The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

PODCAST: The Fight to Transform a Sidewalk Into a Public Plaza

By Emily Frost | May 5, 2015 1:42pm
 Bob Leonard and Jim Henderson are building a movement in hopes of transforming West 97th Street into a public plaza. 
Stryker Park
View Full Caption

UPPER WEST SIDE — An extra-wide sidewalk along West 97th Street has become the center of a heated debate — as one neighbor-led group pushes for its transformation into a public plaza, while others insist it should be left alone.

Two local residents, Bob Leonard and Jim Henderson, have spearheaded the effort to turn the stretch between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues into something like a public plaza, with more greenery, seating and tables for passersby.

The pair has pursued their campaign to create Stryker Park for at least two years, but the quest has not been quite as easy as they anticipated, Leonard and Henderson confessed. 

DNAinfo New York reporter Emily Frost sat down with the two to learn more about the process, their vision, the bumps in the road and what's next. 

Subscribe to DNAinfo's Upper West Side podcast:

Emily: I'm talking today with Bob Leonard and Jim Henderson, two Upper West Siders who are on a campaign to transform a stretch of sidewalk on West 97th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue. Before we launch into your project, I want to hear a little bit about how you each ended up on the Upper West Side. What brought you there, and what was your history with the neighborhood?

Why don't you jump in, Bob?

Bob: I'm a relatively new resident. I lived on the Upper East Side for many years. I got married, the second time around, and my wife and I moved to West 97th Street five years ago.

Emily: What was it like then five years ago? What were your first impressions of the block?

Bob: I find the neighborhood more lively than the East Side, more interesting. Broadway's really nice. It's like a European boulevard, and our apartment's terrific.

Emily: Yeah. Is it just you and your wife then?

Bob: Yeah, and two rescue cats.

Emily: Oh, cool. Not much has changed in your mind in five years?

Bob: In the past five years...What's changed in the neighborhood in five years? When I first moved in, the subway station at 96th Street was brand new. That just opened up. Right? Whole Foods had just opened up, I believe, not even a year before I moved in. Many people told me that that part of the neighborhood really picked up because of that whole retail area on Columbus Avenue.

Emily: Yeah. More and more stores have gone in. Do you think it's gotten ... Does it feel busier than when you first moved?

Bob: Yeah. I would say yeah. It's definitely picked up. I think the stores were just getting finished when I moved in. Now it's like a real neighborhood over there.

Emily: What about you, Jim? When did you move to the Upper West Side?

Jim: 1986. I was desperate to get off of Long Island.

Emily: Is that where you grew up or were living?

Jim: Yeah. Out in Rockville Centre about 30 miles out. A friend of mine at work had a friend who had an illegal sublet at the Master apartments on 103rd and Riverside, and I took it. It was, I think, 11-by-15-foot studio with a Pullman kitchen, which means it has a hot plate and a soft sink. If I leaned out of the window, I could see the water. I thought it was terrific.

Emily: Then from there, where did you move?

Jim: From there, I went down to 69th Street for a few years with my now wife, Maura, and then back to 320 Riverside on 104th, a block north from the Master, for about seven years. Now I'm at West End and 99th.

Emily: In that time span, close to 30 years, what have you seen-

Bob: That long?

Emily: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: Yeah. That long.

Emily: Yeah.

Emily: You were a young man when you moved to the West Side.

Jim: Yeah.

Emily: What have you seen change?

Jim: Huge change. It was graffiti everywhere. The steps down to Riverside Park, 103rd was ... not when I moved in but a few years after that, was filled with crack vials. I didn't really recognize it as a not-great neighborhood. I just loved that it was New York. When I moved to 104th Street, we had a block [garden 00:03:34] they had there for some years prior because people were getting mugged, and they kept the garden ... I think the garden might still be there, but not many people are getting mugged these days. It's been cleaned up quite a bit, and the prices have gone through the roof. I never had a problem myself, but I had friends that were mugged on Amsterdam Avenue. My wife's friends were mugged, mostly on the East Side, though.

Emily: What was West End Avenue like? Because that's where you ended up.

Jim: Pretty much the way it is now. A lot of the buildings have been cleaned up and washed, and new awnings and so on, so it looks cleaner and fresher, but essentially the same.

Emily: Do you think that the neighborhood has changed for the better in your span? Are there things you miss?

Jim: I miss the diversity of stores and people. It's not the old stereotypical Upper West Side like it used to be. There's a lot more money in the neighborhood, a lot more money in my building, people coming in. They have different needs than the people that have been there as long as I have and people prior to that. Too many chain stores. On the whole, big improvement.

Emily: You mentioned the stereotype of the Upper West Side back then. What was that? What was that description?

Jim: Working middle class, liberal, very active in the community. Just different interests. Different vibe. Yeah.

Emily: You two are active in the community. That's why we're talking. You have a project. Do you think that that strand of activism and involvement is still there?

Jim: It's still there. Some of the people that were very active back then and years before are still active. I think their goals have shifted, some of them, but I think there are a lot of people that have very busy lives now and don't have the time to do it, and there're so many other distractions for all of us.

Emily: Or aren't connected to the history of the neighborhood?

Jim: I think so. Yeah.

Emily: Before you explain what the project is ... It's called Stryker Park.

Bob: Right.

Emily: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of why the name Stryker?

Bob: Yeah. We actually found an old map. Was it from 1864?

Jim: The first map, yeah.

Bob: Yeah. The Stryker Family owned the land from 96th Street to 100th Street, from Columbus to the river. In fact, I think where my apartment is on 97th and Broadway, that family owned that land. The entrance to the West Side Highway at 96th Street was actually an inlet, and it was called Stryker's Bay. Actually, the entire neighborhood was referred to as Stryker's Bay back then. There's a historical reason while we're calling it Stryker Park because that's the family that was actually involved in that land.

Emily: Why did you start looking at maps and history?

Bob: Just we started doing research on it. Jim and I-

Emily: On the area-

Bob: Yeah.

Emily: On what the street had been?

Bob: Yeah, yeah. We just started doing a little research, and we noticed that this sidewalk was unusually wide, and we started thinking, "This could be something better." Actually, I think Jim was looking to find out why it was so wide. Six people had six different answers on why it was so wide.

Jim: I had eight different answers from six people.

Bob: Yeah.

Jim: Actually, one person gave us four answers at different times.

Emily: What were some of the theories? We're talking about just between Columbus and Amsterdam, it's wider than a normal sidewalk.

Jim: It's 50-feet-wide. Your average sidewalk on side streets in the Upper West Side are about two to three flags wide. A flag is each square. They're five by five, most of them, feet. You'll see two or three of them on the side streets, a little bit more on the avenues. This one's 50-feet wide on the north side of the street, so it's 40,000-square-feet, and also it's concrete except for a few tree pits.

Some of the answers we heard was ... One was "We need a lot of space for the children to go to P.S. 163 because there's 600 children that go there." My daughter's school has 650 children, and their sidewalk's about five feet wide. They all get into school just fine.

Another reason was people thought there were a lot of sewer pipes and electric down there, and they needed to have it wide for that reason. None of the reasons that people gave us really held up, so we're still looking for a good reason why it was made wider.

Bob: We think that originally there was angled-in parking on that block. The block between Amsterdam ... I'm sorry, Columbus and Central Park West also has angled-in parking, and we believe at one point there was the same thing over there, but it got to be a problem with traffic coming off of Central Park.

Emily: In your research, nobody's given you a concrete answer: "This is definitely why it's a wide sidewalk."

Jim: Haven't found a good response.

Bob: Right. Anyway, it is what it is.

Emily: Yeah, yeah.

Bob: It's that space and then there's also a little dogleg just west of P.S. 163 that's actually controlled by Parks. How many square feet is it? About 5,000-square-feet?

Jim: About 5,000 square feet. It's part of the Happy Warrior Playground. It's the original point of that space, which is a jointly operated playground space between the New York City Parks Department and the Department of Education for the use by the school.

Emily: Describe this street other than the wide sidewalk. Take us there. People may not have ever walked down this sidewalk before.

Bob: Right. It's quite unusual because of a few things. Most sidewalks of most side streets have some kind of entrance to a building facing the sidewalk. There are several buildings, 765 Amsterdam, Park West Village ... 

Jim: Right.

Bob: Right. Then the corner where Whole Foods is, 808 Columbus. All those buildings, the side of the building faces the street, which is quite unusual. It is not-

Jim: Every single one, including the school. The school's main entrance is on the side, and the other anchor building on Columbus Avenue, the entrance is half a block down on Columbus.

Bob: Right. There's no residential entrance to the building which would create more traffic. It's a bit of a no-man's-land. It's not well maintained and it's unloved.

Emily: In the sense of the sidewalk is not maintained?

Bob: Yeah. The sidewalk is damaged in many places. Curbs are damaged.

Jim: There's a lot of areas that flood, so water pools in the summer after the rain, and in the winter it freezes, and it's a slipping hazard for most people.

Bob: Yeah. The light poles were not maintained. There were all pitted and rusted. We actually did a project last year, and we painted the poles.

Jim: There's, I think, 30 tree pits that are just trees in hard-packed dirt. Most of the tree pits are too small. Some of the trees have died. There's one or two that are empty. No one's paying attention to the entire sidewalk.

Emily: There's no block association or BID that's taken ownership of this that you can tell?

Jim: No. The Columbus Amsterdam BID does not extend to ... I'm not sure if they ... It might be part of their ... I think it is actually part of their district, but I don't think they have the funds to devote to it.

Bob: Also, there are six driveways along that block, and they're totally unmarked. It's a potential hazard.

Emily: You were walking along ... When did this idea for Stryker Park, which I want you to describe, first emerge? It was a couple of years ago, right?

Bob: Yeah. Yeah, we were just talking and we-

Emily: You'd met each other?

Bob: We knew each other. Jim does some consulting for me, and we became friends. We just were talking about the block, and this idea percolated. We both said, "Okay. Let's do this together. Yeah, we need to do it as a team." This is something that you don't wanna take on by yourself.

Jim: No.

Bob: We started to shop things around, and the DOT came to us right away. Right?

Jim: Right. I think we discovered then, in talking to different people in the community, the DOT Plaza Program may've emerged from one of those conversations.

Emily: Okay. The Plaza Program. What are some examples of plazas in the city that are done well. I believe there's one south of Columbus Circle. There's some in Herald Square.

Jim: Times Square, of course. There's one in Brooklyn on the waterfront.

Bob: Yeah. DUMBO.

Jim: One down by Wall Street. There are large and small. The ones we just mentioned, of course, are the larger ones, but some of them are just small triangles where cars used to park. They moved the cars off but maintained the parking spaces close by and turned them into areas where people can sit and relax. It calms the neighborhood down.

Emily: There might be some plantings.

Jim: Some plantings, benches, tables, chairs, and so on.

Emily: You thought this block could be a candidate for that program?

Jim: Exactly.

Bob: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, and the DOT's been very supportive. They've done over 60 plazas in the past few years, so it's not something out of the blue. It's proven, and they work really, really well.

Emily: They want to do the plaza? Is that right?

Bob: They want to do plazas. Exactly. Yeah, yeah.

Emily: Can you describe your vision a little bit more? It was the plaza but also what else?

Bob: We've been dealing with ... The sidewalk is under DOT purview, so that's one part of it. DOT's behind us on that. Then the Parks Department states right now it's being used as a depot for gear for a couple of trucks, a garbage truck, and they have a couple of containers. Right?

Jim: Some storage containers in the back, a couple of snowplows, and several rats.

Bob: A lot of rats.

Jim: Yeah.

Bob: It's right next to a school, and it's really an inappropriate use of that space. We'd like to repurpose it back to its proper park. It'd be ideal as a community garden, and certainly tie in the school.

Emily: Because what you're saying is its actually playground/park space that's being used as just Parks Department parking. Is that right?

Jim: Right.

Bob: Yeah. It's a depot. Yeah. It's really crazy. There's plenty of places for this stuff to go.

Jim: In the afternoon, the parents pick up their children in the rear of the school and have to walk past that lot every day. The building on Amsterdam ... Is it 865?

Bob: 765.

Jim: 765 Amsterdam. The terraces on the east side of the building ... People are sitting out on their terraces, and their view is of a garbage truck and a couple of containers and some rats. They don't like it there either.

Bob: Yeah. It used to be a proper park because there's actually a street with trees and tree pits. Right?

Jim: It's cobblestone-lined.

Bob: Yeah.

Jim: The trees have all been hacked down. The entrance to the larger park has been fenced off.

Emily: The motto is "Less concrete. More green." You'd put in some planters, perhaps? It sounds like seating would be part of it.

Bob: Yeah. We're not married to anything in particular. Right now, we highlighted a number of the issues that face the block. It's not maintained. It's potentially dangerous in some areas. We don't wanna proscribe anything in particular. Our plan is to conduct a community workshop and get people from the community out and give us their input. Two people on our team, Anne-Marie Singer and Nina Cooke John, are both architects, and they've been involved with us for well over a year. They're putting together a great program that will run at some point, and we'll get the people from the community to raise their hand and say, "Hey, this is want we want to see here. This is what we don't want to see." From there we'll come up with something more concrete, more specific.

Emily: It'll be a community-driven idea-generation process?

Bob: Exactly.

Jim: Exactly. Yeah.

Emily: I understand that you've got a lot of supporters. There are some vocal people who oppose the project. Some of them are worried about the Jewish Home Lifecare facility that would go in on that block. How do you discuss this, and what do you say to people who are not in favor of the idea?

Jim: Some people are against everything and anything that you bring up. "It's nice to have, but not in my backyard. Have it downtown." One person said, "This works really well in Europe, but not in New York." It's a project that will work and be terrific for our neighborhood. As far as the Jewish Home is concerned, that's about 150 feet up the sidewalk. The sidewalk's 800 feet long. The school will be there when the construction's going on. The people will still be living in the apartment houses. We can work around that.

Emily: Has the school weighed in on the project or the idea and especially the area right next to the school that's now Parks' parking?

Bob: Yeah. We've talked to people on the PTA. One of the women lives in my building, my neighbor. Yeah, we've got some good support from the PTA. We've also met with Donny Lopez, the principal, and he's been supportive as well.

Emily: You described the block before as desolate sometimes.

Bob: Yeah.

Emily: Is the idea that this would maybe put more eyes on the street in terms of more people sitting and a feeling that you're not alone when you walk down the block?

Bob: Yeah. These plaza programs do that by creating a safe space, by creating something that's inviting, attracts people. It makes the space more lively. Sure. Absolutely. These plazas have been out there for many years, at least half a dozen years, maybe even more. They're proven to work.

Emily: Is the DOT willing to do a pilot study where maybe some of the naysayers ... You say to them, "Okay, we're going to try it for a limited time period. It doesn't mean it's permanent," or would they only want to fund something if it was really going to stay?

Jim: DOT understands that, and they've told us that every project that they've been involved with, there've been naysayers. They understand that there's some people who don't want anything to change. They like it just the way it is. They don't just dive right into it. They're going to proceed slowly, and they wanna see us do a on day plaza to see how that works, how it brings out the community. They'll have several small test runs, different projects that they've asked us to do.

Bob: We did a few things already. We arranged for city benches. We put five benches on the block over a year ago. Right?

Jim: Right.

Bob: That was through DOT. Two are right by Whole Foods, and they're used all the time.

Jim: One of the concerns was that if you put benches out, you'll get undesirables ... basically moving in, and it hasn’t happened. There hasn't been an increase in litter in the area from people eating. People stop for a bit, and then they move on. It's a long sidewalk. Some people really welcome having a place to sit down as they make their way down the block or cross the West Side.

Emily: Yeah. Are there other seating areas in the Columbus Square area?

Bob: No. That's it. Just the benches we put in. Yeah.

Jim: That's it. Yeah. There were two benches that were there prior to the five that we put in. Those are by P.S. 163. The only other sitting area is the one behind Columbus Square. There's a small sitting area there, but I think a lot of people aren't aware of it because it's between the Park West Village buildings.

Emily: Right. Are businesses like Whole Foods in favor of this idea because it would lend itself to more customers coming, sitting, eating their food outside?

Bob: Oh, sure. They've been supportive. They've helped us out. We did a few events last year. We did a planting event, and they helped us out with tables and chairs and some snacks, things like that. For that event, we put out simple bistro tables and chairs, and they were used all day long. When we were wrapping up at the end of the day, we had to kick everyone off the chairs. We know this is going to work because we tried it already, and people were using it, and they liked it.

Jim: Some of the people were taking their lunch from Whole Foods. They do have that large sitting area inside, but some people did go out and eat. They all found their way to the local trashcans. No one left their stuff behind. No one left a mess.

Emily: Yeah. Does the DOT need you to be a partner in cleaning it up and maintaining the plaza?

Bob: Yeah. That's part of what they want us to do. They want us to do programming. We're planning on doing a one day plaza in the fall, so we'll do some kind of event with some entertainment. Also, if they do approve us, they want us to take responsibility for the space, and we need to hire people ... Actually, we'll probably work with the Columbus Amsterdam BID and have them do some kind of maintenance. We'll offer to do some kind of fundraising activities to pay for all that.

Emily: The next steps are to host a community forum?

Bob: Yeah. We're doing a series of events this spring. We're going to do some more plantings. We're trying to build our list up, get more support. We have quite a bit of support right now. We have over 400 signatures in our petition drive, and we're going to get more. Then we'll do the one day plaza in September.

Bob: Right, and a few other short events, half-day events on the street.

Emily: Do you think that the one day plaza can convince some people that this won't be what they fear it will be or allay their fears?

Bob: I don't know. There's some people out there that just are against it. They're against anything and everything. That's just the way it is. The vast majority of people we've talked to love what we're doing.

Emily: The DOT said it will fund it?

Jim: If they pick us as part of the plaza program. Then they will fund it.

Emily: You have to apply every year?

Bob: Yeah. Right.

Jim: Right. Right.

Bob: Yeah. We'll apply in the fall. That's the game plan.

Emily: Looking back on your experience ... You guys have been involved in this project for several years now. What are your reflections on the process? Did you think it would happen faster?

Bob: Yeah. Yeah.

Jim: Much faster.

Bob: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: I think we both thought it would be completely transformed inside of a year.

Bob: That's what we thought. Yeah. Yeah, just the Upper West Side. It just takes forever. We both have jobs. We're trying to build our team now. Several of the people, Tim Dewald and Anne-Marie and Nina, and we have a new person that just started working with us. We're trying to build our team out. There's other people on the periphery that pitch in on occasion. Right?

Jim: Right. More architects.

Bob: Yeah. We have so many architects. 

Emily: Who wanna design schemes and ...

Bob: Yeah. Exactly.

Jim: We're very thankful to have five or six people who ... Most of them do this type of work, that have been helping us out.

Emily: What would your advice be to another group or another duo that wants to do a similar project on a block? Because I'm sure there are other blocks on the Upper West Side that could fit these characteristics.

Jim: It's the only one we found that is ... This is somewhat unique.

Bob: Actually, there's someone working on Straus Park. There's an area by West End and 108th Street, and I guess trucks are coming down Broadway. They get confused, and they wind up going down West End and drive right by Jim's house. 

Emily: Yeah. I heard about that. They want to block off the entrance to West End so that trucks don't have that option.

Bob: Yeah.

Jim: Right, and leave an emergency lane, similar to what they've done in Union Square. They did that, I think, 15, 20 years ago. They took most of that, extended the park, and have one emergency lane.

Emily: What's your advice to people trying to change their neighborhood?

Jim: One of our supporters, Mel Wymore, said, "You guys are looking at this as a problem to be solved." He said, "This is really a community-building exercise. Go out and meet everyone in the community and talk to everyone who's a stakeholder. That includes people who work there, the store owners, the people who live there, the rental tenants, the co-op apartment owners, the owners of the buildings for where the rental tenants live. Everyone. The schools. Talk to the entire neighborhood and find out what's going on with how they see it. That should be your first step."

Emily: Are you having those ongoing conversations?

Jim: We’ve been having those conversations for...

Bob: Yeah. About two years.

Jim: Close to two years. Yeah.

Bob: Yeah. About two years. Yeah, I think we need to build our team out more. I think the critical masses may be eight people, so we're trying to get more people involved. Yeah, this is Community Organizing 101. We're getting all the tools in place. We've got some great advice. We work with the people at Transportation Alternatives.

Emily: Are they in support of the idea?

Bob: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Tom DeVito's been great.

Emily: They support it because it ...

Bob: Anything that can make things more pedestrian friendly, potentially clam traffic, they're all for that, absolutely.

Emily: They're giving you guidance on how to build a movement?

Bob: Yeah. Also Citi Bikes is coming to the Upper West Side, so this location would be ideal to have Citi Bike stations. This could be real great focal point for the neighborhood if you do it right, which we will.

Emily: Yeah, because there are Citi Bike stations near plazas. Those tend to be next to each other sometimes.

Bob: Yeah.

Emily: I've heard from people, "Oh, the Stryker Park folks, they're not from the neighborhood." Why do you think people have that impression? It's completely false. Right?

Jim: Some of those same people who believe the neighborhood is theirs and theirs only because they live somewhat close to the block also are opposed to things that were done a block from me. The Extell buildings were literally half a block away from me. They opposed that, and they considered that to be their neighborhood. I consider the entire Upper West Side to be my neighborhood.

Bob: I'm there all the time. I go to Whole Foods at least once a week. In the summer, I ride my bike to Central Park. I cross 100th Street and back across 97th. This is my neighborhood.

Jim: They even told one of early volunteers, Danny, that "None of you are from the neighborhood." He says, "I live across the street." He actually lived closer to the location than the person accusing him of being an outsider.

Bob: Yeah. It's some people that want things the way they were 40 years ago, and they want no change, nothing. That's New York. New York is about change. That's the reality. Things are constantly changing. Get over it.

Emily: It's taken a little longer and, as you said, you're viewing it now more as a community-building exercise rather than, like, "We've got to fix this right away, and it's going to happen tomorrow," but you're not going to give up. Right?

Bob:  No. Are you kidding me?

Jim: No.

Emily: What sustains your commitment?

Bob: We may be senior citizens by the time this gets done, but ...

Emily: Is there something that sustains your commitment? Do you spend a lot of time on that block, or do you try to avoid it since it ...

Bob:  We have a good team. We have a good team, and we're getting more people involved. By spreading the work around, it doesn't become too much of a burden.

Emily: Right.

Bob: We split things up and spread the load.

Jim: It's great to be working towards something that's positive. A lot of people, they're working to fight, fighting against this and fighting against that. I've done plenty of that. I'm tired of fighting against. This is fun. I wanna do something that's positive. It's exciting what could be there.

Bob: Yeah. This is very doable. We just need to get all our ducks in a row and get more people involved and get critical mass. These are things that we learned along the way. We maybe got a little overly excited initially. We thought it would be something easy to do. Right? That's not the way things work all the time.

Emily: I really enjoyed hearing about the process and about the project. Thank you for talking with me.

Bob: Thanks, Emily.