I remember being in New York in the summer of 1999, a couple of years before I moved here. My friend was put off by the smell in the summer in the city, the rancid stink. He was complaining about the filth, the heaps of trash on the sidewalk, presumably the night before the garbagemen were to arrive to take it away.
I’ve never fully understood that method of trash collection- putting it out front once or twice a week, but in a city with few alleyways, I guess this is what developed. I’m not sure it’s ever perfect, but sanitation collection in NYC is, well, not awesome.
All of this is to say that as my friend complained, I realized that it didn’t even occur to me to be bothered. I was simply in awe of the place, the energy, the passion, the manic insanity, people with purpose, way to much to take in to even notice that which he was pointing out. And twenty years later, I’m still here.
If you live in New York City, you have to have a certain amount of willful blindness. When you watch a movie, they call it “suspension of disbelief.” In the city, they call it stepping over trash, ignoring the smells, pizza-eating rats, guys wearing COVID masks and no pants. Come on, son, nothing to see here. It’s not manicured, it’s the authentic explosion of life adding one layer on top of the next.
While there is always a certain amount to which you grow inured to, there are other things you know you don’t like and cannot ignore, a short list in my case- and those things I’ve just endured.
One of the latter items is parked cars. I owned a car years ago when I first moved to Park Slope from Boston- and truth be told, I’m not sure that I won’t own one again, perhaps sooner rather than later given that my kids don’t all fit in the normal rental cars anymore. But let’s face it, driving in the city is annoying. Finding parking when you have to is even more so. And looking at lines of parked cars is not the same as watching a movie set in the 1950’s. Cars are generally not attractive. You don’t usually see rows of Lamborghinis parked along the avenue. Though, I actually saw one parked up near Columbia University on the street for weeks back in May- some foreign student perhaps who had left town and forgot about their car on the street? We can imagine a whole backstory…
I am actively thinking about this because we have spent a summer with the most wonderful experience of outdoor cafes outside of nearly any restaurant which chose to try and and make a go of things today. Makeshift outdoor platforms, underneath tailgating tents, strapped together with plastic binds, set up in the parking spaces outside of their normal entrances. Stood-up plastic dividers, scrambling waiters, a variety of ideas how to serve patrons, planters, thrown-together furnishings, experimentation.
To walk along, to see people out, engaging, eating, spending time safely outside, is inspiring. To see streetlife happening. To watch business owners trying on new things, sorting out how to make money, to excite people, to reinvigorate, to rekindle the pilot light of New York. It’s fantastic!
For forever, you would see restaurants put out a copy of their application to have a sidewalk cafe, and I’m sure the regulations around it have been substantial. Any restaurant owners can give you the sob story. I know the liquor license process is arduous.
And now, the proliferation is immense. It’s not really the sidewalk. It’s about eating the parking spaces. It’s at a time when, eventually, city dwellers will go back to taxis, ubers, lyfts, Via’s, non-personal car use. Can this genie be put back in the bottle? Can we again tolerate just letting hunks of metal hang out along every street?
We’ve been closing stretches of avenues and sidestreets to enable people to get out and keep their distance, while still being outside. I’m not sure this is sustainable forever, though I’ve gushed in the past about summer programs like Summer Streets along Park Avenue all the way to Brooklyn Bridge.
Glimpses like these of a future with fewer cars, along with this new innovation of use of parking spaces for outdoor dining. It brings me a ton of joy. I cannot envision this not happening again in the Spring, when the weather improves. Months of outdoor dining. Months of restaurant expansion. After a time of contraction, when the state required these businesses to be closed, it seems only reasonable to give them opportunity to be open in and out, to maximize their kitchens and profits, once this flare-up of pandemic is past.
Is there a huge contingent who would prefer the parking just go back to normal? Once people fully return to the city, is having 20-30% of our streetscape given to retail and active use going to be more fully considered? I mean, I have a guy on my street who has a throwback boat of an American car. I’m quite sure there will still be plenty of parking on side streets. Geez- we’re only talking about the Avenues and major cross streets, aren’t we?
Can we really just plug back into the old paradigm of lines of hunks of metal? I’m not a crazy bike advocate, but surely the current system of street parking seems utterly antiquated.
How much cleaner could the streets be if each retailer had to keep his or her area really tidy, as a part of the compact of using these areas outside their establishments? How much fun would it be to see innovation in terms of new outdoor design, companies to bring in gorgeous tenting, weather-proof seating, windproof tablecloths, and eating outside- truly conspicuous consumption- became the norm. Or retail were able to create actually-interesting street-fair-like experiences, as opposed to the idiotic spring/summer Street Fairs we now have to tolerate? Street Fairs selling incense, socks, and perfume, not to mention funnel cakes and other disgusting street food- can we replace this old awfulness with the new, dynamic?
Pop up street kiosks! Food trucks in Manhattan! More experimentation. So much space to use.
I always think of the fun of booths and tables lining Locust Walk, the pedestrian only thoroughfare at Penn, where I attended college. It was the artery, and the lifeblood of the campus, lined with beautiful campus buildings, fraternity and sorority houses, and trees- when you could run into friends, focus on the people, and enjoy the spontaneity of engagement. At one time, it was a street, a car-filled distraction.
They say that New York is the city that never sleeps. But at any given time, you have 20-30% of the visible taken up by a scourge of parked cars, sleeping, awaiting further instruction from their owners. It just won’t do anymore.
Let’s keep this innovation going, let’s see what can be done to make New York City a more dynamic streetscape- it starts, it restarts, with getting these cafes going more permanently outside for at least 6 months a year. And then we can see where it goes! -S