On Saturday, April 24, Tompkins Square Park was in bloom and with so much spring in the air, even the pavement on Avenue B seemed to blossom.
By noon, the double yellow line at East 8th Street had uncurled into a sunburst. Crosswalk stripes at East 9th reached towards each other, merging into a pyramid of roots. In between, “20 MPH” road markings disappeared into a zebra pattern, and concentric squares and hexagons rippled out from beneath tables and chairs.
This ephemeral, block-long street mural was created with black, white, and colored tape on one of the city’s pedestrian-friendly “open streets” closed to through traffic during the pandemic. It’s the brainchild of tape artist Kuki, design collaborative Obj and architecture group WXY Studio.
“I think for people to just come out and socialize and do something creative,” said Kuki, “that’s what we are trying to do.” Kuki, who has been making tape art since the ’90s, believes this is likely the largest tape art street mural ever made. He was excited for passersby to experience tape art for the first time.
“Look what I’m making!” said toddler Xavier Santos, who was smoothing white tape onto the pavement with help from Walter Santos and Martita Mumic Montanez. Mumic Montanez said they had just stumbled on the mural-in-progress. “It’s great,” she said, “I love it!”
Around them, people with strollers, bikes, and dogs settled in at café tables. Skateboards and delivery bikes weaved through. A guitarist played bossa nova, and Charlotte Lily Gaspard, a member of community garden advocacy group LUNGS, invited children to make props for next week’s Spring Awakening parade. A bike rider popped a wheelie.
“We shouldn’t give our streets over to chunks of metal,” said Merica May Jensen, of Obj. “Cars, I mean.” The city’s Open Streets program closed streets throughout the city to through traffic to make more space for pedestrians during the pandemic. Jensen hopes the mural will remind people that this is a street they are allowed to play in.
The mural kicked off a series of Saturday arts programming planned for Avenue B that is funded by arts coalition FABnyc and organized by the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC) and Loisaida, a volunteer group that has been keeping this stretch of Avenue B open for pedestrians.
Loisaida came into being last spring. Open Streets rely on temporary barricades, which are meant to go up at 8 a.m. and come down at 8 p.m. Initially, NYPD was setting up and monitoring the streets and barricades.
During the George Floyd protests, neighbors painted a few of the Avenue B police barricades with colorful slogans and flowers. “We woke up the next morning and an artist had done the rest of them,” said Loisaida leader Sophie Maerowitz.
They organized and got permission to take over the street’s staffing, and about 30 volunteers have been managing Avenue B ever since. Now, Maerowitz says they coordinate near-daily programing, including Zumba and fitness classes in addition to arts events.
“It is beyond my wildest dreams the way all of this has come together,” Maerowitz said. Still, she said, the current solution is not sustainable. “I am putting in about 30 hours a week in addition to my job and grad school.”
Loisaida group is advocating to close an even longer stretch of Avenue B for good. To make that work, they are asking for the city to close the street 24/7 with permanent barriers and a 5-mile-per-hour speed limit for essential traffic.
Loisaida is also part of the Open Streets Coalition, led by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, which is pushing for sustainable and equitable funding for the Open Streets program citywide.
Because of the community resources required, there are fewer Open Streets where they are most needed: in lower-income neighborhoods with less access to parks and green spaces. Avenue B, right next to a beloved park and draped in shade trees, underscores the point.
“There are miles and miles of Open Streets on the city’s maps,” said Cory Epstein from Transportation Alternatives, “but the ones that are really open and thriving have these community groups that are working really hard.”
A Streetsblog analysis found that in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, there are more open streets in higher-income neighborhoods than in lower-income ones.
“You have community groups that are having to do Gofundmes” to pay for open street expenses, said Epstein. “In Park Slope it’s working well, but Sunset Park, which is lower income than Park Slope, has not been able to hit their goal. We shouldn’t be resorting to that.”
By late afternoon, the Avenue B tape mural’s tendrils had filled up the street. By nightfall, Kuki and his team pulled up the tape. The mural was temporary, as it was designed to be. If Open Streets Coalition succeeds, the Open Streets program will continue to grow.