In 40th Year, Queens Festival Is Cancelled Due to COVID-19

Crowds packed Jamaica Avenue during the 2013 Wonderful Woodhaven Street Festival. (Photo provided by the Woodhaven Cultural And Historical Society)

By Yasmeen Persaud | Nov. 25, 2020

The cancellation of this year’s Wonderful Woodhaven Street Fair, one of the biggest community events in central Queens, was a further blow to residents and business owners who last spring found themselves in the epicenter of New York City’s devastating, first-wave COVID-19 outbreak. 

“It wouldn’t be worth taking a chance having that many people gathering,” Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society and former president of the Woodhaven Block Association, said of the decision to call off the fall event.  

The 12-block-long festival on Jamaica Avenue had grown in popularity over its 40-year history, attracting thousands of city residents to its rich array of food stands, arts and crafts, amusement rides and live musical performances. This year, the street fair became a pipe dream. 

“Obviously, it was painful, painful for us, painful for the businesses because the street fair attracts thousands of people, and now more than ever we need foot traffic on the avenue,” said Raquel Olivares, the executive director of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District.

The cancellation of the Wonderful Woodhaven Street Fair came amid growing concern over a resurgence of the coronavirus, prompting the state to launch a COVID-19 tracker system that determines zones within neighborhoods based on rates of infection. Woodhaven is categorized as a yellow zone, which brings with it additional social distancing rules, and holding a large event such as the street fair would have posed a risk to the community.

Olivares attributed the cancellation of the fair to bureaucratic restrictions imposed by the city. 

“We don’t have a choice anyway, the city has permits for that,” Olivares said. “We have to submit a permit for DOT (Department of Transportation) and every year, DOT has to approve permits for the event and it’s not that they decided not to do it, it’s just that they didn’t have a choice.”

As the current president of the Woodhaven Block Association and resident of Woodhaven for over 40 years, Steven Forte said the cancellation of the annual event was difficult for many community leaders and members. 

 “It’s a tradition in Woodhaven that we had to forgo this year,” Forte said. “The governor seems to want to shut down everything, but it has a psychological effect on the community, people are sad.”  

In previous years, in the weeks leading up to the annual October event, flyers would appear around the neighborhood urging  residents to attend and advertising the opportunities for vendors, artists and community members to participate in this celebration of the rich culture of Queens, known as the “world’s borough” for the diversity of its residents. 

Wendell remembers the early years of the festival, which began in 1980.

A flyer promoting the second Wonderful Woodhaven Street Fair promises dancing and delicious food. (Photo provided by The Woodhaven Cultural And Historical Society)

“I was a teenager back then and it was a tiny event you weren’t really excited about, and after a couple of years, it became something that everyone was looking forward to,” Wendell said, describing his experience in the 80s. 

The annual street fair would prove to be important for the economy of the area, even if some residents felt annoyed by the street fair’s annual appearance for the disruptions it brought to commercial life along Jamaica Avenue. However, the community grew accustomed to the event that offered a chance to experience a day with food vendors, outside performances and a chance to gather happily.

“There was significant neighborhood opposition to it because it really shut down half the neighborhood, you know the big big long section, you’re closing Jamaica Avenue, you’re disrupting transit and traffic, and you’re disrupting businesses,” Wendell said. “Over time, opposition just decreased because it was very popular, I mean everyone loved it.”

In 2020, the fair would have been a welcome boost to local businesses, which have struggled under the pandemic lockdown earlier this year and continued social distancing rules.

Data released by NYC OpenData shows that foot traffic alongside Jamaica Avenue was already declining before the pandemic. Bi-annual pedestrian counts from May 2018 to September 2018 during morning hours reveals a decline of almost 1,000 residents, according to the data. 

Woodhaven, seen here in a November 2019 photo, is located in central Queens, an area that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Yasmeen Persaud)

 In an email interview, singer and songwriter Mary Lamont shared her memories of  performing at the annual festival with her band. 

“Woodhaven is such a wonderfully diverse community who all join together to make the street fair a truly fabulous tradition – and we loved the Woodhaven audience,” Lamont said. “We were honored to be a part of it for many years. And so happy to share the festivities with local performers,” adding that the Chinese dragon dance troupe was always a crowd favorite. 

Lamont also credited Woodhaven’s history to the late Maria Thomson, a prominent Woodhaven community activist who founded Woodhaven’s BID in 1993. Thomson also served as the executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation, according to a 2018 article in the Queens Ledger. 

The Woodhaven BID, Cultural and Historical Society and Block Association members have participated in the street fair annually, but the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation is responsible for its creation and organization. 

Multiple attempts to reach the corporation for comment on the cancellation of the fair were not answered. There is hope that the event will be launched again next year although many in the community are concerned about when life in Woodhaven would return to normal.

“Like so many traditions this year, I’m sure Woodhaven missed having its beloved fall celebration. But I’m sure next year will be twice as special,” Lamont said.