Amid the Pandemic, Neighbors Bonded and a Block Association Was Born; You Can Do It Too

The West 111th Block Association.

By Lisa Kava

Often, the Upper West Side can feel like a small town within a large city. And there are certain blocks within the Upper West Side that seem to resemble even smaller villages.

West 111th Street has turned into such a place over the past year with the creation of the West 111th Block Association. Dedicated leaders Dan McSweeney and Gretchen Connelie, along with a robust group of volunteers, have spearheaded a variety of events they say have brought community spirit to the neighborhood during a difficult time.

McSweeney was motivated to take action after he attended a talk about block associations through the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group last February. “They said any block association must meet a practical need.” McSweeney noted that there had not been an active block association on the street for decades. “After the Tessa Majors tragedy last December, I wanted to see if we could organize and begin addressing community concerns.”

McSweeney posted flyers to gauge interest. His initial goal was “to gather a group of people committed to making the block clean, safe and livable.” With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, McSweeney felt an increased sense of need and urgency “to provide an outlet for the community and do what we could to help neighbors.”

McSweeney’s idea resonated with another resident of West 111th Street, Gretchen Connelie. After spotting one of his flyers, she reached out and joined forces with him. Together they launched the West 111th Block Association, covering West 111th Street between Riverside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue. The first meeting was held in April, 2020, via Zoom, followed by an in-person meeting in July. The group currently has an active planning committee of eleven and a mailing list of 500.

Association members work diligently to plan events that benefit residents and local businesses.

Dan McSweeney and Gretchen Connelie. Photograph by Allie Pitchon.

For the kick-off event in September — “Taste of West 111th Street” — McSweeney and Connelie set up a table in front of the “West 111th Street People’s Garden,” a square of greenery with plants and flowers on the northwest corner of Amsterdam and W. 111th Street, maintained by community volunteers. “Passports” were printed and sold for $10 each, and could be stamped at participating restaurants in exchange for a small tasting of food. Fifteen restaurants participated, including Mel’s Burger Bar, Hungarian Pastry Shop, Le Monde, and V&T Pizzeria. The proceeds were divided among the restaurants. “Not only was this a festive event for the neighborhood, but we are confident that the restaurants received more business as a result.” McSweeney said.

Open Streets.

The block association next joined the Open Streets Program. They applied for a permit to close Amsterdam Avenue between W. 110th and 111th Streets to traffic on weekends. The application was approved and the area remains open for pedestrians between 10:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It is used for “dining, strolls, and chalk art,” said Connelie, and the  association hopes to add socially distant yoga classes, history talks and possibly even movie nights this spring.

In partnership with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Amsterdam between W. 110th and 111th Streets), the block association next organized a Halloween party for neighborhood children, featuring “COVID-safe” trick or treating on the cathedral’s grounds.

A holiday celebration and tribute.

To mark the holiday season, McSweeney and Connelie organized a celebration called “Light up the Block,” featuring live jazz and hot apple cider, provided by the People’s Garden. Volunteers placed solar-powered string lights on the utility poles along Amsterdam Avenue, and a number of buildings strung lights, too.

The block association presented three “Good Neighbor Awards.” One went to Lisa Greenwald, a public high school teacher for her work benefitting women and children at a nearby shelter. The others went to the West 111th Street People’s Garden “for its invaluable role in the neighborhood as a place of sanctuary for local residents,” and to Famous Famiglia Pizza for keeping their sidewalk spotless, McSweeney said.

“The Block Association has forged a real sense of community among the neighborhood residents,” said Crystal Garcia, who has lived on the block for 35 years, and found socializing with neighbors difficult during the pandemic. “The association has been a success at making that possible.”

McSweeney and Greenwald are enthusiastic about future plans, which they say include smaller monthly activities and larger quarterly events. A plan to repair and paint the iron fence around the People’s Garden is in the works. Connelie dreams of implementing a “turkey trot” on Thanksgiving. “We strive to combine COVID-19 safe socializing with real community impacts,” said McSweeney.

The West 111th Street Block Association can be found on Instagram at @W111thblockassociation, and reached at w111thblockassociation@gmail.com.

FOOD, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 16 comments | permalink
    1. js says:

      While it is really nice to hear about neighbors coming together, it must be noted that the closure of Amsterdam Avenue for Open Streets has meant detour of the M7 and M11 buses.
      This is a significant problem for bus riders, especially elderly, disabled, with smalll kids and those needing to get to/from Mt. Sinai/St. Luke’s.

      Please – no nasty comments if you think differently, if you are not concerned about bus transportation….
      polite disagreement works best.

      • Jay says:

        The detour was a small issue. The open street was a benefit that gave positive benefits to the entire neighborhood.

      • Juan says:

        I agree with js. This group sounds like a very nice organization and I commend their efforts. But why do they need to close a street to congregate, especially a street with a bus route. There is plenty of space in front of the Cathedral for them to gather. Or close a sector of 111th so it is less disruptive.

        This trend of normalizing street closures is not good. And no, this is not the same as closing a block once a year for a street fair, so please don’t compare the two.

        • lynn says:

          I agree, it would make more sense to close a street as opposed to an avenue. Any particular reason this wasn’t done? Just curious.

          • MaryC says:

            The Amsterdam avenue was closed because that’s where the restaurants are, not on 111th street. This was set up for open streets for restaurants, but the block has just added other activities because it’s closed off anyway

            • lynn says:

              Mary, thanks for the reply. It sounds like a great neighborhood. I’m near 72 and B’way, which is overwhelmingly congested, so I can’t envision it ever happening here.

            • Iris says:

              Lynn I too am in your area a few blocks south and i agree it’s too congested ( an all together different conversation, ” have we learned anything from this pandemic in how to build cities), but I agree it would be nice to have that community sense in our neighbor. It’s been extremely difficult to meet people during this pandemic.

      • Iris says:

        JS I wish everyone had your manners on this site. What you wrote at the end is exactly how we should reply and be respectful. This site has gotten as has Nextdoor too vitriolic at times.

    2. Erika says:

      So nice to hear. I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but it is near and dear to my heart because I worked on 112th from 1997-COVID.

    3. Lrahip says:

      They are really a great beacon of hope and community for our neighborhood. In these times, it is so wonderful to see people getting together, helping one another and working toward different projects that assist everyone.My hat is off to all of the active folks who are involved.

    4. Thanks to West Side Rag for covering our activities. This is about engaging with neighbors and providing support and a greater sense of community, though our neighbors demonstrate these values on their own every day.

      Also, thanks to the people who have commented on the Open Streets program. I hear your points. To clarify, ours is a one-block extension of the program that already existed south of us. It is intended to support the businesses on Amsterdam Avenue by allowing for additional seating on weekends and it has had a very positive impact in this regard. To be able to use Amsterdam Avenue for community activities on Saturdays and Sundays is an added bonus.

      We value community input. Actually, we depend on it, so if you have a few minutes and live in the area, would you consider participating in our short online survey? It is here:

      https://tinyurl.com/w111th

      I’m one of many committed neighbors on 111th and all around us. I’m proud of Morningside Heights, the broader Upper West Side, and NYC at large. We are showing our resilience and commitment to helping our neighbors during these challenging times.

      Again, thank you.

    5. Douglas Lavin says:

      I loved seeing hundreds of people use Amsterdam as a public space. For example, when the block association had that Halloween event they had chalk drawing and contests on Amsterdam. Lots of people love sitting in front of the Hungarian Pastry Shop and V&Ts on Amsterdam when the weather was nice. It is a real benefit to the neighborhood to have more open space but I am sorry it caused some bus route difficulty. Is it possible to use the Broadway buses

    6. Ian Alterman says:

      As a co-founder of one of the oldest block associations in the City, and the first to incorporate as a not-for-profit, I applaud West 111th Street for its community-mindedness. And it really is all about “community.” That these wonderful people have dedicated a potion of their time to civic pursuits is a welcome development. Thank you 111th Street and Godspeed!

    7. Lisa Greenwald says:

      One of the lessons here is that anyone–YOU–can build a community organization or event. Take a good idea, gather some neighbors, and thrill to see how many people jump in with you to make it happen. Then do the next thing…and the next. It’s good for each one of us and good for the community as a whole. I started with a small idea of serving my shelter neighbors. I now have over 100 participants in a weekly project. Amazing.

    8. WishingEveryoneWell says:

      Nice to see community. Closed streets is fine on weekend but last year when streets were closed full time it was hard for sick folks to get to doctor. My friend with cancer was not strong enough to walk to corner for a ride to chemo when cabs/Uber/etc could not drive down the street. Congrats to 111th Street and keep up the good spirit!

    9. Citygirl says:

      Amazing!!! I would love to join you…. sounds like a wonderful block to live. Maybe I can start something similar on my block after I retire next year. Thanks for the idea!