As New Yorkers took to the streets to clap, sing, dance, and protest in the summer of 2020, we saw more than ever that culture connects us, builds safety, and fosters empathy.
We also witnessed how streets can serve as new cultural spaces, demonstrated by the creative reclamation of street space for Black Lives Matter murals from Morris Ave in the Bronx to Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, theater and dance in the Lower East Side, and outdoor live music in the Meatpacking District. Artists, cultural stewards, and culture makers supported their communities through culinary and design traditions, literary practices, and storytelling.
Culture is not only the fabric that connects communities, it is also a major economic force in the city. As theaters, museums, and performance venues shuttered, cultural workers were left with few venues to safely share their work. New York State saw nearly 32,000 jobs in the performing arts lost in 2020, while in New York City alone, performing arts jobs declined 72% – the sharpest job losses of any industry in the city’s economy. The City answered the call with the Open Culture program, working in tandem with Open Streets to provide new spaces for artists to present their work in the open air. There is significant opportunity to broaden the reach of the program and evolve other government programs to more robustly invest in streets for culture.
We envision Culture Streets as sites to support thriving, creative communities with temporary activations and permanent interventions on our streets. Culture Streets should place equity at the core by prioritizing neighborhoods with limited outdoor space and organized resources, and uplifting voices, traditions, and stories of Black, Latino, Asian and immigrant New Yorkers. We imagine a city whose streets can be easily activated and used by local communities, and are spaces that respect and amplify existing traditions while serving as instruments for cultural stewardship and preservation.
1. Create a network of Culture Streets around anchor institutions.
Community anchors like libraries, schools, and cultural institutions are essential neighborhood resources, yet they can often be spatially disconnected from each other and other neighborhood public amenities. By 2030, the City could designate and build 20 Culture Streets adjacent to community anchor institutions that are permanently closed to car traffic. These streets could create a robust network of public space for performance, gathering, learning, and celebration, connected by a transportation network with multiple modes of mobility for bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, and public transit.
2. Expand technical assistance for Culture Streets
Many small arts organizations lack the infrastructure to host audiences on the street. The City could expand the current technical assistance program for Open Streets partners to include Culture Streets, working to connect smaller arts organizations and individual artists with Culture Streets near anchor institutions. Anchors could help provide key amenities such as access to bathrooms and drinking water to support cultural activation in the street, as well as cover liability and permitting costs.
3. Build a thriving ecosystem of local artists to activate the Right of Way.
DCLA could launch a new set of grants for local artists and community members to activate Right of Way spaces around libraries, schools, and cultural institutions. This work could complement private funds like Creatives Rebuild New York.
4. Pilot new types of temporary arts spaces in the roadway.
Artists performing in the Right of Way often lack the physical infrastructure to support their crafts. DOT and DCLA could launch a Request For Proposals in every borough to develop innovative and flexible designs for temporary arts spaces, such as a packable stage and seating, a mobile gallery, moveable barriers, lighting, sound, or other cultural needs. The final selection should prioritize partnerships with neighborhood-based artists and designers to create responsive and unique local infrastructure.
5. Co-site street safety and permanent cultural infrastructure.
By 2030, the City can enhance safety infrastructure while creating more permanent cultural spaces in the Right of Way. To do that, the City could boost investments across cultural programs through DOT and DCLA’s Percent for Art program and City Council’s Participatory Budgeting to create community-driven plans for permanent cultural infrastructure.
6. Enhance government arts programs to meet new streets needs.
The City can allocate robust funding opportunities to support different kinds of cultural practices in the street where appropriate for each community. Enhance and expand existing programs such as Open Culture, the DOT Plaza Program, Public Artists in Residence, Asphalt Art, Arterventions, and Temporary Art to serve more New Yorkers, while marshaling funding to less-resourced community partners.
7. Embed artist voices in all levels of neighborhood street design and planning.
By 2030, Borough Presidents could ensure every Community Board assigns an artist on every transportation committee or creates a committee dedicated to arts and culture.