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Op-Ed: Harlem pedestrian safety

DEAN SCHOMBURG | 8/2/2012, 1:04 p.m.

The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) begins the rollout this week of improvements to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard after more than a year of study, meetings with Community Board 10 and input from 25 civic, commercial, residential and religious groups and organizations. The improvements will include dedicated left turn lanes to reduce excessive lane changes, extended medians to increase pedestrian safety, retimed pedestrian countdown signals that increase street crossing time to 25 seconds and wider parking lanes to provide additional safety for vehicular traffic.

There have been 12 pedestrian fatalities on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard over the past six years, seven of which were the result of vehicle collisions in the left lane.

The DOT's ponderous bureaucratic processes grind ever so slowly, and not always efficiently, but are thorough none the less. Input was solicited from a wide variety of stakeholders, and the agency's plans were consistently reconfigured in response to many community concerns. The Harlem community has always been fiercely protective of its cultural heritage, and history has proven this vigilance to be critically important in preserving Harlem's cultural ecology.

As expected, the DOT's conceptual design for Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard has not been totally embraced by all stakeholders. Some critics believe the pedestrian safety improvements somehow degrade the boulevard's historical significance and/or its integrity. I would argue that pedestrian safety is crucial to Harlem's nourishment and cultural dynamism. Absence of such safety is grossly disparaging to the area's historical legacy because access to Harlem's cultural treasures and commerce may be inhibited.

Consensus has clearly been reached by many guardians of Harlem's legacy, including the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, among others, that Harlem's legacy is in no way confounded by this belated attention to pedestrian safety.

Imagine the outburst of (righteous) indignation had the DOT not included Harlem in its pedestrian safety and mobility capital projects following implementation of similar projects at locations in Staten Island, Queens Boulevard (which led to zero pedestrian fatalities in 2011), the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway and the expansion of the congestion management system to improve traffic conditions in Midtown, among others.

I suspect that Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who knew more than a little about constructive criticism, might say "well done" in response to the improvements to his boulevard.

Dean Schomburg is a grandson of bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, founder of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.