By Jane Heil Usyk
We have fond memories of the pop-up park that was on Sullivan Street for a few years. We waited every April for the park’s sponsor to take it out of his basement in big pieces and set it up. He had gone through a lot to get permission to put it up every year in the spring and take it down and store it every winter in November; he had to go to board meetings and argue as to its value every year. The car owners didn’t like it because it took up one-and-a-half parking spaces; the traditionalists didn’t like it because it invited all kinds of people—even the homeless—to sit on it all day and relax.
But we loved it; it provided an opportunity to chat with the neighbors at length. Some of those neighbors turned out to be Hollywood stars like John Leguizamo and Daniel Day-Lewis, and actresses like Famke Janssen and Jane Lynch. Others were neighborhood residents we had seen on the street for years. They had interests, lives, professions, dogs. We got to know them because of the park.
My husband had a stroke in 2011. When he got home from rehab I was working and unable to care for him, so he staggered over to Sullivan Street and sat in the pop-up park for several hours a day. This gave him access to passersby, conversation, people to communicate with, and their dogs. In this way he knitted up the synapses in his brain and returned to the neighborhood.
The pop-up park on Sullivan Street isn’t there any longer. But now, on Thompson Street just above Houston Street, there is another pop-up park. It is already making a very neighborly and friendly impression, with smallish tables and chairs, dogs, people, a good feeling. It has many plants all around it, and is generally quite pleasant. In good weather people are there from morning until about five in the afternoon, chatting, relaxing, reading, checking their phones, and enjoying themselves. One woman recently set up her computer on one of the park’s tables.
Chris Taha is responsible for the park being on Thompson Street. He was a surfer in Southern California, has lived on Thompson Street for 10 years, and opened Summers, a sort of surf shack in the city, in 2015. He imagined it as a meeting place for neighbors to meet neighbors, fostering community. The addition of the park certainly encourages that.
The idea for Summers was conceived while Chris was on a surfing trip with pals in Nicaragua. The idea was to serve simple, healthful foods they liked, such as smoothies, coffees, sandwiches, and tacos, all with a Southern California twist. The pop-up park on Sullivan Street inspired him. He told me, “The program, called Street Seats, is a DOT [Dept. of Transportation] sponsored activation to promote more public open space in New York City. The process is quite simple, as long as you have the support of your neighbors.”
First, an organization such as a restaurant or school applies to the DOT for the park. If the DOT approves the location and the situation (clear of hydrants, bus stops, and other streetside necessities), the future park has to get community board approval. Then it is installed in about a six-foot by 20-foot space on a not-too-heavily-traveled street. It can be up from March to November; then it must be deinstalled for the winter.
On a recent weekday, two musicians entertained passersby at the park; they were Bob Saidenberg and Kat Minogue. Bob has lived on Thompson Street for 35 years, has a music studio nearby, and gets many of his meals at Summers. There are more concerts planned.
With the addition of the pop-up park, more life is coming to Thompson Street, and more opportunities for interactions with one’s neighbors and friends. In a small way, the parks are a counter-effect of the loss of most of our local diners, which have not been able to withstand the increase in rents of recent years.