Roger Asmar opened a Mexican seafood restaurant in Brooklyn in February last year — only to shut down a month later when COVID-19 made indoor dining risky business.
The King of Fish — known as El Rey de Pescado in Spanish — reopened two months later at its Fifth Avenue location in Sunset Park but struggled to survive on take-out orders alone.
Then something unprecedented happened.
Last May, the city’s Open Streets program began. That allowed eateries like Asmar’s to serve diners in the roadway each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through October, as barriers cordoned off three blocks of Fifth Avenue from vehicular traffic. Car-free zones emerged between 40th and 41st Streets, as well as 45th and 47th — and the King flourished.
“The Open Streets saved my business, my friend,” Asmar told THE CITY.
Now, small businesses are hoping to repeat the success of last year’s program, said David Estrada, executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District. And for the first time, new citywide rules will allow retail shopping in the roadway along with dining and drinking.
But the group faces a major hurdle: a lack of money.
“Last year, and this year, not one penny of city funding has been dedicated to this time-consuming, intense task,” Estrada said.
To turn roads into open spaces, Estrada explained, his group needs to raise enough money to pay staff to monitor the closures — a feat not easily accomplished in the working-class, largely immigrant and Latino community slammed by the pandemic.
The Sunset Park BID started a GoFundMe campaign last week, aiming to reach a goal of $38,000 to fund 27 closures on Fridays and weekends, up from 17 last year.
As of Wednesday, more than $4,700 had been raised.
The BID is looking to open up more blocks for pedestrians, cyclists and diners this year, Estrada noted, enough to cover the north, south and central parts of Fifth Avenue within the group’s geographic region.
“We’ve proposed to close 39th to 42nd, 45th to 47th, and 55th to 59th,” he said.
Estrada noted that the job of street monitoring isn’t just about safety. “There’s all sorts of little things where you just need someone there to keep an eye on it,” he said.
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), who represents Sunset Park, said he backs the Open Streets program but shares local “concerns about its implementation,” including the lack of financial support.
“Especially for immigrant communities like Sunset Park, where language barriers already make it hard to understand city initiatives and policies, the city needs to be intentional about making sure every business can participate if it wants,” Menchaca said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month that the Open Streets program would become permanent citywide. His Department of Transportation is accepting applications from community and business leaders to manage their Open Streets zones.
A slide accompanying the relaunch indicated that the 2021 program would provide “better signage,” “new barriers” and “more support for community partners.” But de Blasio has not detailed what form that support would take.
This year’s program also allows retail stores to sell products in Open Streets zones — an expansion from last year when only restaurants were permitted to sell outdoors.
In his State of the City address in late January, de Blasio promised that “equity and inclusion will be at the heart of the Open Streets expansion, with underserved neighborhoods getting new opportunities to participate.”
A spokesperson for the mayor told THE CITY that the de Blasio administration is taking steps to ensure the program is feasible for the long haul and encouraged anyone interested in running an Open Streets program to fill out an application.
“When open space mattered more than ever last year, New York City created the biggest Open Streets program in America,” said the spokesperson, Mitch Schwartz. “It was a success, and it’s here to stay. We’re working hard to build a permanent program that’s equitable, accessible and inclusive to give every New Yorker the space they deserve to enjoy the outdoors safely.”
This year’s relaunch has not been smooth in some areas that have already reopened streets.
Last week, video footage captured a man stealing barricades in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood before loading them in a delivery van, prompting a local volunteer group to suspend the area’s Open Streets. Locals eventually uncovered five barricades on the shoreline of Newtown Creek, as well as two in the water, Gothamist reported.
For want of funding, the Sunset Park BID is going to start out scaled back.
The BID initially plans to open streets on Saturdays only, slated to begin on May 1 — until enough money is raised to pay staff to add Fridays, followed by Sundays, Estrada said.
This year, Open Streets blocks will run between 39th and 42nd Street, 45th and 47th Street and 55th and 59th Street.
Asmar said only one day of open streets per week isn’t going to cut it.
“You have to take into consideration that a lot of times during the summer, it rains,” he said. “If it happens to be on a Saturday that it rains, and that’s the day that we have the open street, then we’re screwed. No one’s gonna sit outside.”
Sam Goetz, owner of nearby café and bar Judy’s, told THE CITY that Open Streets, along with the state authorizing the sale of take-out alcohol and de Blasio greenlighting outdoor seating, “saved our bacon.”
Goetz said he immediately changed his business model when the pandemic hit last year, launching a new website within two days of the state’s shutdown orders to become a to-go wine and craft beer bottle shop.
He hopes Open Streets continues as it did last year, but the insufficient funding is presenting a problem for the local business community, he said.
“Unfortunately, when the city doesn’t contribute anything at all, what you’re going to do is you’re going to give advantages to the richer BIDs throughout the city,” Goetz said.
That puts Sunset Park businesses at a “competitive disadvantage,” he said, when neighborhoods nearby like Park Slope already have full-blown open streets.
“I know the city is low on money,” Goetz said. “But I don’t think they realize by setting the system up that they’re also going to put different neighborhoods on different footings against each other, which is kind of a bummer.”
For now, he said he’s trying to spread the word so people donate to the fundraiser.
‘Unsustainable and Inequitable’
The popular program has become the nation’s largest street-closure initiative of its kind, significantly altering the way New Yorkers imagined streets in the five boroughs while offering a much-needed reprieve from life indoors in the time of coronavirus.
But it has also exposed inequities, says the Open Streets Coalition, a bloc of 63 groups citywide that helped facilitate the program for the last 10 months.
“While New York City is home to the biggest Open Street program in the nation, there are still neighborhoods that do not have access to this valuable program,” the coalition wrote to the mayor days before his relaunch announcement last month. “Communities such as the South Bronx and the North Shore of Staten Island still lack corridor-wide Open Streets.”
The coalition — which includes Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocating for cyclists, pedestrians and public-transit users — followed up with a critique of Open Streets earlier this month, noting that de Blasio “doubled-down on the community group model, rather than relying upon the NYC DOT, to select and operate areas for Open Streets.”
“In the long run, we believe that this model is unsustainable and inequitable,” the coalition wrote, noting the numerous burdens placed on volunteer organizers.
“Open Streets groups need a dedicated stream of city funding to hire staff that can be fairly compensated,” the coalition continued.