Yesterday, Open House New York’s Executive Director, Gregory Wessner, testified at the New York City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation’s hearing on increasing public access to NYC Department of Parks and Recreation properties that are currently inaccessible to the public. Led by Councilman Mark Levine, the chair of the Committee on Parks, the hearing began with testimony from our friends at the Parks Department, who cited their long partnership with OHNY as evidence of their ongoing efforts to provide access to off-limits buildings like the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and the Little Red Lighthouse, when possible.
In addition to those two important landmarks, Councilman Levine and his colleagues on the Committee on Parks spoke passionately in support of providing access to everything from the Washington Square Arch and the New York State Pavilion to Hart and North Brother Islands. Once the hearing was opened up to testimony from the public, Wessner joined the Regional Plan Association’s Moses Gates, a dedicated advocate for increased public access to important sites around the city, on the first panel.
“We get information about our civic life second and third hand,” Wessner noted during his testimony, “and I think we are beginning to realize how that lack of direct experience–with one another and with the places where we live–can lead to an eroding of the public sphere. I am not so naïve to think that simply letting people climb the Washington Square Arch or visiting Hart Island will reinvigorate citizenship, but I do think that the degree to which the city makes itself open and accessible to its citizens communicates a great deal about this city’s values. And there is no more tangible expression of a welcoming city than the simple act of opening a door.”
“I ask of the city as a whole,” Gates said, in his testimony, “that this becomes a value—when we renovate or build things, that the public should be able to access these places, and that this is as much a consideration as stability or safety.”
Wessner and Gates were followed by dozens of advocates for public access, and public space in general. Many longtime friends of OHNY were on hand to speak in support of the value of direct experience of place, including the Trust for Public Land, Untapped Cities, NYC H2O, the Historic Districts Council, WHEDco, and the Municipal Art Society. It was inspiring afternoon; public support for access was clear, with so many people in attendance that the hearing was moved from its originally scheduled venue, the Committee Room, into the full Council Chambers. Testimony went on for several hours, and presented a wide range of viewpoints on why access is so important to New York City’s civic life.
All of us at Open House New York thank Councilman Levine and the Committee on Parks and Recreation for holding this hearing, and for giving us the opportunity to speak about the work that we do, and the impact that we believe it has on New Yorkers from all walks of life. It is wonderful to see public access championed and spoken of as a civic value in no less important a venue than the City Council Chambers. We will continue our work to increase access, wherever and whenever possible, and look forward to opening more and more of the city each year.