The other morning, my son and I sat along Amsterdam Ave. on the Upper West Side. He, in his stroller, delighted in the wonders of a fresh blueberry scone. I sat with a warm coffee in hand, my wool jacket pulled tight, watching the passersby. To my left were shelves of pink and blue hydrangea for sale, to my right, other groups bantered at tables nearby and, on three sides, around all of this was a mint-colored shed with a semi-transparent roof, open to the sidewalk and spring air.
In 2019, this moment wasn’t possible. The space we were occupying was filled with parked cars. There was no commerce at the curb, no tables for gathering, no space to have a quiet moment with your kid taking in the springtime sun. We lived in a world that took for granted togetherness, even as the pressures of technology and work pulled us further apart.
But then came the pandemic, the lockdowns and the need in places like New York to improvise and help small businesses survive.
Born of necessity, the sidewalk sheds added a bohemian vibe to the city’s corporate streets and made it possible to gather safely again. They also helped us collectively to begin imagining a future where cars didn’t take precedence over people, where the streets could be given over to commerce and community, and the city could be a little warmer, a little more human.
In my neighborhood, the sheds brought a vibrancy that wasn’t there pre-pandemic. For eight months of the year, musicians play for curbside audiences. Entire blocks are taken over by outdoor communal dining. The sounds of music, chatter and silverware clinking drown out — if only for moments — the normal traffic din.
But now this vibrancy is under attack as NIMBYs petition the City Council to make the sheds go away. “They’re too noisy. They attract rats. They look dilapidated. They make the sidewalks too narrow,” naysayers complain.
In February, city bureaucrats considered getting rid of the sheds altogether, replacing them with permits for restaurants to use the asphalt out front for dining in the summer instead. Nevermind that many businesses have invested significantly to create spaces that are positive additions to the neighborhoods they serve, and that the whole point of the sheds is to make it possible to enjoy the outdoors more months of the year.
There’s an obvious alternative: develop standards for the sheds to ensure proper maintenance and sidewalk accessibility, make their presence subject to Community Board approval, and tax them to cover the cost of removing them should a restaurant go under.
While they last, I’ll continue to enjoy them and I’ll savor the moments like the one my son and I had — him enjoying his snack and me appreciating a richer community experience amid the impersonal bustle of New York.