Emil Kozerawski has a dream. One day the stretch of Bedford Avenue that passes through his Williamsburg neighborhood is going to be car-free. In the place of aggravated truckers blasting their air horns and spewing diesel, there will be cafe tables, street art and social activity. The 20-year-old School of Visual Arts advertising student is serious about his campaign. He is connecting with community leaders and organizations, lobbying shop owners, and has started a web site, CarFreeBedford.org. He is thinking pragmatically and aims to get things going by organizing daylong car-free experiments. He has printed up t-shirts.
In the neighborhood, there appear to be two clear reactions to Kozerawski's idea. If you've lived in Williamsburg for more than 25 years, then chances are you think the idea is insane. The owner of an old bakery insists that most of his customers drive, and if cars weren't allowed on Bedford it would destroy his business. (Where these customers all park is a mystery.) A hairdresser doesn't like the idea because she dreams of one day owning a car, and when that day comes she wants to be able to drive and park on Bedford. A fellow named George, living in the area for 52 years, has been leaving vitriolic posts on Kozerawski's online message board. He believes that, "If you want car-free areas you're living in the wrong city." George wouldn't say, however, where he thinks one should go to live their car-free life. Long Island? New Jersey? Los Angeles?
The second reaction comes from the new generation of young Williamsburgers. Between N. 4th and N. 9th, the stretch that Kozerawski wants to make car-free, this group appears to be the majority. Their opinion is neatly summed up by a real estate agent sitting on a bench in front of The Read Caf. "I'd love to see it happen," she says. "But it's never going to happen. Have you ever been to a community board meeting?" Kozerawski is clearly a notch less pessimistic than his peers. With a nearly imperceptible sigh he goes on to explain, yet again, the benefits and possibilities of a pedestrianized Bedford.
Regardless of whether Community Board crustaceans and DOT traffic movers take Car-Free Bedford seriously, his idea is clearly worth looking at. Car-free streets can work well in New York City. The proof is Stone Street, one of those ancient, crooked alleys at the very southern end of Manhattan. Built by the Dutch, Stone Street is said to have been the first paved street in the New World. But by the early 1990s, it had become blighted. Stores were shuttered and buildings empty, cars were parked all over the sidewalk, and petty drug dealing was the only activity on the block.
In the mid 1990s, Lower Manhattan's business improvement group the Downtown Alliance got together with the city's Landmarks Commission, hired consultants, and began putting together a new master plan for Stone Street. Despite the protests of building owners, the Alliance managed to get Stone Street designated a historic landmarks district. This enabled the Landmarks Commission to apply for $800,000 in federal transportation dollars. The Alliance chipped in another $150,000 and the city paid the rest.
Ultimately, the car-free public space they envisioned took five years, $1.8 million and a ton of perseverance and political willpower to become reality. Stone Street has been car-free since 2000; today, it is thriving.
"It's a miracle. It's beautiful really," says Harry Poulakakis, the owner of Ulysses and a few of the other restaurants on the block. Having owned restaurants on and around Stone Street for 32 years, Poulakakis knows as well as anyone how beneficial the changes have been. "The big thing is not to have cars. People feel they have nothing to worry about. They sit outside. It makes them happy."
As Kozerawski has by now discovered in Williamsburg, when you talk about the idea of car-free streets in New York, entrenched interests jump up and scream that restricting automobiles will create economic and transportation meltdowns. Needless to say, these catastrophes haven't materialized in Lower Manhattan. Stone Street has successfully "created a backdrop for economic development," says Suzanne O'Keefe, vice president of design for the Downtown Alliance. "Owners of other buildings are now saying we want a Stone Street." The $1.8 million investment in a thoughtfully designed, car-free public space is paying big dividends. Williamsburg wants a Stone Street, too.
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