When COVID-19 hit in late February/early March of last year, Cityscape continued its listing of current, forthcoming, and overlooked studies in urban history. But after suspending notices of museum shows and films, we initiated a series on the history of plagues in cities: yellow fever in Philadelphia, smallpox in Boston, polio in Brooklyn, cholera in London, typhoid in New York, and a plague which in the fifth century BCE may well have allowed Sparta to overwhelm Athens.
Plagues took a toll on towns, villages, and the countryside. In the half-abandoned cities, however, an eerie silence punctuated by the death knells and the carters’ cry, “bring out your dead,” summoned up as nothing else the awful dread of spreading infection.
Happily, the waning of contagion can also bring the resilient city back to life. This Cityscape, devoted to one aspect of the awakening of New York, was inspired by the commentary of streetwise tour guide Lee Klein and architect Johannes Knoops.
The Covid Hut And The Rebirth of New York
A year ago last spring, New York itself seemed on life support. By the first of June, three months into the pandemic, the CDC was reporting that in the city alone 203,792 were infected, 54,211 hospitalized and 18,679 were dead. Unable to accommodate the surge, Mt. Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue authorized the setting up of 68 field clinic tents in Central Park.
But, by the fall a transformation was underway associated with the appearance of certain curious sidewalk structures, including some which extended beyond the curb into the street. Call them yurts, shacks, huts, or sukkahs, they were bringing life to the city.
What happened was that when Governor Andrew Cuomo banned indoor dining on March 16th some 200,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs.
The obvious way to save jobs and nearly bankrupt restaurants was for the city to promote outdoor dining. Under Emergency Order 26 of June 18th, Mayor Bill de Blasio essentially told restaurant owners that they would no longer be charged for their sidewalk tables, a yearly saving in some cases of tens of thousands of dollars. Additional tables could now be set up all along the restaurants’ sidewalk frontage. By eliminating parking spaces out front, tables and sheltering huts would be allowed up to eight feet beyond the curb into the street. However, no dining hut could be set up at a bus stop or within fifteen feet of a hydrant. With most zoning and building regulations suspended, a restaurant owner might submit a “self-certified” plan to the Department of Transportation, thereby dispensing with costly and often lengthy reviews by the Department of Consumer Affairs, a Community Board, and, in some cases, the City Council.
In a moment of desperation, the city had embraced what iconoclast Bernard Rudofsky in his legendary Museum of Modern Art show (1964) had called Architecture without Architects. Beginning with the fabric and hardware of tents and then moving onto plywood, two-by-fours, and polycarbonate sheeting for the roof and siding, carpenters and handymen were putting up structures that, however useful, even delightful, were not built to last. Could they even get through winter? With the cold coming on, the hut had to be warm enough to attract diners and drinkers. But what heater, generally hung from the ceiling, would be adequate? To provide a feeling of safety and privacy for diners, banquettes, plastic partitions, or bubbles might be set up within the hut, but doing so might cut off the air circulation needed to disperse the deadly virus. In sum, “non-pedigreed architects,” as Rudofsky had called them, were trying to design and build shacks providing light, heat, air, more or less comfortable seating, and a leak-proof roof with sufficient vertical support to bear the weight of snow. And yes, if possible, the hut should also evoke the ambiance of verboten if not forgotten in-door dining.
Satisfactory? Hardly. But good enough. Given the freedom to build without concern for tomorrow and the relative ease of construction, what emerged were shoddy structures. On the other hand, flimsy inspired the whimsy, which brought a measure of joy and conviviality to an anxious city. Over the course of a year, the number of outdoor cafes in the city soared from 1,000 to 11,000.
Sidewalk and curbside dining is probably here to stay, but how long will the huts last? The out-going de Blasio administration has prepared rules to ensure a measure of permanence at the expense of eight thousand parking spaces. Under the Open Streets program certain streets may be closed more frequently to accommodate al fresco dining.
The appearance of the Delta and now Omicron variants—making even the double and triple vaccinated wary of indoor dining—has guaranteed that the huts will stick around. Predictably—remember, this is New York—protests and litigation followed. From neighborhoods and social media: “I want my neighborhood back. The sheds are filthy, noisy, block fire dept. access, and are rat magnets. The East Village is already overrun with bars, we don’t want them in our streets.” As the New York Times headlined the story: “Dining Sheds Saved NYC. Could They Destroy It?”
The fate of the huts may ultimately hinge on whether motor vehicles—the program is managed by the Department of Transportation—will maintain their dominion over city streets. Sooner or later, a car, truck or unlicensed motorized bike—lately morphed into a vehicle with the girth and swagger of a Harley hog—will plow into a hut with devastating consequences for haute cuisine. Or worse.
In the meantime, bon appétit.
The Evolution of the Restaurant Hut, 2020-21
Claim the space beyond the curb; the shelter can come later.
Put up a tent.
Hire carpenters, licensed or otherwise.
Without inspections and the usual approvals, the sheds go up quickly.
“Less is more.” Not built to last, but good enough.
Flimsy –> Basic, Pleasing Design
Flimsy –> Whimsy
Contested Space Beyond the Curb
Can we sell clothing, wares, and notions beyond the curb?
Diners and waiters, beware! Stepping from hut to sidewalk—a risky business.
Who commands space beyond the curb?
Denizens of the West Village protest the noise, filth, and stink from the huts. But how would famed Villager Jane Jacobs judge the homebuilt structures that revived the city?
Photos by James Wunsch, Cityscape editor, unless otherwise credited.