Friend of IT Corrie Pikul is an avid runner, so when she got the chance to jog down Park Avenue in New York City without having to mess with cars, she took it eagerly, as did thousands of other city residents. Take part in the last Summer Streets event this Saturday, August 23.
While visiting France a few weeks ago for a friend's wedding, my travel companions and I ended up in Paris with a few hours to kill. Hot, sweaty, and exhausted from the weekend's celebrations, we decided to hit the plage—the Paris Plage, that is. For about a month every summer since 2002, the city has been transforming the Right Bank of the Seine into an ersatz beach, complete with sand, boardwalks, ball courts, snack bars, and palm trees. Cleared of cars and scooters, this temporary pedestrian paradise offers overheated Parisians a space to stretch out in the sun, and even chaises on which to stretch. "Isn't this wonderful?" we said to each other, smiling behind our sunglasses. "If only we had something like this back home in New York."
While Mayor Bloomberg may be six years behind his Parisian counterpart, Bertrand Delanoë, he's two steps ahead of my friends and me. Immediately after returning to New York, I learned about the city's inaugural Summer Streets program. For three consecutive Saturdays this August (9, 16, 23), Park Avenue and connecting streets from Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park are closed to motorized traffic. From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the city's bikers, skateboarders, walkers, runners, baby strollers, and just plain strollers are encouraged to literally take back the streets without fear of being sideswiped by cars. This past Saturday, my boyfriend and I decided to forgo our usual weekend run in Prospect Park in favor of a 6.9-mile jog right up the middle of Park Ave, where, typically, only cars dare to tread.
We got a late start, so by the time we came off the Brooklyn Bridge and turned up Lafayette Ave, it was almost noon. So while we missed some of the activities like the bike-decorating party and impromptu parade, and many of the musical performances, the moving block party was still in full swing. Runners, were in the minority (we assumed the more serious athletes had finished hours ago), but the streets were still full of people on bikes, on foot, in groups, playing with their kids, walking, talking, hanging out. Not far from St. Bart's church on 51st St, we even spotted a white-uniformed trio practicing martial arts.
My boyfriend and I have participated in road races with traffic-free street routes, but we're usually too preoccupied with beating our personal records to soak up the scene. Not today! Near City Hall, I found myself briefly boxed-in by teens on skateboards, using the undulations in the pavement as launch pads for tricks. This would undoubtedly unnerve me in a race, but on Saturday, I slowed down and enjoyed the show. We made goo-goo faces at dogs galloping beside us or hitchhiking in their owner's bike baskets, and paused to take drinks from the special sink-like water fountains on the sidewalks. There were plenty of people on the roads, but because we usually had four lanes to ourselves and no cars to compete with, we rarely felt crowded.
We noted that unlike the Parisian sunbathers with whom we'd lounged at the plage, New Yorkers were relaxing on-the-go. There weren't many rest stops before the ultimate destination of Central Park, so most Summer Streeters were doing some sort of aerobic activity. Just north of the thirties, we passed two young women sashaying along, both clutching shopping bags. "I feel like we should be, like, jogging or something," said one. "Nah," responded her friend. "It's cool just to be in the street like this." The streets did feel quieter, less hyper, more park-like. And people actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. Every time we thanked a yellow- or blue-shirted volunteer, they'd smile and holler back at us, "Enjoy!" Easy enough.
As most pedestrians have noted, the most exciting part of the route is the stretch over the Grand Central viaduct and around the train station. I've always liked zooming through this section in taxis, and it was fun to disappear into the elevated passageway on foot. I also got a kick out of taking over lower 4th Ave. along Union Square East, an area that is normally clogged with traffic.
I'll be honest: It's pretty tough to top Paris's palm trees and
Seine-side swimming pool. But I'm an active gal, so I loved the New York
iteration of Summer Streets. If this becomes a regular event, I hope that the city could consider adding
things like ball courts, sprinklers or misters, and snack stands to get more people involved in the fun. But
in the meantime, we're considering taking to the streets again Saturday
(the last of the season), and, in another nod to France, perhaps we'll
even try the Velib-like bike sharing
For more details on Summer Streets, check out the video below:
Photos: Daniel Kukla for NYC.gov