OPINION: Opponents of Open Streets Need to Stop Ruining Kids’ Summers

Kids at play in a Fresh Air Fund open streets program. What could be bad? (Oh, right, car owners want all the space.)
Kids at play in a Fresh Air Fund open streets program. What could be bad? (Oh, right, car owners want all the space.)

The Fresh Air Fund, a venerable New York institution, has been providing vital summer recreation for low-income kids since 1877. But that didn’t stop open-streets opponents from organizing motorists to park illegally in the Fresh Air Fund Summer Spaces play zones on the 34th Avenue open street in Jackson Heights — with the goal of disrupting the child play space. On Monday, Mayor de Blasio ordered the immediate towing of cars left illegally in the play zones. Streetsblog asked dad and Jackson Heights resident Jacob White to explain what the play zones mean for area kids (and adults) in a time of COVID.

In March, 2020, my wife and I both received phone calls that we’d lost our jobs, though it was expected to only be for a few weeks. Weeks stretched into months, and now we are among some of the last New Yorkers to return to work.

Jacob White
Jacob White

While we were in the thick of the virus and facing long-term unemployment and the lack of social opportunities for our 5-year-old daughter, a neighbor recommended we check out the Fresh Air Fund, which was running a free, COVID-safe, outdoor, camp for kids just down the road from our building in Jackson Heights. We signed up our girl immediately for the Fresh Air Summer Spaces, where she met other kids, played soccer and with hula hoops, and completed art projects that gave her true joy.

“I got to make a bracket for Mama!” she said on the very first day.

Later, she would also tell me about games of Connect Four, and the “floor is lava.” She would talk about foot races, jump rope, and all her new friends.

Selfishly, I admit that my wife and I benefited, too. We were able to focus on ourselves and each other for a few hours each day while our daughter was off at camp. The program allowed us time to tackle life’s chores and make progress on resurrecting our careers. Every parent can relate to those precious times their household turns quiet. All this had been made locally possible by the Fresh Air Fund and the 34th Avenue open street.

With that experience in my head, I was incredulous to witness neighbors of mine attacking this unassailable program. Across various social media community pages, they’ve waged war against the closing of 34th Avenue to through traffic. When the Fresh Air Fund put up fliers asking residents to move their cars for the Summer Streets camp — fliers that they are permitted to post under city rules — opponents protested the loss of a handful of parking spaces and refused to move their cars. They falsely claimed the fliers were fraudulent and then were enraged when they learned that some cars had been towed one day this week.

These neighbors seem to believe their private vehicles have more right to the public land than the people.

These same people have to move their cars for parades and film shoots, but, for some reason, a kids camp was a bridge too far. This conflict is even more bizarre when you consider that 65 percent of households in this community don’t own cars. The Fresh Air Fund asks for a two blocks of public land to hold free programs for children, and some think their cars are more important.

Anyway, those weeks last summer passed quickly and our whole family was disappointed when camp came to an end. We are still thankful to the Fresh Air Fund for sponsoring the programs in our neighborhood and across the city. Let’s all hope they have the support they need to keep their work going for many, many years to come.

Jacob White (@jacobawhite) is a Jackson Heights resident. For Streetsblog’s voluminous coverage of the struggle for 34th Avenue, click here.