One Festival Day, Not Six, Could Bring Relief
The idea for a community-run festival celebrating Williamsburg’s unique character is a good one; but the Bedford Avenue commercial corridor is already too saturated with crowds, noise, street peddlers, and sanitation issues to withstand the present six-event schedule of Williamsburg Walks (WW) and the thousands of visitors it attracts.
Nominally a city-sponsored event, loosely supported by various profit and non-profit partners, WW’s coordination has over the past three years fallen increasingly into the hands of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG), a grassroots advocacy organization that has led the community in challenging environmental hazards, developers, and the city’s rezoning process. NAG, unfortunately, appears to have inherited the undemocratic management style that has characterized WW from the start; in its role as coordinator, it has also begun to hear complaints from residents and merchants that the annual six-time summer street fair is excessive.
On March 26, NAG’s board will convene to discuss plans for Williamsburg Walks 2010, including the option that WW be limited to one day. I urge NAG to give the one-day plan serious consideration, as I believe this reform would not only be welcomed by the community, but would allow NAG to more effectively coordinate the event.
Northside Cries “Uncle”
Some of the concerns among residents and businesses for the disruption WW represents were aired at a November 3, 2009 feedback session convened by NAG. The key recommendations to emerge were that:
—WW is redundant, given the existing over-saturation of our community, particularly in summer, by visitors, tourists, street peddlers, food carts and trucks;
—the burden on the Bedford Avenue commercial corridor should be eased by either dramatically reducing the event schedule or shifting or rotating the event elsewhere; and
—the city’s commitment in terms of delivering needed services including sanitation and police coverage is inadequate.
The gathering was a productive community meeting, one in which neighbors, both residents and merchants, shared measured views and voiced constructive ideas. It adjourned with the sense that a similar forum should be held after the New Year to continue discussion. Unfortunately the group was never reconvened, denying follow-up on the community’s suggestions.
I believe that the gathering’s key recommendation—that WW and its current schedule is “too much” for the already saturated Bedford Avenue corridor—is worth revisiting, and that many of the concerns with the event could be addressed by re-focusing it as a one-day festival.
Thematic Questions about WW
There has been from the start a loosey-goosey quality to the event’s overriding message and purpose. It was initially introduced as part of a citywide effort to encourage people to think about ways they could live without motorized vehicles. That’s a worthy objective, banning traffic for a day so pedestrians can walk Bedford Avenue in peace, and contemplate alternatives to the usual presence of cars, trucks and buses. But WW went farther, encouraging participants to use the street for artistic, recreational and commercial activity. As a result, the alternative transportation theme of WW is usually engulfed by mid-afternoon in an event that is in fact much less calming or contemplative than it would be with an ordinary day’s vehicular traffic. Is the commotion of a large street fair really promoting transportation alternatives?
In any case, by the time of the November 3 meeting, the “no vehicles” theme had been replaced by another—the idea that WW represents “place-making.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but if the Bedford Avenue commercial corridor is not already a place, than I don’t know what would qualify. It’s so much of a place that it draws people from across the New York City region and even from around the world.
It has been suggested that social benefits accrue from WW—that the festival promotes communication among residents and merchants, between young and elderly residents, and encourages greater artist involvement in the community. However, these are already features of our lively community. The idea that Bedford Avenue needs more activity in order to get in touch with itself, to become more of a “place,” might have been appropriate 20 years ago, when the neighborhood lacked businesses and services. But it hardly seems fitting today.
I’ve also heard WW spokesmen argue that the event provides a needed economic boost to Northside businesses. That claim is belied by the facts that, even by NAG’s account, only 25% of Bedford merchants support WW and another 50% are non-committal, while the November 3 meeting made it clear that many merchants outright disapprove. Were economic uplift really WW’s goal, it would likely be strategically located elsewhere in Williamsburg, not in the already-thriving Bedford corridor. Again, limiting the event’s impact by concentrating its schedule makes sense.
Quality of Life as an Environmental Issue
Strangely, we in this neighborhood have rallied numerous times to denounce greedy developers and creeping industrial toxins, yet we seem to take a fatalistic view of the slow but steady degradation of our quality-of-life. Our experience tells us that, no less than poisons in the environment, overflowing trash barrels, paper pizza plates littering curbsides, broken glass, dried pools of vomit, as well as noise from carousing late-night bar patrons, contribute to making us less satisfied with where we live.
Why then add to this burden with multiple, redundant Williamsburg Walks? Not only are event days busier than usual, the very ethos of WW—the urging of people to occupy the street and to act out—while innocent in and of itself, has the effect of reinforcing the notion among visitors that Northside—and increasingly Southside, too—is a “permanent party zone,” a place for noise and fun where ordinary rules are suspended. It’s hardly surprising that noise and other quality-of-life complaints top police statistics in the 90th and 94th Precincts.
Is NAG’s Stamina Unlimited?
Is coordinating six large weekend festivals per summer in NAG’s best interest? Such a huge commitment creates demands for staff, volunteers, and resources that to date NAG has struggled to meet. I want NAG to be there for us where it counts—fighting for affordable housing, the fair application of city zoning laws, bike lanes, green spaces, and environmental justice. If NAG wants to run a large urban street fair, the organization must do so with greater guaranteed participation from city agencies and other partners.
It should also offer residents more democratic, transparent governance. The public has really never been invited into the process guiding WW; event-day leadership has been opaque and answers hard to come by. Nor do my recent conversations and emails with NAG’s lead WW coordinator make me optimistic about what’s to come. Plans for more efficient operations appear largely conjectural, while the overview seems to be that WW is an ongoing experiment that will be re-jiggered as needs arise, reforms to flow from a model of “top-down” decision-making. This may hint at why the citizen feedback NAG received recently was spurned: it threatened too many pre-existing notions about the event’s design. I believe NAG and the community can do better.
Williamsburg Walks—One Special Day
Restructuring WW to a one-day event would be a win-win compromise. NAG’s coordinating staff and its partners (including L Magazine and Blenderbox) could focus their efforts exclusively on making this one event well-managed and memorable; the pressure to enlist and train volunteers would be eased; and residents, merchants, artists, and other participants could better concentrate their own plans. I, and I suspect others—even those with qualms about WW generally—would be more inclined to rally around the idea of one well-coordinated celebration.
A reduced schedule might also help NAG to regain organizational equilibrium. Rather than exhaust itself managing six major events, it could, after focusing on the one, more easily resume other programmatic plans and better manage staff time and resources. Perhaps a one-time event would even afford NAG the opportunity to use WW for purposes of organizational fundraising, something I understand has been discussed but never implemented.
I’m a long-time Northside resident and a former NAG employee and volunteer. Almost everything I know about community organizing, about people having a voice in their neighborhood, comes from that experience. That’s why I’m hopeful that when NAG’s board convenes on March 17, it will honor its mission by embracing the best near-term solution for Williamsburg Walks, scheduling it as a one-day occasion for summer 2010. Let’s plan an event we all can live with.— Philip Dray