It is a 50 minute ride on the 3-Train from Times Square to the end of the line in New Lots, Brooklyn.
The blaring lights, the towering canyons, the masses of tourists, all disappear as the subway leaves Manhattan far behind, rising above ground after Utica Avenue in Crown Heights. The steel and glass skyscrapers have been replaced by rowhouses of siding and stone and the occasional redbrick cluster of public housing.
Yet stepping off the stairs at the elevated station in East New York, Times Square and New Lots are not that different. The crowds are still there, darting across the busy streets to board buses and cabs that carry them beyond the reach of the subway tracks. Shops—Piggy’s, York Chan Chinese, Kicks & More, numerous bodegas—line the triangle formed by Livonia and New Lots avenues. It is a hive of activity in the heart of the neighborhood.
And starting a few weeks ago, just as in Times Square, travelers and locals have been greeted by a generous pedestrian plaza hugging the middle of that triangle.
“We wanted to create a space that was safe, we wanted to create a space that was inviting, we wanted to create a space for the neighborhood,” Eddie Di Benedetto, head of the local merchants association and a champion of the project, said on Friday, during a tour of the space.
On that crisp fall afternoon, the sun pouring down from a cloudless sky, most people were traversing the plaza to catch that next connection, but there were a few who would stop to enjoy the space. They leaned on refrigerator-sized bollards or paused to say hello to a neighbor. A woman and her grandson were enjoying a snack, seated at one of the folding cafe tables that have become a staple in Bryant Park and Times Square. Fine gravel crunched under their feet as the travelers passed between massive planters housing small evergreens.
This is one of some 50 pedestrian plazas constructed by the Department of Transportation under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the past few years, many of them outside of Manhattan. While the so-called Broadway Boulevard, stretching from Columbus Circle to Union Square, is the best known example, plazas dot former stretches of asphalt and cobble stone throughout the five boroughs. The idea is to reduce traffic, promote safety and create public space for communities to gather at a spot where a vehicle lane, a barren sidewalk or some excess parking once stood.
“Often times, the outer boroughs need these spaces even more because they do not have as many resources or as much open space as you might find in Manhattan,” Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability said, seated in one of those now-familiar metal folding chairs.
In New Lots, the department took an 800 square-foot traffic island and turned it into a 3,800-square-foot plaza. The jagged Ashford Avenue, which cut through the traffic triangle, was closed, reducing the number of signals and, it is hoped, accidents. There were 14 accidents at the intersection between 2006 and 2010, five of which involved pedestrians. They especially seem to be benefiting from the space.
“It used to be, you’d come off the subway, everybody would pile up on the curb, if you were lucky, you would catch the stop sign, if not, well, just hope there were no cars coming,” said Gregory Farmer Sr., pastor of the nearby New Life Baptist Church.
Essentially, the department took an A-shaped intersection and turn it into a V-shaped one. In addition to creating more space for pedestrians, buses are no longer jackknifing around Ashford Avenue, a particular impediment to traffic, according to Mr. Wiley-Schwartz. He said there was some slight opposition from drivers when the plaza was first proposed, but it has since abated after the plaza’s construction.
In a phone interview, Walter Campbell, district manager for the local community board, agreed that the project has been almost universally applauded.
“It’s really a beautiful, beautiful thing for the community,” he said. The only concerns came from Cleveland Street, where the buses had been rerouted to. Otherwise, the response has been so strong, board members from the northern section of the board are now applying for their own plaza, Mr. Campbell said.
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.