‘The Yuck Mobile’

Protesters demand more community input in the process of making outdoor dining permanent, citing noise and hygiene as grave concerns

| 18 Nov 2022 | 10:52

A mock dining shed on wheels stalled briefly in front of City Council members’ offices downtown, at 250 Broadway, in the early afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15. It held trash bags, plus the faces of some of New York’s politicians plastered on inflatable aliens — and blared a cacophony of voices, music and sounds too grating to identify, nearly drowning out the shouts of people who had congregated to protest permanent outdoor dining.

But some gripes cut through the noise. “This is what we hear, three, four in the morning,” said Robert Camacho, who’s lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn for nearly five decades. His voice was hoarse from yelling over “The Yuck Mobile.”

Dozens had gathered to create an environment for City Council members that emulated what they said people have been subject to across the city, with the rise of outdoor dining. Opponents have taken issue with the din — and also with what they characterized as a lack of opportunity for community input to regulate the scene. Restaurant sheds were a lifeline for small businesses and cooped up city dwellers during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the process of making them permanent has hit a bump in the road.

“Open restaurants, sleepless nights, rat-filled streets, drunken fights; we want our streets back,” said Stuart Waldman, leading the group of protesters in a chant.

Keeping The City “Afloat”

When New Yorkers first dipped their toes into the burgeoning world of outdoor dining in 2020, few likely could have foreseen the staying power of the sheds. The “Open Restaurants” program, introduced under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, was intended to give restaurateurs a boost and residents a chance to dine out again. “We will monitor this program closely to make sure we do not see any unintended consequences,” former Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at the time.

Two years later, many have credited the pivot to outdoor dining with reviving the city. “At the height of the pandemic, as businesses closed down and New Yorkers lost their jobs, Open Streets and outdoor dining helped keep our restaurants and the city’s economy afloat,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement at the end of October. “And as New York City comes back, this program will continue to be a critical driver of a strong, equitable recovery.”

He was commenting on DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez’ release of a report detailing the economic success of “Open Streets,” a program that closed down certain streets to vehicular traffic. Drawing on sales tax data summaries provided by the Department of Finance, the study homed in on five car-free zones in the city, including in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Koreatown. It found that sales growth at restaurants and bars on the included car-free streets “significantly outpaced” their boroughs’ averages and that “Open Streets” zones saw a larger percentage of existing businesses stay open, with “faster growth” of new ones.

“The recipe of Open Restaurants mixed with Open Streets,” said NYC Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie, “enhances the already strong economic and social benefit and impact of outdoor dining.” Legislation making the “Open Streets” program permanent passed the City Council in May of last year.

“Chuck Those Sheds”

The legislative moves required to make outdoor dining permanent, however, remain ongoing. Downtown on Tuesday, protesters from the advocacy group Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP) convened with the understanding that a City Council vote on a bill to amend “sidewalk café licensing provisions,” as stated in a summary of the legislation, could happen as soon as November 22. By instituting nuts-and-bolts changes to “streamline” the process of obtaining licenses for restaurants, the legislation — sponsored by Council Members Marjorie Velázquez, Keith Powers and Julie Menin — would bring al fresco dining out of the COVID-19 era.

But when Downtown Council Member Christopher Marte briefly joined opponents, he announced that the vote would be postponed. “You guys have the fire, you guys have the heat to continue to push this city to do the right thing for every resident that lives on top of an outdoor shed,” he said. “We’re here today to tell this city and to tell this administration, we have to chuck those sheds.”

Earlier, the crowd chanted in favor of public hearings. The DOT, in an “Open Restaurants” program overview, detailed a plan to conduct public outreach over a six month period, including at five Borough Board meetings last December and January. But a statement from CUEUP condemns the impending City Council legislation for being “created behind closed doors.”

“The City Council is not listening to us — it refuses to listen to us,” Waldman said. In addition to hearings open to members of the public, CUEUP has called for an “Environmental Impact Study” and the involvement of local community boards.

Protesters didn’t seem impressed by any economic benefit of the outdoor dining program, chanting, “restaurants get the money, we get the shaft.” They also expressed concern about the upkeep of curbside sheds — particularly in relation to rodent infestations. “Of course” the structures attract rats, Sharon Hershkowitz said. “That’s a given.” She attended the protest wearing rubber rats around her neck and as finger puppets.

Camacho said he’s seen the sheds used as makeshift “storage facilities.” But his biggest qualm is with the noise that outdoor dining creates. “We’re not telling them, Get rid of it,” he said. “We’re telling them, Do it seasonal, put the folding chairs, the umbrella, 11 o’clock, that’s it, go inside.”

He said he doesn’t believe that his pleas are being heard — but that he’s ready to vote when City Council members run for election. The sentiment was underscored when the crowd chanted, “We vote.”

When Camacho attempted to deliver a letter addressed to City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, on behalf of CUEUP and signed by representatives of other community organizations, he was barred from entering the office building. “This is symbolic of what they’ve done through this entire process,” Waldman said. “They’ve locked us out.”

“Open restaurants, sleepless nights, rat-filled streets, drunken fights; we want our streets back.” Stuart Waldman