Metropolis

Who Gets the Streets Now?

The restaurants who needed them to survive? The humans who endured the pandemic city? Or their old owners, cars?

People enjoy food sitting on the outdoor area of Ocean Drive restaurants  in South beach, Florida.
Wasn’t this so nice? Daniel Slim/Getty Images

The city wants to build a bike lane, and the car people want to stop it.

If you follow local politics anywhere, you’ve heard this story before. But this time there’s a twist: Businesses on Washington, D.C.’s Ninth Street NW aren’t just fighting to keep parking spots so their customers can drive to dinner. Like so many restaurants around the country, establishments like Unconventional Diner and Cuba Libre have converted curbside parking spaces into open-air dining rooms. So when Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the go-ahead on a two-way, parking-protected bike lane that would eat up 80 spaces along the corridor, the neighborhood business group Shaw Main Streets warned DCist that the bike lane could prompt a “business bloodbath.”

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As the pandemic ebbs, cities across the country must adjudicate what has suddenly become a dizzyingly open question: Who owns the streets? After a year in which all the old rules went out the window, some urbanites are eager for a return to normal—which is to say, a system that assumes the streets are for driving and for parking. But many, many others have had a revelation that my colleague Dan Kois so nicely summarized as the shutdowns descended last March: “[T]he coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit.” Just as the TSA suddenly permitted 12-ounce bottles of carry-on hand sanitizer, it took about 90 days for local governments to adopt enough new ideas for what a city should look like to tie up a community board for a decade. Was it an aberrant reaction to a hundred-year plague—or a sudden glimpse of the future?

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Racial justice protesters made the streets their own, with impromptu plazas in Minneapolis, Washington, and Brooklyn—some city-sanctioned and permanent, some eventually dismantled. Wooden sawhorses and police barriers in New York, San Francisco, and Oakland transformed asphalt into playgrounds. Enforcement of 50-year-old restrictions on drinking alcohol in public plummeted (albeit unevenly) as to-go cocktails were legalized in cities like Chicago and states like California. Most dramatically of all, tens of thousands of curbside parking spaces were turned over to cafés and restaurants, whose funky, jury-rigged sheds became a symbol of the city’s resilience and vitality. Not dead yet!

Most of the space for such changes, in most of these cities, came from cars. Naturally, it is the drivers who have come calling first to have their land back.

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Sometimes that happens by force, like when a man with a counterfeit Amazon van stole a dozen police barriers from a Brooklyn neighborhood where volunteers had used them to close a mile of roadway to cars each night.

And sometimes it happens by public forum, as in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, whose main drive has been closed to cars since April 2020. At a rally to make that policy permanent, David Miles Jr., known locally as the Godfather of Skate, made the case: “You’re supposed to be able to enjoy yourself in a green environment and escape the hustles and bustles of everyday life. That only happens when the park is closed to cars.”

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Those who would like cars to return to the park include the park’s art and science museums, which are concerned about the loss of parking spaces, as well as some local politicians who say keeping cars from the park makes it hard to access. The president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Shamann Walton, said the car-free park was “segregationist polic[y]” and “looks like the 1950s South.” His colleague Connie Chan, who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, also argued it was a racial-equity issue to let people drive into the park. According to data from the city, visitor patterns in Golden Gate Park by district have not changed since the street was made car-free, though pedestrian traffic inside the park is up 42 percent and cyclist visits are up 441 percent. (And there are still nearly 5,000 parking spaces inside the park.)

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In the Before Times, such conflicts often did pit drivers against everyone else. But it turns out that when you start offering up the pie of public space, everyone wants a slice, and compromise isn’t always easy.

Consider the Black Lives Matter plaza in Brooklyn, which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio established virtually overnight last June, showing how nimble the pandemic city suddenly was. A block of Fulton Street was closed to cars and painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” in huge yellow letters across the road. Over the next few months, the street was a gathering point for Black Brooklyn, and hosted protests, meditation for seniors, roller skating, a “Black laughs matter” comedy show, lots of live music, and even a full wedding with seated guests and a band.

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“Our public spaces, the sidewalks, our parks, have to be reclaimed,” the activist Brittany Micek says in a short video by the filmmaker Ty West. “You hear these chants like ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ Well, then really make them our streets.”

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Brooklyn’s Black Lives Matter plaza also blocked a busy bus route, and local businesses claimed they suffered from a lack of car access. In October 2020, the experiment was over, and the block reverted to its 2019 form “for safety reasons,” according to the local councilman. Now, well into New York’s Hot Vax Summer, the block is gridlock, and you can hardly imagine that a couple tied the knot there last summer.

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The pandemic-era norms of public space aren’t just about design. Across the East River, Washington Square Park emerged last June as a base camp for racial justice protests, and was the scene of tense confrontations with police. But last July and August, and straight into this summer, the vibe in the park has been different: boisterous, exciting, a little rough around the edges, more Kids than Sex and the City. It isn’t quite Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, but the median age in the park seems to have dropped by 10 years, and perhaps it really has, since many of the neighborhood’s wealthy denizens have escaped the city for Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Swimming in the fountain is in. After sunset, it is time for a big dance party—or, as happened on Monday night, for two men in boxing gloves to pummel each other in a circle of cheering spectators. The police seem unsure of what to do. On Saturday night, they announced a curfew, donned body armor to clear the park, chased revelers through the streets, and arrested dozens. This week they backed off.

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Smaller-scale examples of this conflict are everywhere: Are we going back to telling musicians where to play or not to play? Telling vendors where or where not to sell food? In New York, at least, many pandemic-era habits feel like the rights hard-earned by those who lived through the worst of it.

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Perhaps the greatest such pandemic medallion is curbside restaurant seating. Once a lifeline for struggling bars and restaurants, curbside sheds and sidewalk tables now represent an immensely valuable asset. Some restaurants have doubled their floor space for free. There have been some growing pains, particularly for city residents in wheelchairs who must navigate newly encumbered sidewalks or inaccessible tables. Design requirements have been changed and changed again.

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What happens to those spaces going forward? How much should restaurants pay for their newfound control of public space?

But maybe a deeper question is: If redistributing 8,000 of New York’s 3 million parking spaces to restaurants can prompt an overnight metamorphosis, what’s to stop us from using that land for public benefits that go beyond pizza al fresco? I’m talking about wide, smooth lanes that can accommodate wheelchair users, delivery men, and mobile food vendors alongside bicycles and scooters. Space for trash and recycling, zones for loading, pickup, and drop-off.

Which brings us back to Washington, D.C. If a bike lane on Ninth Street is “such an important project” that will make the street safer for bikers, pedestrians, and drivers, as District transportation chief Everett Lott told DCist, then why is D.C. waiting until 2022 to build it? The pandemic was a lesson in a city’s sense of space—and time: Good things can happen right away if we want them to.

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