graham earnshaw: Madison Square Park, 2013 (CC)
There has long been nowhere much to go in Manhattan. The great gridiron was not designed for destinations—only to take you elsewhere. Even in Central Park, the island’s seeming consolation, the paths and trails were intentionally conceived to keep you moving.
Maybe for this reason, so much of Manhattan’s history is written in bars and nightclubs—and especially in restaurants that feel a little like bars and nightclubs. If your apartment is too small and familiar to have people over, and your parks and commons are threadbare and inhospitable by incompetence or intent, you go out to restaurants. Here you find public privacy and urbane intimacy.
The extent to which restaurants seem essential in any city is a measure of its failure to provide citizens with good places to assemble. That failure, in Manhattan’s case, may explain some of the peak-pandemic reverence for restaurants. But restaurants also show us the way. The best impact on the urban landscape of the long disruption has been the so-called streetery, with which—in a rare instance of civic wisdom—restaurants were able to encroach onto parking spaces. From the elaborate diorama-like versions in the West Village to the basic platforms in less would-be picturesque neighborhoods, these outdoor interventions are an answer to a question Manhattan has been asking for fifty years.
If conserved, the streetery might become a moral equivalent of Manhattan’s greatest public space: the stoop. Repeated all along side streets from the Village to the Upper West Side to Harlem, these outdoor building entrance steps are why such neighborhoods are as humane as they manage to be. They provide a human-scaled agora and amphitheater in which to see and be seen, an appealing in-between, in a streetscape that generally lacks the articulations of an integrated private and public life: arcades, cascades of steps, non-retail street-level living.
The catch is obvious: streeteries are not really public space, because you have to pay. But the radically temporary is the true critique of the seemingly permanent.
Eden, Janine and Jim: Three Brownstones, 2021 (CC)