But access to design resources like these don’t resolve existing inequities in these communities. Even if she were offered help, Cassandre Davilmar, who owns Lakou Café, a Haitian-American restaurant in Weeksville, Brooklyn, isn’t sure she could make outdoor dining work in her neighborhood.
“We are on Utica, which is a pretty congested area, and we are not one of those streets with a huge sidewalk,” she says. She initially saw outdoor dining as “a hindrance in the neighborhood, taking up parking spots in an already congested area.” Like on Nostrand, there isn’t much street cleaning along Utica. “There is a lot of trash rolling down the street,” Davilmar adds.
On top of this, her neighborhood was one of those hardest hit by the COVID-19 virus. “Do I really want to encourage folks to sit outside when we were a coronavirus hot spot?” she asks. Still, she set up four tables on the sidewalk with umbrellas, plants, and tents. “We are one of the few places in the neighborhood that was a sit-down spot, so I don’t want us to just do takeout,” she says. But the wind knocked over the plants and broke the umbrellas and tents. She put in a request with Open Streets to get her street shut down to traffic on weekends, like Vanderbilt Avenue, but it was denied because of the location along a major bus line. “I was like, ‘There are bus lines on Vanderbilt,’” she says.
“It is hard, because we deserve nice things, too,” Davilmar explains, “but at the same time all those structural inequities cause things to hit us harder and make us be more cautious. It is a lose-lose situation.”
James Lam’s restaurant, Spicy Shallot, which he co-owns with his wife, Inthira Lam, is situated in Elmhurst in Queens, another area devastated by the virus. He was able to set up outdoor dining with partitions, thanks to a friend who is a contractor. But he says many people in the area aren’t able to do much more than some outdoor tables and chairs, and the neighborhood hasn’t fully recovered from being a virus epicenter. Customers outside the neighborhood are hesitant to visit. Still, the restaurant’s basic setup has been helpful—revenue is up 30 percent.
Some restaurateurs fear that setting up outdoor dining might open themselves up to unwanted scrutiny. Abigail Coover Hume, a board member at Design Advocates, has noticed that enforcement of outdoor dining guidelines has been inconsistent among different neighborhoods. Restaurants in under-resourced neighborhoods are receiving violations that she doesn’t see those in more affluent neighborhoods getting. (Joseph Yacca, the Director of Operations for the Department of Transportation’s Highway Inspections & Quality Assurance unit, refuted this.)
At La Ñapa, Anton has put up a chain-and-post barrier to separate his restaurant from the lengthy line at the UPS store next door and to prevent people from blocking the door of his restaurant. He hasn’t even set up outdoor dining, yet the restaurant has received three violations.
To drum up business, he collaborated with other restaurants in the neighborhood to run a 10 percent discount across the board. Other places are discussing sharing resources such as heat lamps. But the challenges seem greater than what grassroots initiatives can accomplish.
“I haven’t seen anything large-scale that would really alleviate those pressures on a systemic level,” Chen says, referring to the unequal distribution of city resources across neighborhoods, the barriers to capital and funding that restaurateurs without Rolodexes of investors face. “We are cobbling together the resources we can on a case by case basis.”
Anton agrees, fearing that without government funding for small businesses and better unemployment benefits for the general public, small independent restaurants like his, which make up the backbone of the industry, will not be able to survive. And with a slumping economy, he adds, “Even if we have a beautiful, warm, and cozy structure outside, even if we have no COVID, people will not come out and spend.”
“People like me, like my family, this is all we have,” he continues. “We don’t have money behind us, pushing a brand or pushing a book deal or pushing a TV show. We just like working every day and making the money, so we can have a decent life or whatever we can afford.”
Outdoor dining has become more than a way to seat more guests and make more money—it’s become a symbol of systemic inequity long ingrained in the city. And it’s no longer a design solution but a burden in itself.
“Right now, we are not caring about aesthetics,” Banerjea says, “because it is about survival.”
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