The purpose of the Open Streets initiative is to temporarily closes streets to automobiles so that people may use them for healthy and fun physical activities like walking, jogging, biking, and dancing.
As a kid, riding my bike through the empty streets captured a feeling of freedom that I remember fondly – jealously – until this day. Closing my eyes, I remember my little feet pedaling, looking back over my shoulder as friends flew towards me, embracing the complete surrender to the wind, the moment. Instances like that are few and far between as we’ve grown up to sink into office chairs and couches, eyes on the stack of bills instead of on the shifting horizon. We pedal mostly in place under the fluorescent lighting of a gym.
Imagine if just for one day, the feeling of owning the streets could sweep you away again? The dream will materialize on September 21st when Open Streets kicks off its series of adventures in Columbus.
“We’ve been planning this for three years,” said coordinator Jess Mathews. “Pushing that rock up the mountain…since no one had ever heard of it, it was hard to find funding.”
Open Streets is a worldwide movement to take a breather from cars and turn the streets into a social mixer. In Columbus, on that Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 0.8 miles of Rich Street will be temporarily closed to autos. This first “installment” will coincide with the inaugural Franklinton presentation of Independents Day.
“I believe in [this event] so much and am so passionate about it,” said Matthews. “I was at an event in Los Angeles and I had tears in my eyes. Six miles of Wilshire Boulevard was closed down and over 100,000 people were there …it was incredible.”
“There was a different feeling,” she continued. “There was no stress – it was like looking at the street through a new lens; it was humanizing. You got to meet people and explore businesses you’d never seen. Usually, you’re so focused on what drivers are doing.”
An avid cyclist for years, Matthews believes in the power of the bike to create connections. “I met my best friend on a bike 23 years ago,” she recalled. “You think you know a city, but there’s nothing like exploring on a bike.” To this end, Mathews also runs the 2 Wheels and Heels monthly women’s bike ride. “It’s super social, all ages, abilities, and body types – the rides are 10 miles or less, we leave no woman behind.”
Just like back in the day, when people chatted on the street and used it as an informal gathering place, Open Streets encourages such socializing. There is a heavy focus on families, with OpenHeart Creatures making an appearance, as well as life-sized Jenga and Twister activities. Cyclists can jump off their bikes and keep the physical going with yoga stations and badminton nets.
After three years of getting nowhere, sponsors started poking around with interest. “This year, people started giving us money – New Belgium, Jeni’s – they get it,” she said. “They get the vision, they get taking risks on new projects.”
Now that Open Streets Installment 1 is good to go, Matthews is excitedly thinking about the future. ‘It benefits the community and that’s what continues to push me,” she said. “It’s about sustaining physical activities and the broader encouragement and acceptance of multi-modal transportation.”
On the cusp of her dream coming true, Matthews admits that the whole thing is kind of surreal. “I also get to go to bed at night with this high of accomplishment,” she said. “We’ve only just started.”
Open Streets takes place Sunday, September 21st, in conjunction with Independents Day in Franklinton. For information, including volunteer opportunities, visit www.openstreetscolumbus.org or like them on Facebook.