The following is a guest post by AFC Senior Folklife Specialist Nancy Groce.
Adaptation. New Yorkers are nothing if not adaptable – and creative. Both traits are essential for surviving and flourishing in one of the world’s busiest and most complex cities. The Covid-19 pandemic has only added to the challenges and complexity of New York City life. Much has and will be written on how New Yorkers are responding to the pandemic, but in this blog, I want to draw attention to one facet of New York’s response that has attracted my attention as a folklorist: the sudden appearance and flowering of thousands of increasingly elaborate outdoor dining sheds that are being constructed throughout the five boroughs by New York restaurateurs.
I think of these outdoor seating areas as a form of “pandemic folk architecture.” Over the past year, as these structures have sprung up on New York streets and sidewalks, I have been documenting some of the more notable and elaborate examples because I think they are interesting grass-roots responses to the current historical moment. Like the migrant camps of the Great Depression, their existence might be fleeting, but their presence is just the sort of individual and community-based cultural expression that contemporary folklorists should be documenting for our national record.
Dining sheds first appeared when New York restaurateurs, reacting to official pandemic mandates eliminating or severely restricting indoor dining, scrambled to provide outdoor seating for their patrons that would meet health requirements and also serve as a financial lifelines for their financially traumatized businesses. As a folklorist, I was fascinated how, in a few short months, these outdoor seating areas evolved from basic pop-up tents containing a few rickety tables and chairs separated by unappealing Plexiglas dividers into increasing attractive and elaborate additions to the urban landscape. Typically designed and constructed by restaurant owners, their families and friends, the sheds usually reflected their owners’ ethnicity, cuisines, aesthetics, interests, and eccentricities.
This blog is very much about research in progress. To date, almost 12,000 dining sheds have been constructed throughout the City. Depending on what happens with the pandemic, the sheds might be a transitory phenomenon. Undoubtedly, they will be more tightly regulated in the future. So before that happens, and while these architectural expressions are still evolving, in spring/summer 2021, on behalf of the American Folklife Center and with the help of documentary photographer Tom Pich and the advice of City Lore’s Steve Zeitlin, I set out to document what was taking place with these grass-roots designed and locally-built structures on the sidewalks of New York.
What to Call Them?
These structures are such a new addition to the city’s streetscape that they have yet to acquire a universally accepted name. When the initial pandemic lockdown was issued by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 7, 2020, the restaurant industry was particularly hard hit. At the height of the Covid lockdown, the New York City Restaurant Alliance estimated that roughly 5,000 NYC restaurants had closed and 140,000 food-related jobs had been lost. Take-out meals, which always had been a popular option, especially at less expensive ethnic eateries, became a universal requisite.
Several months later, on June 6, 2020, there was general rejoicing when the Governor relaxed the lockdown and allowed New York restaurants to “serve patrons food or beverage on-premises in outdoor space, subject to guidelines.” This was followed a few days later by New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Emergency Executive Order No. 126, which established the Open Restaurants Program (a.k.a. “Open Dining”). Designed to help financially-strapped restaurants by encouraging them to set up outdoor seating areas for their patrons, it suspended or relaxed many of the City’s notoriously strict health and safety regulations. Since most of these outdoors structures would be located on city sidewalks and roadways, the Department of Transportation (DOT) was put in charge.
Over next the 18 months, the number and diversity of approaches to what is variously referred to as “outdoor dining,” “outdoor seating” or “sidewalk seating” created by New York restaurants has been impressive. The most common terms used to describe Open Dining structures include “dining sheds” and the more general phrase “outdoor dining,” although some people have humorously suggested “Covid casitas” (little houses) and “Covid cabanas.” And, in a city with a large Jewish population, many people think of them as “sidewalk sukkah” (pl. sukkot), referencing the lightly-constructed temporary booths that some Jewish New Yorkers construct on fire escapes, backyards, and apartment roofs to celebrate the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. Personally, when making reservations, I simply ask, “Do you have any place outside?”
City Regulations Meet Folk Creativity
In June 2020, following the Mayor’s announcement, the Department of Transportation (DOT) quickly posted the regulations and rules governing Open Dining on its website.
Most of them were very reasonable: outdoor structures could be built “on the sidewalk adjacent and curbside roadway space immediately in front” of one’s business, and should be “no wider than the restaurant” and no taller than the restaurant’s ground floor. To ensure that diners were safe, structures built adjacent to traffic had to include barriers 30-36 inches in height and 18 inches in width, the interiors of which had to be “completely filled with soil or sand.” For further protection, commercial water-filled Jersey barriers had to be added on the side facing on-coming traffic. (Like the sand and soil, the Jersey barriers are provided free-of-charge by the City.)
Dining areas had to leave 8 feet of sidewalk space free for pedestrian traffic; be located 8 feet from street crossings; and tables or chairs could not be set up in bus stops. Reflective tape had to be applied to the sides of sheds, and “snow wands” attached to the corners so plows wouldn’t ram into buried sheds in a snowstorm. Additionally, street fixtures like fire hydrants; trees; parking signs; and telephone booths–(yes, there are still a few around!)–had to be accessible, visible, and not damaged or moved; and heaters and lights had to comply with NYFD regulations. (These regulations remain in place; however, they are not always strictly enforced and it is not unknown for restaurants to test boundaries.)
To get the word out, NYC’s DOT produced a downloadable NYC Open Restaurants Brochure (available in English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Urdu) and uploaded a rather charming video of one of its employees, Chris, explaining how things would work outside a Brooklyn restaurant in a deep New York accent.
Having cracked open the regulatory door, New York’s restaurateurs enthusiastically ventured outside. Within weeks, chairs, tables, and commercial pop-up tents began to appear on New York streets. As the weather grew colder in fall/winter 2020/2021 and restaurateurs scrambled to salvage their businesses, some owners invested in small commercially available plastic “bubble” pods. Others began to construct basic plywood sheds with plastic or Plexiglas windows and all-important heaters. (Actually, given the lack of airflow in these early sheds, unless you were dining with your immediate family it was unclear why these structures were safer than staying home.) Although many of these initial structures were functional and did attract some diners willing to brave the cold, most totally lacked charm. But things were changing!
Increasingly, as the weather warmed, restaurant owners began to recruit friends, family members, and community-based builders and drew on their own skills and imaginations to design, construct, decorate and individualize their newly-accessible commercial spaces. From a folklorist’s perspective, this is where things started to get interesting. The thousands of resulting sheds that appeared are as varied as the City’s population and they are transforming the urban streetscape. I want to devote the rest of this blog to highlighting just a few of the hundreds of wonderfully imaginative locally constructed sheds I have documented over the past few months.
Dining Sheds: An Introductory Tour
I’d like to start this tour in Manhattan’s Wall Street district, where I was astonished to come upon a dining shed constructed in the form of a full-sized Irish bus outside The Full Shilling, an Irish bar and restaurant on Pearl Street. According to the waitress, the older-model bus—which features real tires, a steering wheel, driver’s seat, working head and tail lights, a sound system and outdoor seating for about 30 people—was built by the “owner and some of his mates” early in the Pandemic.
In lieu of nostalgia, other restaurant owners went for a modernist look. For example, there is Upside Pizza on Spring Street:
And Zööba, an Egyptian fast food restaurant nearby on Kenmare Street:
Still others decided to go with the “retro” look, like this very solidly constructed Art Deco dining shed outside the Empire Diner in Chelsea. The design echoes the elegant 1940s dining car that houses the restaurant:
As a folklorist, I am particularly interested in how restaurant owners approach signaling and celebrating their ethnicity. The number of examples throughout the City is overwhelming, but perhaps nowhere is it more noticeable than the block-long assembly of vividly-colored Korean-inspired structures along Manhattan’s 32nd Street.
In recent years, this mid-town Korean enclave between 5th and 6th Avenues has become famous as Manhattan’s “K-Town.” The several dozen sheds constructed by K-Town’s numerous bars and restaurants are outstanding examples of folk architecture:
I was particularly stuck by how this Korean restaurant dealt with a pre-existing phone booth. Since DOT regulations do not allow restaurateurs to tamper with or block access to “street furniture,” the business has simply incorporated the phone booth into their design, painted it yellow, and bedecked it with plants.
Other ethnically themed dining sheds I encountered included numerous elaborately themed Thai restaurants, including VIV Bar & Restaurant, which constructed this colorful fantasy bridging 9th Avenue featuring vivid colors and artificial flowers:
As with many other sheds, VIV’s main shed has been subdivided into smaller ornate booths featuring wallpaper, round windows, decorative lights, and unanticipated turfed walls:
Constructions by other ethnic dining establishments include this cheerfully-colored Peruvian shed on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen:
And the flag-bedecked German-themed Radegast Hall & Bier Garten shed in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood:
An enormous number of dining shed are simply pretty; inviting newly-created urban spaces brimming with plants, flowers, strings of lights, romantic table lamps, ceiling fans, photos, prints, vases, ornaments, pillows and real furniture. For example, there is the Casa La Femme in the western reaches of Greenwich Village:
Also in Greenwich Village on West 3rd Street is the impressive dining shed at the Zinc Bar. Relying heavily on “found materials,” the bar’s owner and his carpenter friend build what they call “the pavilion.” In addition to real furniture, drapes, and a neon sign, the structure includes a “porch,” respectfully built around a street tree, which even under the relaxed pandemic regulations they cannot damage, nail into, or use as a support. When a grouchy neighbor reported them for “endangering a city tree,” the inspector sent to check out the alleged violation told the owners it was “the best cared for tree in the City.”
Another favorite of mine is The Hunterian, a Lennox Hill bar on East 70th Street whose dining shed was built by its Scottish-born owner, Alan Heron, and his friend, and decorated by Heron’s American wife, Jessica Shukis. In the best Scottish tradition, they refer to it as “The Bothy” –a British Isles term for a traditional farm bunkhouse. As the months progressed, The Bothy became increasingly elaborate: in addition to plants, photos of Scotland, and table lamps, it now sports Harris Tweed pillows and books on Scottish culture. It’s charming and, like other sheds, The Bothy is also a very public declaration of the ethnicity and aesthetics of the restaurant’s owners.
As summer 2021 progressed, restaurant owners increasingly realized that the external walls and roofs of their dining sheds could be used to advertise the names, locations, and phone numbers of their establishments. A good basic example can be found on the Don Giovanni pizzeria’s dining shed in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood:
And then there is The Levee, an old-time bar in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, whose owners chose to advertise their rather basic dining shed in graffiti-style sign language. I think the fingers on each panel are intended spell out “Levee” – although they do not seem to be quite in standard American Sign Language. The waitress I asked didn’t know why the owners decided to feature sign language, so I need to go back and speak with the owners about their intriguing choice.
Finally, although fewer sheds than I expected feature that most New York of art styles, graffiti, I have documented a number of excellent examples, like this one constructed by Finnegan’s Wake, a nice but non-trendy neighborhood Irish bar in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood.
The Future of the Project
The Pandemic Architecture Project is very much in a work in progress. With the help of folklorist Steve Zeitlin at City Lore and the gifted documentary photographer Tom Pich, I am continuing to document examples of the evolving creativity and resourcefulness of NY’s restaurant industry. I am also beginning to do more in-depth interviews with restaurant owners about their aesthetic and financial decisions regarding dining sheds. My photographs will be donated to the American Folklife Center archive, where I hope they will serve to document the creative response by New York’s small business owners and food workers to this incredibly stressful period of American history. Discussions are also underway about including them as part of a larger City Lore exhibit on Covid in New York.
In July, 2021, Mayor De Blasio announced that the flexible regulations that have permitted these remarkable structures to be built and flourish will remain in place for another year. Although dining sheds have been widely, albeit not universally, praised by city residents, I think eventually more regulations will be put in place that might diminish or at least standardize the individual creativity currently being expressed by New York’s restaurateurs. Time will tell. In the meantime, I remain fascinated by the evolution of these colorful new additions to the sidewalks of New York.