By George Capsis
Just a few feet from where I am keying this at 69 Charles Street, a very young Sinclair Lewis and his roommate (brother of poet Stephen Vincent Benét) would walk to the exit door on many Sunday mornings on their way to the outdoor cafe at the famed historic Brevoort Hotel at 11th Street and Fifth Avenue. Legend has it that, to save money, they would combine breakfast and lunch, which Lewis, in a flash of creativity, named “brunch.”
When New York City planners configured building lots and streets in 1811, they only allowed for narrow pedestrian sidewalks. They did not plan for the accommodation of outdoor street cafés like those in Paris. I can only remember two such cafés in Manhattan during my youth—one was the at the Brevoort and the other at a hotel facing Central Park on West 59th Street.
Cosmopolitan Mayor John V. Lindsay passed legislation encouraging outdoor cafés, but, unfortunately, we only had the narrow sidewalks our city planners had left us with. Currently, we have restaurant shacks, made of various materials, occupying the spaces that parked cars used to. They were placed there to help restaurants that were forced to close during the more restrictive period of the pandemic. Now that the restaurants have been allowed to reopen, the big question is, “Should we make this permanent?”
As COVID-19 wanes, should the shacks go too? Brian Pape, our architectural editor, reported that so intense is the feeling against them that, for the first time, he heard indecorous language at the community board meeting.
But how attractive are the tens of thousands of parked cars that form permanent walls of steel around every street? Living in the city requires compromise—there is only the question of which compromises you want and can afford to make.
When Central Park was created, rich people ringed it with dwellings and rode their carriages in it. Now, should we take back the miles and miles of street space, on which the thousands and thousands of cars are parked, and convert it for different human uses?
People go to Paris and spend a good amount of their time sitting in outdoor cafés watching people walk by. And West Village tourists do the same; our new outdoor cafés are well-constructed shacks (wrapped in plastic or not).
Yes, let us have outdoor dining where we have had cars parked— but no shacks that invite graffiti.