Crowds, Trash and Clogged Streets: Tompkins Open Streets an Ongoing Headache, Neighbors Say
In Bedford-Stuyvesant, residents are demanding organizers of weekly Sunday festivals further curb issues on the avenue.
Every Sunday from June to October, Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant is flooded with attendees of its Open Streets festival.
Between Gates Ave and Halsey Street, people pack the pavement, dance, play hopscotch and shop from local vendors while carrying refreshing drinks served in pineapples.
But many residents on Tompkins and Putnam avenues, where the crowds tend to be the densest, told THE CITY that there’s an uglier side to the festivities. Crowds gather on the corners and blast music after hours, trash overflows, cars are double parked, blocked-off sidewalks impede some people with disabilities, and unruly individuals harass residents, they say.
“You’ll have people literally coming onto your step, littering, pissing and defecating and fighting with you about your property when you politely ask them to leave,” said 65-year-old Ronnie Johnson, a resident of Putnam Avenue.
Johnson, who’s called Bed-Stuy home his whole life, told THE CITY that over the past three years, the popularity of the festival has ballooned. That’s reflected in the concert-sized crowds observed by residents and documented in photos from the first Open Streets event this year, on June 4.
Residents fear that if something pops off on the corner, masses of people will come flooding into their blocks and create a dangerous situation. Johnson says there was a moment last summer where two men coming from the festival had an altercation, and he saw one of them preparing to pull a gun from his waist, but appeared too intoxicated to do so.
“Everybody’s lives are in jeopardy on Sundays,” said Johnson. “Every resident in the surrounding area — more so on this corner — our lives and our families are in jeopardy. We are besieged like an invaded army.”
In an email to THE CITY, a spokesperson from the NYPD’s Public Information office (DCPI) stated that the 79th Precinct in Bed-Stuy received eight 311 complaints this year in relation to Tompkins Avenue Open Streets. The department also noted that “there have been no reported major crimes or incidents” stemming from the event.
“The Precinct has deployed additional personnel to cover this event in order to address large crowds and other quality of life issues,” said the spokesperson. “Officers issue warnings prior to taking any enforcement action for various observed infractions.”
The DJ Condition
The Open Streets program was conceived by the city in April 2020 as a way for New Yorkers to safely gather outside during the pandemic, and in turn, generate revenue for local businesses. The city’s Department of Transportation is responsible for working alongside community organizations to operate the program.
Over the past year, Bed-Stuy residents have brought their issues with the event to both organizations at several public meetings, as Patch reported last year. However, they say the problems still persist, and BSDC and TAMA haven’t done enough.
“There was a meeting where they made a condition to not have DJs,” said Johnson, sitting with a group of neighbors on his stoop recently. Another resident, Jared Foles, chimed in to say that agreement lasted only two weeks.
“They are not to be trusted,” said Johnson.
Bridge Street president and chief executive officer Gregory Anderson said all “major label DJ sets” planned for the event were canceled for 2022. For the rest of that season, the group decided to host “more moderate musical programming” and live acts.
This year, Anderson said they will host DJs and live bands, but “all large amplified sound programming … has been strategically placed between Halsey and Hancock to avoid bottlenecking at the popular intersection of Putnam and Tompkins.”
Neighbors on Putnam Ave say they often have to take matters into their own hands, cleaning up trash left in front of their properties, booting people from their stoops and creating and posting signs telling people to not chain bikes to their gates.
The Putnam residents say they have communicated with organizers from Bridge Street several times, including Anderson and its chief operating officer, Oma Holloway, but they’re still dissatisfied with the response from the organization.
“When this first started, I called her [Oma Holloway] and spoke to her numerous times — she pees on my leg and tells me it’s raining,” said Yolanda Johnson, the wife of Ronnie Johnson.
Mr. Johnson refers to the president of the Tompkins Avenue Merchant Association, Tiecha Merritt, as the “president that nobody sees but everybody hears of.” When THE CITY reached out to TAMA about residents’ concerns, a reporter was directed to Bridge Street, TAMA’s organizing partner.
In response to questions about Bridge Street’s engagement with residents, Anderson said: “Thanks to the input of residents, renters, vendors, business owners, and city and community-based organizations alike, BSDC has made multiple adjustments to how we plan and operate Tompkins Avenue Open Streets over the past two years.” He added that they’re often looking to re-examine the program and have already adjusted the duration, cleanup efforts and restroom facility access at the event.
Potties, Trash and Cars
Some neighbors acknowledge that Open Streets at the end of last summer operated more smoothly because of changes made by BSDC.
The group agreed to end Open Streets at 6 p.m. instead of 7, along with adding portable toilets at each street along the corridor and picking up sanitation efforts.
In an email to THE CITY, the Department of Sanitation stated that it received “a request to pick up bagged refuse” from the event held last summer, and that TAMA took responsibility for cleaning up after Open Streets ended. The department also said it added two more trash baskets on the corner of Tompkins and Putnam last summer to match the heightened foot traffic.
“The last six or seven Sundays were managed properly last year,” said Johnson.
But it isn’t clear whether all of those changes will stick this year. Anderson told THE CITY via email that “depending on supplier availability, 2-5 portable bathrooms are placed at Tompkins Avenue Open Streets every weekend.” The organization stated that at the June 11 event, port-a-potties were placed at Tompkins and Halsey.
“Visitors can also use bathrooms at brick-and-mortar businesses accordingly,” said Anderson.
Harvey Leon, who co-owns the vintage store Byas & Leon on the avenue with his brother Rony Byas, can attest to that. He says they have to deal with multiple people asking to use their restroom, with no interest in the store’s products.
“With anything, you’re gonna attract some bad apples who just want to smoke and drink and loiter and have no regard for people’s property,” said Leon, who has turned people away when too many ask.
The residents say they aren’t completely against having the event in the neighborhood — but what they are against is having it every Sunday, from June 4 to October 1.
A “no standing” street sign that recently appeared on Tompkins said those new parking rules would be in effect from June to November, a month longer than the current schedule. According to BSDC, that’s to accommodate possible rain dates.
The sudden parking change came as a surprise to residents, and they say it will make a tough parking situation harder.
On those Sundays, residents on side streets say Open Street attendees often double park, trapping in locals’ cars.
“The parking is already horrible here,” said Johnson.
Putnam Avenue resident Lisa Valentine says it’s not uncommon for the double-parked cars to stay past 8 p.m. The 55-year-old, who lives with her 80-year-old mother, said she was forced to wrap around the block several times on June 4 before being able to unload her groceries. Last summer, she had to park four avenues away and take a cab back home.
“There’s no reason why we as homeowners should have to be scrambling on a Sunday to try and find somewhere to park,” she said, adding that she worries the double parking and crowds would make it difficult to get her help for her elderly mom in an emergency.
The influx of cars is also severing access to paratransit vehicles that disabled people use to travel to the area, residents say.
At Little Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Tompkins near Gates Avenue, several disabled seniors attend Sunday morning service, traveling there via an Access-A-Ride bus. But when Open Streets runs, the bus can’t pick them back up directly in front of the church, forcing them to board on the corner of Gates instead.
“It is an inconvenience when the seniors have to walk down to the corner,” said the Rev. Leroy Belle, the pastor for Little Mt. Zion.
He says he spoke with Holloway of BSDC recently about the issue, with hopes it can be resolved.
“We’re not complaining about that yet, just to see what will happen this coming Sunday,” said Belle. “We’re going to take her word that it’s going to happen.”
That issue on Tompkins isn’t unique. Several disabled New Yorkers are joining to file suit against the city’s Open Streets program, claiming that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act due to the barred access to streets. (The Putnam Avenue residents THE CITY spoke to are not part of the lawsuit.)
Harvey Leon of Byas & Leon, says it’s important to emphasize that Open Streets has brought wonders for his business, despite his restroom dilemma.
“As a business owner, there’s no denying the significant economic benefit that comes from Open Streets,” said Leon. “You’re like quadrupling the number of people who would be walking on that block.”
Back on Putnam Avenue, residents THE CITY spoke with said this in unison about their relationship with BSDC and TAMA: There is none.
The neighbors proposed different suggestions, such as limiting Open Streets to one Sunday a month, or shifting it to Saturday instead of a “day of rest” when churches are active.
“People have work the next day, you have the motorcycles revving, people playing loud music from their cars after the DJ guy turned the big speakers off,” said Lisa Valentine. “You cannot go to sleep with that — it’s just too crazy out here.”