Go Play in the Street, Kids. Really.

Jacqueline Kook and her 5-year-old daughter, Francesca Cabrera, were making their way to the playground when they came upon a reading cart and an obstacle course in the middle of Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Two and a half hours later, Francesca was happily sprawled on the asphalt beside a chalk drawing of two of her favorite cartoon characters, Bluey and Bingo.

“I can’t seem to pull her away,” said Ms. Kook, 42, who lives in Harlem. “It’s the beauty of New York City when you happen on something colorful and fun — and a surprise.”

The play zone was the work of Street Lab, a nonprofit that was already expanding its family-friendly pop-ups around the city when the pandemic brought a hunger for more inviting outdoor spaces. The experiences come and go in a single day, sometimes in just a few hours.

“Everything we do is designed to be pop-up — here today, gone tomorrow,” said Leslie Davol, 53, the executive director of Street Lab, which produced 353 pop-ups across the city last year, more than double the number it had in 2019.

The pop-ups borrow from an urban tradition of using streets and other public spaces for temporary (and sometimes unsanctioned) activities, such as turning curbside parking spots into “parklets,” Mike Lydon, an urban planner, said. The impromptu spaces are intended to encourage social interaction.

Short-term actions can eventually catalyze long-term change, an approach that Mr. Lydon described as “tactical urbanism.” In New York City, guerrilla gardeners who threw “seed bombs” into vacant lots in the early 1970s helped lay the groundwork for early community gardens. The Times Square pedestrian plazas grew out of an experiment by city officials and business leaders over Memorial Day weekend in 2009 to shut a section of Broadway to traffic and put out hundreds of folding lawn chairs.

Mr. Lydon said that Street Lab’s programming “brings people into these spaces — especially young people — to animate them, and show the possibilities, and cements the idea that streets can be used in all different ways.”

Ms. Davol started Street Lab in New York in 2011, along with her husband, Sam Davol, who plays cello in The Magnetic Fields, a popular indie pop band. The couple and their two children had just moved back to the city from Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, where they had lived for several years, and had first been inspired to curate cultural activities in public spaces. They had hung a screen in a vacant lot opposite their apartment and produced a Chinese-language movie series. They had transformed an empty storefront into a library run by volunteers.

The Davols, who met in high school, raised $20,000 on Kickstarter and used it to create a portable “reading room.” They enlisted their architect friends, Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon, who is now the dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University, to design and build a bookcase made of white cubes that stacked into a tower. Called the “UNI” — for urban neighborhood institution — its cubes each held books on a different theme, such as art, music or nature.

In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the UNI was set up in a farmers’ market under the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive in Lower Manhattan. People crowded around the six-foot-tall tower. Some of the Kickstarter supporters arrived with book donations.

Though the UNI was a hit, it was not easy to move it or set it up. As demand increased, it was downsized to a reading cart on wheels, Ms. Davol said.

Today the Davols work from an office on the Brooklyn waterfront, just north of Red Hook. They have a full-time staff of six, along with up to 30 part-time workers who help out at the pop-ups. Street Lab, which has a budget of just under $1 million annually, is financed mainly though city and state grants and contracts with city agencies.

A small fleet of 10 rolling carts are available for use as portable reading rooms and for other programs, including as an urban nature station that comes with microscopes, binoculars and a stuffed red-tailed hawk. During the pandemic lockdown, a no-touch obstacle course and chalk-art station were added.

Street Lab’s ready-made activities have become a mainstay of the city’s so-called open streets, where traffic is banned or restricted at designated hours. Though the pandemic initiative, which started in 2020, has been made permanent, the city’s network of open streets shrank by about two-thirds, to a total of 28 miles, last year. Community and business groups have struggled to run and maintain them, and opposition has grown from some residents, who find it more difficult to drive, find parking and get deliveries. (City officials are still reviewing open street applications this year, but expect to authorize a similar number).

Street Lab has teamed with city officials to help expand open streets to low-income and minority communities, including Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. Ydanis Rodriguez, the city’s transportation commissioner, said the group was helping officials “advance a critical goal of making public space more equitable, by meeting New Yorkers where they are, and bringing them together along car-free streets.”

Last year in Queens, six pop-ups appeared on Barton Avenue, an open street run by the Asian American Federation that is popular with Korean and Chinese families in the Murray Hill neighborhood. Children drew stars, planets and flowers with chalk and left heartwarming messages that lifted people’s spirits, said Ahyoung Kim, director of economic empowerment for the federation.

Street Lab has also been involved in the outdoor dining movement, creating modular wooden tables that can be joined together to form a larger, continuous table that is easily packed away. Financed through a grant from the city’s Department of Small Business Services, the table was tested out in several open streets, including at a pizza party in Staten Island, a community potluck in Queens and a sewing circle in Brooklyn. Street Lab is making four more.

Another project in the works, and also supported with city funding, is an “equipment library,” which will loan out carts, tables, benches, books and other materials, all at no cost, to business improvement districts and community groups. Street Lab also sells its pop-up kits to libraries, park conservancies and municipal agencies in dozens of cities, including San Francisco, Seattle and Newcastle, Australia.

Earlier this month, before Francesca, the 5-year-old, had discovered the Amsterdam Avenue pop-up, a half-dozen arriving Street Lab workers had swiftly unpacked the bookcase, cramming about 200 books on its shelves and setting up benches alongside it, as well as an obstacle course and a chalking area, between West 106th and West 107th Streets.

Curious passers-by came over to investigate. “This is a great opportunity for us to expand our repertoire of what we’re offering,” said Peter Arndtsen, the district manager of the Columbus Amsterdam Business Improvement District, which spends about $50,000 a year for programs and services on its open streets.

But as dusk crept in, it was time to go. The bookcase and activities were packed up and loaded onto a truck until the next time.

“We’re part of an ecosystem,” Ms. Davol said. “We work with hundreds of groups. They all have this beautiful vision of community in their neighborhoods and we want to support it and be part of it.”

Source: Read Full Article