By Bill Parry
When a stretch of 37th Road between 73rd and 74th streets in Jackson Heights was closed off to vehicular traffic in 2011 in the interest of public safety, business owners initially objected. Many of them turned out last Saturday as elected officials joined civic leaders and city officials to officially co-name the northeast corner of Diversity Plaza in a ceremony that coincided with World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, which was designated by the United Nations in 2002.
“Diversity Plaza has truly become a gathering point for Jackson Heights and Elmhurst residents,” City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said. “The plaza serves as a town square, concert stage, festival space and café year round. There is always something exciting taking place here.”
Dromm worked closely with the city Department of Transportation and community organizations to manage, maintain and enhance the plaza since it was closed to increase pedestrian safety and decrease congestion in the area. The plaza has become home to a variety of festivals and cultural events throughout the year and it serves as a central gathering point for immigrant communities when disaster strikes in their home countries.
“Diversity Plaza has been a mainstay of Jackson Heights—one of the most diverse neighborhoods in one of the most diverse cities on earth—for years,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “From providing a central space for community members to hold vigils and seek support from their neighbors in difficult times, to cultural festivals in the summer, Diversity Plaza will represent something powerful for this city and this community for years to come.”
The mayor noted that over 150 languages are spoken by the residents of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. Borough President Melinda Katz called it a hub for free speech, while Public Advocate Letitia James hailed the plazaas a “safe and accepting place for New Yorkers of all religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and genders” to gather without fear of bigotry or hatred.
“Not only does Diversity Plaza provide much-needed open space, it also reminds us how lucky we are to live in this borough,” state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) said. “The melting pot that is our borough is demonstrated all around this plaza. For example, we have Bangladeshi clothing shops along 73rd Street, Colombian bakeries on 37th Avenue and Korean BBQ on Roosevelt Avenue. Together, they all culminate right here on Diversity Plaza.”
Now that the name is official, the plaza is set for a makeover.
In 2012, Dromm allocated $500,000 for capital reconstruction that will feature a raised street bed and new lighting as well as planters and trees. Construction is set to start later this year with completion in late 2017.
Vita Coco, a coconut water company, has signed on as a sponsor of the plaza and will be funding additional cleaning and horticultural services for a full year as well as programming for the community. The space is also receiving support from the DOT in the form of funding for programming, day to day operations and maintenance and technical assistance for plaza managers.
“Since it opened, Diversity Plaza has become the beating and bustling heart of Jackson Heights,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said. “With 53 plazas currently open to the public citywide and more on the way, Diversity Plaza has set the bar high on what communities can do to creatively transform their neighborhood public spaces.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr