come out. Even people who are just passing through will walk in the street, and it transforms the space.
“It’s the same physical space, but it feels like you’re in a different place. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
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A previous version of this article said that the 31st Ave Open Street Collective is registered as a 501c3 nonprofit. The group is registered as a nonprofit in New York State, but does not yet have 501c3 status.