En plein air: NYC aims to maintain post-virus outdoor lifestyle


As COVID-19 ravaged New York City, virus-conscious residents locked out of indoor public spaces took to the streets, sidewalks and parks. They ate alfresco with friends in restaurants hastily erected sheds and attended health classes, concerts and even therapy sessions on streets closed to traffic.

Now that the city continues on its recovery path, the pandemic could have a lasting impact on the way the city uses its streets: more space for people and less space for cars.

Though indoor dining has resumed around town — no masks or vaccination cards are required — outdoor patios set up in former park lanes have never been more plentiful.

Meanwhile, the city is expanding its Open Streets program, which closes lanes to vehicles and opens them to pedestrians.

The program’s expansion — originally intended as a way to give New Yorkers more mobility — is intended in part to increase foot traffic along struggling business corridors and offer lower-income neighborhoods similar opportunities to better-known and more affluent enclaves.

“There have been a lot of closures during COVID. There are sections of blocks where there are many, many empty storefronts, and it’s depressing,” said Maura Harway, who lives in Manhattan Upper west side. “So anything that brings people back and helps the businesses and helps the neighborhood feel alive and alive.”

The streets of New York—once places where children played stickball—were almost entirely used for vehicles in the automobile age, save for the occasional summer street festival.

But for years, some city leaders have been trying to “reinvent and repurpose how our streets are used,” said the city’s transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguez, who wants more neighborhood boardwalks for outdoor gatherings or safe places for parents to teach kids to roll blade, throw a ball or ride a bike.

“The message to all New Yorkers is that our space is their space — that our streets aren’t just owned by car owners,” said the commissioner, who oversees both the Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs.

This rethinking began before the pandemic. Former mayor two decades ago Michael Bloomberg oversaw a major expansion of bike lanes and facilitated the establishment of bike rental stations on city streets. He championed pedestrian plazas like those in Herald Square and Times Square to keep cars out of pedestrian-heavy corridors. And his administration expanded green spaces and waterfront parks, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

mayor Bill de Blasio followed the example of its predecessor and took further measures to control and slow down vehicular traffic. He also, like Bloomberg, was pushing for a system that would collect tolls to drive in much of Manhattan.

Spurred on by a traffic accident that killed a 15-year-old girl in the first few days of his tenure, the current mayor Eric Adamsvowed to continue to “reclaim space for pedestrians”.

The pandemic’s legacy may include reshaping the city’s food culture, permanently expanding it from the confines of indoor dining to al fresco dining, and adding a bit of Parisian flair to curbs.

Before the pandemic, 1,200 establishments had permission to set up tables and chairs on sidewalks. But as part of the pandemic’s open restaurants emergency program, more than 12,000 restaurants and bars have been given permission to extend service to the streets.

New York City officials and restaurateurs alike say the outdoor shacks have helped draw diners back to restaurant tables and saved the jobs of more than 100,000 workers.

Carmen Ortiz, who runs Il Violino, an Upper West Side Italian restaurant, is counting on the city’s efforts to boost foot traffic to attract more customers after many months of hardship for restaurateurs and their employees.

Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Italy where she saw many people eating in the sunlight.

“But most of those who ate al fresco ate on the sidewalks,” she said. “I didn’t even notice that they’re standing in the middle of the street like they are here.”

For now, the city’s reimagining of alfresco dining remains due to legal challenges from some community activists and residents who balk at the loss of parking — at least 8,500 spaces in a city where real estate has always been a valuable asset, whether it be for cars or other.

Critics say the sheds have attracted bugs and too many noisy patrons late into the night — perhaps a sign of recovery for some, but a nuisance for others.

“We now have the restaurants on the streets and on the sidewalks,” said Judith Burnett, whose apartment windows face Columbus Avenue, in a restaurant-lined area that will soon be closed to traffic again on Sundays.

While she called the initial move of helping restaurants a “brilliant way to help people save their businesses,” she’s now ambivalent about whether it should stay that way. She doesn’t want traffic to be permanently slowed down, including the buses she rides.

“It involved so much traffic,” Burnett said.

City officials say they took these complaints into account when developing new standards.

“Of all the downfall and gloom of the pandemic, one of the bright spots is that it has allowed us to rethink our relationship with public spaces – and that’s everything from open restaurants to open streets,” said Andrew Rigie, managing director by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, the trade group for pubs and restaurants.

He called alfresco dining a “natural progression” accelerated by necessity, allowing New Yorkers “to enjoy the city in ways they might not have done before the pandemic.”

Harway, the resident of the Upper West Side, also called it progress.

“Before the pandemic, I was never particularly fond of street food in New York. It seemed noisy or dirty,” she said. “Now that everyone is eating outdoors in all the restaurants, it’s more integrated into the life of the city – maybe it’s like Paris or Madrid.” En plein air: NYC aims to maintain post-virus outdoor lifestyle

Bobby Allyn

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