Williamsburg Walks: Rethinking Public Spaces

Tom Peyton
Jul 23, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

By Ken Farmer and Tom Peyton

In NYC, street closures for pedestrians, activities and celebrations are becoming increasingly more commonplace. With normally ever-present automobiles absent, pedestrians are free to walk and play in the streets, meeting one another for shopping, dining and conversation.

Unlike traditional street closures surrounding a specific event (e.g., Bastille Day on Smith Street in Brooklyn), Williamsburg Walks -- one of NYC’s most popular street events --was created simply to allow the community to define the identity of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn between North 4th to North 9th Streets. This experimental approach was intended to enable the community to reconceive its relationship with Williamsburg’s bustling central avenue as a place for eating, dancing, creating and observing art, relaxing and much more.

Revelers play music and sell goods. Photo Credit: Aurash Khawarzad

The series of yearly closures began June 13th this year.  On Saturday, July 11th -- the last event of the summer -- Bedford was packed with revelers as each block took on an identity of its own. Vendors sold books, records and various oddities. Bands played music without the help of electricity. Artists smashed pianos and spread Yves Klein blue paint around canvasses. Civic groups shared information with concerned residents and those visiting the neighborhood.

Armed with Twister, sidewalk chalk and a hunger for 4-square, PPS staff spoke with lots of people strolling up and down Bedford Ave. First, we asked patrons to map their favorite spaces in the neighborhood and those with the greatest opportunity for improvement. We also asked the community what kind of activities they would like to do in their public spaces. Not surprisingly, participants had several creative ideas about the neighborhood’s physical environment, programming in public spaces and changing social dynamics.

Thinking about the physical environment, people were excited about increasing the number of public activities that would allow them to interact with other people in the neighborhood. Several people wanted more places to sit, especially seats that they could move around and configure however they wanted. The desire for an outdoor swimming pool came up a fair amount, and many attendees were aware of the current plan to reopen McCarren pool as a functioning swimming pool.

People were concerned about the disruptive nature of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway running through the neighborhood and wondered if creating parks and increasing greenspace under and around the freeway would improve current conditions. There were also many unique ideas for highly interactive projects including outdoor rock climbing walls, sculpture parks, ziplines between buildings and litebrite walls!

Priti Patel talks with an engaged resident. Photo Credit: Aurash Khawarzad

Community and rooftop gardens were also a hot topic. The high number of vacant lots in the area had people talking about reclaiming the spaces and turning them into communal vegetable gardens and green space. Referencing Greenpoint’s flourishing Rooftop Farms, residents were looking up and imagining green roofs that could provide the neighborhood with fresh, local produce. Food was very much on people’s minds. Among calls for new types of cuisine in the area, there was also interest in communal dinners and potlucks. These ideas dovetail well with community gardens as ideal spaces to hold community dinners.

People were focused on how to improve waterfront access and had a host of ideas relating specifically to East River State Park. Suggested improvements to the Williamsburg waterfront included building piers, boardwalks and artificial beaches. Residents also offered creative ideas for increasing programming such as kayaking and fishing. Concerts are being held in East River State Park this summer but the fate of the concert series in future summers is uncertain.

Participants generated several ideas about programming for the neighborhood in general as well. People were enjoying the Williamsburg Walks experience so much that they wanted regular, year-round street closures including a possible expansion of the streets closed during Williamsburg Walks. Many were interested in an increase of participatory sports and physical activities including kickball, capture the flag, four-square and yoga. Events for kids and improving the conditions of the neighborhood’s playgrounds were also popular ideas. The concerts at the waterfront are a great start but local residents wanted even more live, outdoor music throughout the neighborhood. Outdoor movies were also a popular idea.

Williamsbug Walks on Bedford Ave. Photo Credit: Aurash Khawarzad

Most residents were aware of the changing nature of the neighborhood and the fact that so many new types of people are moving into Williamsburg. Longtime residents of the neighborhood were concerned about new residents appropriately integrating into the existing community. Late-stage gentrification typified by new real estate development in the area was a concern for residents both new and old. It was obvious that everyone on the street was aware that Williamsburg is in a state of flux and that what happens right now will have a big impact on the future of the neighborhood. Community board involvement was suggested as a means of creating meaningful connections between new and old residents, educating the community as a whole about where they live, and providing a forum for collective action.

By putting the concerns of pedestrians ahead of the concerns of motorists, Bedford Ave became a space for new community interactions. Williamsburg Walks succeeded in filling the street with an engaged group of people.

Check out PPS’ work on The New York City Streets Renaissance to learn more about how reclaiming streets for pedestrian use can help build community.

We would love to hear more about your experience of street closures in Williamsburg, or wherever your community may be.

Tom Peyton
Tom Peyton
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