Back in March, I wrote a post for the SmartNews intranet explaining to my colleagues in Japan the temporary sheds you see on the street outside of restaurants. In San Francisco they were called parklets, here in NYC they are called streeteries. They were built so restaurants could comply with Covid restrictions on indoor dining.

As we head into the winter and perhaps another wave, we may start to use these again.

Restaurants are the lifeblood of any city but in New York they are vital as in, “important for life.” When Lockdown began, people were not able to leave their apartments to meet face-to-face for conversation. 

I have only been here for a couple of months but I can already appreciate how social New Yorkers are compared to people in other cities. One cannot walk down the street without having a short exchange with the people you meet. As a shark has to swim to run water across their gills, New Yorkers must talk to survive. Even for a short ride in an elevator, silence is awkward. I was not here when the shuttering of restaurants was announced but I can imagine that the inability to meet with friends and clients for dinner or weekend brunch was a shock to the system, almost unbearable.

But New York City is famous for its workarounds. Like water flowing downhill, supply adjusts to meet demand. By mid-summer City Hall announced the Open Restaurants program to allow patrons to be served safely, outside.

It must have felt like the Gold Rush as restaurants spilled on to the street to secure room for their patrons to keep their businesses running. By the time we arrived here in late-September, Izumi and I were shocked at how many of these “streeteries” were open and how vibrant it felt compared to the San Francisco we just left.

Just a few days earlier, the Mayor announced that the Open Restaurants initiative would become permanent. This allowed restaurants to not only shore up their temporary setup but also spurred an investment in sturdier structures for the colder months ahead. What followed was a flurry of construction as restaurants added walls to block the wind and heaters to keep customers warm.

New Yorkers famously kept supporting their favorite restaurants as they continued to serve their customers, even during snowstorms. Architectural innovations evolved over those months and we now have a number of “hacks” to what became known as “bubble dinning” that I’d like to share with you today.

Notice how walking the sidewalk feels like walking through a shared room. When you walk the city this way, you often overhear snippets of conversation. It’s intimate and a great way to pick up a sense of how everyone is feeling and coping with the pandemic.

As with other innovations from its past, New York has made the sidewalk restaurant structures its own and woven it into the fabric of the city. With warmer days ahead I look forward to seeing more people dining outside, in the open. The pleasant side effect of these now permanent structures is that there is less space for cars to park. Add this to the dramatic expansion of bike lanes and anticipated congestion pricing under the Biden administration and we may see even less traffic on city streets.

It can only get better from here.