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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.