OP-ED: Day of Freedom for People and Public Places

BlockParty

Block party at Edison Court. Photo by Brian Ulaszewski.

As is often the case, the 4th of July is a time to enjoy the company of family, friends and neighbors for food, refreshments and celebration.

On the drive to my parents’ home for dinner we had to detour around no less than four block parties. We managed to entirely miss three more street closures for neighborhood events in Belmont Heights. Beyond those, there were another half dozen or so driveways that were commandeered for more intimate parties. This was not an exceptionally far trip (three miles), so the density of streets closed to cars for the benefit of people was remarkable.

Some of these block parties have long standing tradition such as Bluff Heights–10 years running–while many more seemed more organic like in the case of Edison Court. What they all have in common is that the community–sometimes residents of a couple apartment units while others are entire neighborhood associations–has temporarily repurposed the street to create a place for people to gather and socialize. Those streets formerly occupied by cars moving and at rest, were instead filled with picnic tables, grills, bouncing houses and stages for musicians.

All tools for socializing.

While these temporary street closures result in minor grievances for those trying to drive through the neighborhood or get to their garage located in the middle of that block party, they are most often outweighed by the greater good of the community. Only once the space is cleared of cars and occupied by people does one get the sense of how much space is dedicated to moving and parking vehicles.

No matter the success of the block party, it is next to impossible to fill the street with as many pounds of flesh as tons of steel that were vacated for the event. But an ounce of humanity builds far more community than an entire shopping mall parking lot of cars and trucks, but it is important to recognize that it takes a lot of people to activate an empty street.

Pragmatically, some public and private land and resources must be dedicated to moving and storing automobiles but July 4th provides a reminder that there is an alternative to the Cars’ Rule.

There are other examples across Long Beach of temporary and less temporary street closures with varying degrees of success and impact.

One of the most familiar and successful examples of streets being closed for people is the weekly Downtown farmers’ market, every Friday along the City Place Shopping Center portion of the Promenade. Rows of fresh produce, food-makers and crafts persons line the two city blocks with adjacent businesses augmenting the morning through afternoon open-air market. The street closure has limited impacts to cars as there is very little vehicle traffic, no driveways or on-street parking.

IMAGE 1045

Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., a road slated for eventual closure. 

The East Village Arts District has hosted an art walk on the 2nd Saturday of every month with few interruptions over the past couple decades. Linden Avenue between Broadway and First Street is closed for the afternoon and evening to make room for dozens of artists, artisans and crafts persons–there is a difference–to share their work with the community, while musicians provide an audio backdrop. Traffic interrupted by the art walk, easily shifts a block over in either direction. The loss of four dozen on-street parking stalls tightens local capacity, but residents and business owners rarely complain.

During the summer months, Belmont Shore’s Bay Shore Avenue between Ocean Boulevard and Second Street is closed to vehicle traffic in order to let beach goers enjoy Alamitos Bay with slightly less concern. The street closure nearly doubles the area for people to enjoy the sun and sand. While Bayshore’s closure has some impacts, between traffic diversion, loss of valuable on-street parking and limiting property access, this has been an annual tradition that rarely receives negative attention.

Abutting the East Village monthly art walk, a half-block of under-utilized public alley way converted into pedestrian-only alley way. The 10 foot wide alley had no vehicle access points and three viable alternative alleys for cars to reach parking lots within the block. The lushly landscaped, public art infused community project could benefit from the addition of adjacent contributing uses that could provide more activity but it is nonetheless a pleasant grove of greenery.

In the ’70s and ’80s, many cities across the nation began closing downtown streets to vehicle traffic to create pedestrian malls. As an effort to create an urban oasis, free from the grit of car exhaust, Long Beach closed Locust Avenue between Ocean Boulevard and 3rd Street to create the Promenade. After three decades of inactivity, the pedestrian-only street is finally flush with people, due to converting adjacent parking lots into developments occupied by restaurants and residential units, along with reimagining the space itself with new landscape, public art and park spaces.

Later this year, work will finally begin consolidating the complicated series of intersections of 6th Street, 7th Street, Alamitos Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue which will result in closure of the 600 block of MLK Jr. Avenue. The reconfiguration will eliminate the most dangerous intersection Long Beach at 7th/MLK Jr., maintain traffic flow and create about an acre worth of park space for a neighborhood currently lacking any. The street closure will be well-served by adjacent cultural institutions including St. Anthony Church and School, Museum of Latin American Art, Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum and National Guard Armory.

These examples of street closure don’t even include the grandest examples of street closures in Long Beach like Shoreline Drive for Grand Prix, Ocean Boulevard for Pride and Second Street for the Auto Show. They all show how urban spaces for people can be created in the street, often with little or no impact to cars and even in some cases can be mutually beneficial.

There are likely many more opportunities, from alleys to major thoroughfares to create more places for people. It is just a matter of communities taking the initiative to test those best opportunities.

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