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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
That’s the motto pedestrian traffic manager Patti Rodriguez, a retired Police Department detective from New Hyde Park, Long Island, repeats in her head before commencing her afternoon shift every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the intersection of Varick and Spring Streets in Hudson Square.
Rodriguez is one of five pedestrian traffic managers that work for Sam Schwartz Engineering, the firm contracted by the Hudson Square Connection (the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District) to monitor traffic along Varick Street since mid-August.
It became clear that there was a need for supplemental traffic management when S.S.E. reported frequent blockage of the street’s crosswalks in July, according to the B.I.D.’s president, Ellen Baer.
“For all of us who work down here, if you try to cross Varick Street between 4 and 7 p.m., you have to kind of go out around the cars and out into traffic,” said Baer. “We’ve observed just from being there that it puts a lot of people in a potentially dangerous situation.”
Hudson Square pedestrians ranging from foreigners to the visually impaired have come to depend on Rodriguez to get them across the intersection safely. Once the clock strikes 4:30 p.m., it’s indeed a “dead-on traffic jam” at Varick and Spring Streets, according to Rodriguez, who starts her shift at 3. The bottleneck continues up to 7 p.m. — particularly on Thursdays and Fridays, Rodriguez said, when the intersection becomes heavily congested with commuters headed to their weekend destinations. The intersection has become even more clogged since the fall, when many returned from vacation and resumed their daily work commutes.
Rodriguez believes the traffic will only get worse around the holiday season.
Policing the intersection is a different type of beast from Route 9A, Rodriguez’s other post, where traffic was more streamlined to begin with, she said.
“At first, it was like New Year’s in Times Square, with everyone blowing their horns,” Rodriguez said of the Varick Street intersection.
The car drivers have since grown accustomed to Rodriguez and have even started to rely on her to avoid the early evening gridlock.
“Now, we don’t even have to stop them a lot of times, ‘cause they know already we’re going to stop them,” said Rodriguez.
One of her main tasks while on duty, Rodriguez explained, is to regulate the passage of cars traveling southbound on Varick Street that are en route to the Holland Tunnel.
“When the [traffic] light changes, those cars are turning [right onto Varick Street] regardless of people crossing the street,” said Rodriguez. “So my job is to stop the cars completely and let the pedestrians cross.”
Rodriguez also prevents cars traveling on one of Varick’s three eastern lanes to cut into the line of traffic headed toward the tunnel. To keep the “creepers,” as Rodriguez calls them, from causing accidents, she motions them to continue along Varick Street.
“People come with all types of excuses [to get to the tunnel as quickly as possible],” said Rodriguez. “My favorite is, ‘I have to make it to the airport in 15 minutes,’ and I think, ‘you couldn’t get to the airport anyway, then!’”
Nine times out of ten, the drivers obey Rodriguez and head to the next intersection without giving her a hard time. On occasion, however, an angry driver curses at her — to which she replies, “Have a good day.”
“I just let them vent,” Rodriguez said. “As a former detective, nothing you can possibly tell me is going to faze me.”
As for the regulars, Rodriguez has become a familiar, welcome face in the neighborhood. Drivers who regularly pass by the intersection purposely switch lanes to strike up a conversation with Rodriguez as they wait at the light. Some neighborhood pedestrians call her by her first name, including visitors of the nearby VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (at 500 Greenwich St.), who Rodriguez pays special attention to as they traverse the road.
“I’ll come up to them and I’ll say, ‘I got you’ — I’ll loop their arm around mine, and we’ll cross,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t know how they did it on their own prior.”
Even the neighborhood dogs have begun to recognize her.
“When they see us, they pull on the leash, wanting to come in our direction,” said Rodriguez.
The experienced traffic manager will respond to brazen jaywalkers by letting them know that they’re crossing at their own risk. She tries her best, though, to have them stay put until it’s safe to cross the intersection.
“I try to hold them back, ‘cause otherwise everyone else will follow, and those people will end up getting hit,” said Rodriguez.
After her shift and “the madness is over,” Rodriguez heads home to spend some quality time with her wife and 16-year-old daughter.
“We have dinner and just sit down and chat about the day… that’s how we end our evening,” said Rodriguez. “Then we wake up early in the morning to start all over again.”