Many of the new plazas have been built ad hoc by the city and other organization, but the New Lots triangle was the result of the department’s Public Plaza Program, which seeks proposals from community groups for converted open space. The first round of plazas was announced in 2009, and three rounds have followed since, creating 18 of these pocket parks.
Others include Knickerbocker and Myrtle avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, Park Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets, Fox Square in Downtown Brooklyn and Monsignor Del Valle Square in the Bronx. So far no plazas have been built through the program in Staten Island, though other plazas have been constructed through other means. The New Lots plaza is a product of the third round, announced earlier this year, after it was proposed by Mr. DiBenedetto and the merchants association.
For now, the block is lined with those bollards and blocks, which keep the traffic at bay. It is a temporary solution to transform the intersection, while DOT works with the Department of Design and Construction to create a permanent design in consultation with the community board and other local stakeholders—not unlike what is in the works at Times Square. It is the same program Times Square or any other public works project goes through.
The plaza has not only improved road safety but also neighborhood well-being. “It has led to a rebirth,” Catherine Green, director of ARTs East New York said. The area used to be frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes, she and Mr. DiBenedetto said, but now that this has become a popular place to gather, the criminals are acting less cavalier.
“If I may be graphic,” Mr. Di Benedetto said, “it is like going into an apartment that has cockroaches and flipping on the lights. They all scurry away and it becomes a nicer place to live.” It has the cleaned-up comforts of Times Square without the corporate presence.
The department even took the special step of changing the gravel mix for the plot, replacing the the typical 60 percent granite, 40 percent porcelain blend to an all-porcelain aggregate. This gravel is brighter and therefore less inviting to shadowy elements. (It does not hurt that the N.Y.P.D. has also installed a camera over the space.)
ARTs East New York, which promotes the arts in the neighborhood, will unveil a sculpture in the space soon and is working with the department on other programs to keep the plaza active and inviting. A Christmas tree lighting is also planned.
“I hope this could be my legacy,” Mr. Di Benedetto said. He said he has watched the neighborhood go through a lot over the past four decades he has operated Caterina’s pizza, just across the street from the plaza at the foot of the subway station. “I wanted to give something back, this neighborhood has been good to me,” he said.
The benefits go beyond public safety and community building.
“The community has been disconnected for some time,” Ms. Green said. “Folks used to ride the bus or ride the train in and just hurry home. With the reopening of this space, it has given people an opportunity to reconnect with the neighborhood, with the stores here and with each other.” She said it was nice to be able to support the mom and pops on the strip, rather than going to the big box stores at nearby Gateway Center.
Jermain Lewis, who was enjoying a slice of pizza in the plaza with two friends, said he could not think of any other space in the neighborhood like it. “It’s just nice to be able to be out here, see your friends, enjoy the sun.”
Just like in Times Square, business is booming.