NEW YORK - Leading up to the start of the school year, neighbors in Washington Heights are enjoying "Free Open Streets," where they can participate in family-friendly activities on three blocks that have been closed to traffic during the week. The event's host, Community League of the Heights, hopes to have a positive influence.
"Collectively, the kids are safe," said CLOTH program director Jon-Paul Dyson. "They're watching their own families. It takes a village, and this is absolutely what that is."
CLOTH hosts sports, arts and other enrichment for free for the neighborhood, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The three locations include West 159th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway, West 164th Street between St. Nicholas and Edgecombe, and Academy Street between Broadway and Vermilyea.
"It's kind of like the street all to ourselves, kind of like enclosed from Washington Heights, so it's like we have our own little space to come together and to just play games and relax," said high school student Matthew Peralta.
Peralta and other neighborhood teenagers work for CLOTH's Summer Youth Employment Program, where they learn leadership skills while gaining experience operating the food pantry on West 159th Street. At the event, SYEP participants created paper flowers to adorn the temporary trailer where they will give away groceries during upcoming renovations.
"I feel like the flowers symbolize the blooming of just diversity because every flower looks different," said SYEP participant Matthew De La Cruz. "Every flower has a different color, each symbolizing a new leaf or someone taking a step into a new place."
"To me, flowers represent unity and all of us putting them up there, it shows we can come together to make something bigger," added Peralta.
The young men want their art to remind neighbors they can grow beyond hardship towards hope.
"This is our block," Dyson emphasized. "This is our home. Stuff on the floor, let's pick it up. The kids are sitting on the stoop, let's get them active. Senior citizens home, they've been home for the pandemic two summers. Let's get them outside. Whatever we can do to get us together just to enjoy each other, it's necessary."
CLOTH will be celebrating 70 years of serving the community with a block party on West 159th Street on Aug. 17. The streets will remain open through Friday, Aug. 19.
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