ioby was founded in 2008 to make it easier for local leaders to get the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make positive change on a local level. For the past ten years we've worked alongside over 1,600 passionate, committed community leaders and have watched as small projects have turned into larger initiatives, and collaborations have become movements.

We want to take a look back at the past ten years, and tell some of our favorite stories of positive neighborhood change. We want to know: what kind of things can start with a conversation, a neighborhood meeting, a few dollars raised?

For the next ten months, we'll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and rolling these stories out. Thanks for reading!

[Photos courtesy of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance.]

9. 78th Street Playstreet 

New York, NY 2008–Present

“Queens is famously the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the world,” Donovan Finn, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, says. “Jackson Heights is probably one of the most diverse parts of that diverse borough and that diverse city.”

In one of the densest neighborhoods in the country, rivaling the density of Manhattan, life seems to burst at the seems. Neighbors calling out to one another on the street, kids playing on the sidewalk, the smells of some of the best food in the world–from all over the world–greeting you every which way. It’s easy to see how Donovan quickly felt at home in the neighborhood. 

“It’s a pretty neighborly neighborhood," he says. “I've lived other places where it took me years to meet people. I feel like I started meeting people very quickly in Jackson Heights. That's the kind of place it is.”

But when Donovan and his wife where getting ready to have their first child, a little over a decade ago, the lack of park space came into glaring focus. “One of the things we noticed about Queens as opposed to some other neighborhoods we've lived in, and particularly about Jackson Heights as great as it is, is it was lacking in park space,” Donovan said, particularly tough given how dense the neighborhood is.

So they started thinking about what they could do about that, and began volunteering with a group of neighbors who did regular cleanups and maintenance in Travers Park, not far from where they lived, and which for some time had been somewhat neglected. One thing led to another, and soon enough he was sitting in a coffee shop with about ten other people who also wanted more green spaces in the neighborhood.

“We met really through a social network. Not the online kind, but the old fashion kind," Donovan recalled. "A couple of the people knew each other because they had kids a little older than mine, their kids were in preschool together at the time. One of the guys in the group is a man about town, one of those people that knows everybody." Another, Donovan had bumped into at a community meeting about the state of the neighborhood's parks. They formed the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, an informal group that a few years later incorporated as a volunteer-run nonprofit, and they started to brainstorm how they could grow park space in the community.


[Some of the original members of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance,
who formed to care for and expand Travers Park.]

Starting small

Given the neighborhood’s density, there just wasn’t any space for new parks to be built, and their beloved Travers park was hemmed in on all sides. So they got creative and decided to try to expand the park by growing into the adjacent 78th Street, closing it off and turning it into a “play street.” With the city just kicking off their pedestrian plaza program, turning underused street space into plazas, they knew it was their most feasible solution but also knew that it would be an uphill battle to close the street. So they started off by getting block party permits to close 78th Street only on Sundays in the summer of 2008, creating a new public space for just a few hours a week.

It was a hit.

Kids had a place to run around, learn to bike without worrying about cars, and had a bit more breathing room in the park. Neighbors came out to sit on the sidewalk to trade stories and get to know each other. Having the space for people to enjoy was a natural way of convincing neighbors that the plaza was a good idea, and won them many more supporters. A few years later, they expanded to Saturdays and Sundays during the summer.

Then they wanted to close the street for months at a time, each summer, so the fun wasn’t confined to the weekends. To do so, they’d have to get support from their Community Board, a local advisory group that formally advises the city’s land use policy.

“The community board was, I think, relatively conservative,” Donovan recalled. “Not necessarily politically, but they were not really open to that many ideas that rock the boat, and this was definitely some boat rocking. [Closing 78th Street] had a lot of people nervous, there was a lot of talk of gangs and crime and noise and a lot of other fears that I think mostly have been unfounded.”

On the first vote, the Board voted the proposal down. That wouldn’t work for the neighborhood.

“Someone who was kind of an ally from the neighborhood, he thought it would be a good tactic to organize a march, basically,” Donovan said. “He got over 100 people to come out in support of permanently closing 78th Street, and they marched from the park to the Louis Armstrong School, where the Community Board meets. People with signs, showing their support.” The Board flipped, 27-9, and voted to support the plan to close the street for the whole summer.

Getting needed resources

It was a huge victory, both in the symbolism of the unprecedented amount of people who came out to support the plan, and in notching another victory for public space. But they remained an all volunteer organization with little resources to host the kind of programming that would really bring the space to life. To fully utilize the space, they’d need some money to pay for programming and events that would bring more people out to get to know their new public plaza.

"We did go after some private foundation money, and we got a little, and we got city council money as well. But both of those came with strings, things we could and things we couldn't do. That was sometimes a challenge," Donovan recalled.

Their large base of support also meant that there were lots of folks who wanted to contribute–even grateful farmers market vendors who saw big sales bumps with the new public space–, but being an all-volunteer operation sharply limited the Alliance’s options. "We were just a little too busy, and maybe not quite big enough, to hold an annual gala or something like that," he said. But the need for cash remained.

ioby ended up checking all the boxes for the Alliance. "What ioby offered was a way to generate excitement around a campaign of raising money, that was different from just saying 'Oh, just put it in our PayPal account,'" Donovan said. "It was like an event in itself, but we didn't have to have a typical event. It was about raising awareness as much as raising the money, and have an excuse to bug people and remind them that you exist and get your name in front of them."

In 2011, they crowdfunded nearly $3,500 to fund regular events that summer, and buy comfortable street furniture for the temporarily reclaimed street.

Though the closure, and expansion of the park, was temporary it was transformative. Neighbors could see the sharp difference between a vibrant public space, filled with children playing and neighbors, and a street choked with cars. A different future seemed possible.

[Opening up 78th Street to people, and closing it off to cars, created more breathing room for kids to run around and play, for the farmers market to flourish, and invited neighbors to imagine the street as a public play space–rather than a limited space for cars.]

Making change permanent

In 2012, neighbors decided that they wanted to close 78th street permanently so that neighbors could enjoy the space year round. With strong support from the community, including the Community Board, the alliance proposed a plan to permanently close 78th Street. The Department of Transportation supported the plan, and moved to designate 78th Street a permanent public plaza. Naturally, the Jackson Heights Green Alliance and its cadre of committed supporters were tapped to care for the plaza—the first to be run by a neighborhood group rather than a group of businesses.  

Learning from the success of programming the summer before, the new caretakers knew that they would need to continue to invite people into the space, which for now was still mostly just a closed off street. So they crowdfunded with ioby again to buy some sports equipment and street furniture, and to hold events, art workshops, bike clinics, and other activities to bring people out the space.

“We showed that there was a need and a desire to have this additional space by facilitating activity that may not have necessarily happened there without those efforts,” Donovan said. “That was what the ioby money really was critical for; proving to people who might have looked at it and said ‘this is just a closed piece of street, you have a park right here, what more do you want?’ It added a lot of value, that I think was really important to helping our city council member later argue for more funding and various other things.” Having a tangible thing you can see, touch, and walk around was transformative for them, just as it was for the Coliseum Coalition in Memphis and for Soulardarity in Michigan. The plaza pilot made it easier to make the case for the city to invest in the plaza and the park.

So when a plot of land adjacent to the plaza came up for sale, the community moved to grow Travers Park once more. After much prodding, and with the success of the plaza in their back pocket, the neighbors convinced the city to purchase the plot and put in motion a $7 million plan to stitch the original Travers Park, the plaza, and the new land into a brand new park. The move would nearly double the size of the old Travers Park, and transform a chunk of space previously reserved for cars into a vibrant place for people to gather.

Multiplying citizen action

Donovan is clear eyed that a project of this size probably couldn’t have just been crowdfunded into existence. “It took city money to [purchase the land], it took city policies and city efforts to close that street. But there was a lot of advocacy on our part… What we did along the way was really take a ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ mentality, and advocate hard. We advocated heavily with our community board, our city council member, our borough president, the mayor’s office, to make these changes happen.” The original play street and their crowdfunded projects helped build support, and just like the Firefly Trail in Georgia, it helped demonstrate to the city that this was a priority for the community.

In many ways, it’s a powerful demonstration of grassroots democracy; of citizens coming together, dreaming up a transformative idea, and springing into action together to make it happen.

Change was slow, and required dedication from neighbors. In all, it took about a decade to go from a plaza confined to Sunday afternoons in the summer, to closing 78th Street and doubling the size of Travers Park. But it was consistent. “There were a lot of small wins along the way,” Donovan said. “Within a couple of years, we had the street closed on weekends. Within three or four years, we had it closed for most of the summer. That went on for a few years, then we got it closed permanently. Then our city council member raised a little bit of money to do a few renovations. It evolved very slowly, but it evolved.”

Some of those small victories were also deviations from the plan. “We had a huge neighborhood Halloween party after superstorm Sandy,” Donovan said. The annual Halloween parade in Jackson Heights, the third largest parade in the city, was canceled so the city could focus on recovering from the calamitous storm. “Within eight hours, we scheduled and organized a big kind of block party on the play street, on 78th Street. People just would have stayed home, so that was a great event.” In a moment of fear and uncertainty, the event allowed neighbors to come together and comfort one another.

[Part of the renovated and expanded park opened in the Spring of 2019, marking the start of a new chapter for the alliance of neighbors.]

Growing the Park

After years of advocating and organizing, their ultimate goal is now largely within reach. Construction broke ground earlier this year on stitching the park, the street, and the adjacent plot together into a new and much larger Travers Park.

Now that construction has begun, and is set to complete this fall, they’re happy to start to wind down some of their on the ground work. “We carried this thing across the finish line and now we've given it back to the city, which was always the ultimate goal,” Donovan said.

Of course, challenges remain. Most recently, the city moved to alter their renovation plans at the last minute to allow cars to access a car-dealership through the park, even though the dealership had another entrance on another street. But the hard, and long, work of building support among a broad swath of residents have paid dividends; over 100 neighbors mobilized to protest the decision. That dispute is ongoing, but the renovation continues, with a newly completed section unveiled earlier this spring.

Even so, Donovan is proud of the positive change he and his neighbors have made in Jackson Heights. “New York is such a daunting place,” Donovan says, laughing at the cliche. “Really, anyplace is a daunting place, but it’s not impossible. You have to find your entry point. In New York, it’s your city council member, it’s your community board. Other places might be your alderman, or your mayor, or whatever. But the fact is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s how change works.”

Part of the battle, he says, is showing up and speaking up, something the Alliance did often and continues to do. “But I think that’s only half the battle,” Donovan says. “You also have to be willing to come up with your own solutions and to put some sweat into making those solutions happen.” Even if those solutions seem as out of this world as looking at a street choked with traffic, and seeing a park.

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