In 2007, Stewart, along with other local parents, started the Jackson Heights Green Alliance to address the lack of open play space in the area.
“We used to bring our little kids to this playground at Travers Park,” said Stewart, who now serves as president of the group. “It would get so crowded, there was no room for anybody.”
They explored different ways to expand the playground, including using eminent domain to acquire a nearby dealership. Eventually, the group settled on closing 78th Street and making it a play area.
They started shutting down the street on weekends. That quickly turned into a month, and eventually, it became permanent.
Working with a citywide program called the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, JHGA soon became the sole maintenance partner of the 78th Street pedestrian plaza. They kept the space clean while providing community programming.
“We came up with all sorts of fun things for the community, a lot of free things,” Stewart said. “We had yoga, art classes, dance and concerts.”
JHGA managed the plaza until this year, when the Parks Department took over. The city is combining the plaza with Travers Park and Staunton Field to create one unified open green space, a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
“Jackson Heights is quite a dense neighborhood, with very little park space in it,” Stewart said. “So in summer, this park get so crowded, it’s actually dangerous.”
Now that 78th Street is off their hands, the organization is focused on other spaces like Diversity Plaza. But Stewart said they’ll soon look for other opportunities to create open space in the community.
“We’ll take our time and see what else we can work on,” he said.