A “curbside parlor” on the Upper West Side

Since I saw a tree planter bench along Riverside Drive and about 82nd Street (east side of avenue) and since observing behavior around one on 12th Street between Avenues A and B in front of Northern Spy restaurant, I’ve wanted to build a tree bench out front of our building on West 84th Street.  I call this feature and the social place it creates “curbside parlor,” inspired by Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and its sibling titles.

This is a problem.

Seems the NYC Parks Department’s Forestry Division oversees trees on streets as well, and their response was not a good one.  I called some time last year and received a response that was unchanged when our Community Board called more recently:

“Parks,” a CB7 rep told me, “said no to a bench around a tree for liability reasons and for the tree’s well-being.  DOT said they are not permitting new planters for security reasons.  There are no variances to be had, but you are welcome to come to the committee meeting and present your request.”

IMG_2194 IMG_2196My first reaction was, OK. You’re saying I can’t do this but I’m welcome to come waste my time and breath presenting the proposal at a meeting. At the same time, I relish a challenge and I love it when someone tells me “no.” I simply don’t accept it. (Call it an inherent and occasionally unhealthy disagreement with authority’s having the final say.)

My goal is to move a proposal through Community Board 7 allowing for a bench and planter that would have the result of both beautifying our “place” out front and also making a spot for more delightful conversation among neighbors, while not harming the tree or obstructing its maintenance in any way.

The tree is an American sycamore.

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Pattern #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket”

Walking from the 9th Avenue bus to the office, I noticed—I mean noticed—for the first time a block with wonderful “place” qualities and the potential for more.

29th Street between 9th and 8th.

On the north side of the street nearer to 9th, there is a row of brownstones with full, leafy trees in their front yards. This by itself in center-city Manhattan is uncommon. The homes face south, obviously, overlooking a ribbon of park that undulates as 28th winds north among low-income housing towers and a geriatrics unit. There’s a 7-foot high chain link fence to your right as you walk along the south side of 29th toward 8th Avenue. A mid-20s Taiwanese homeless-looking guy with a white Styrofoam deli container sits on the sidewalk against the fence; he is holding a chicken drumstick and pulling meat from the bone with his teeth. His legs are open like a V; his shirt is open and his chest is dirty.

I would remove about six to eight parking spaces, which would result in only a reduction of 0.016% of the more than fifty thousand metered spaces in NYC. (Those folks can bloody well park near the new New York Yankees stadium, which has garages that accommodate 9,000 cars but are usually around 60% full (Source: Crain’s).

I would then expand the sidewalk accordingly.

In that widened sidewalk area would go a row of benches, interspersed with concrete Chess/Checkers tables. There are a lot of men who congregate at Chelsea Park one block west who would jump at the chance to sit here and play chess, smoke cigarettes, and talk. Mothers from the projects would go and sit. I would open the fence so geriatric patients could be wheeled over to watch the homeowners to the north who are planting geraniums. Their wheelchairs would face those gorgeous trees that are so stunning yet are underappreciated for lack of an audience.

Right now, only the Taiwanese guy is in a position to see them. And he’s more interested in his chicken.

In “A Pattern Language,” architect Christopher Alexander describes “Activity Pockets (#124) and “Sitting Circle” (#185). The above suggestion forms #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket.” It’s characterized by a one-way street, not busy, bisecting two sidewalks that have seating areas whose users can see each other and interact.

photos: Google map, manipulated in iPhoto, and H. Freeman

Pattern #69.2—“Curbside Parlor”

The addition of a bench around the tree completed the public space.

Had you been walking east on 12th Street between Avenues A and B and passed Northern Spy prior to that time, you might have kept staring down at your iPhone and noticed a restaurant on your left only peripherally.

Oh. Gotta check that menu on my way back from the meeting, you tell yourself. But you don’t, because you walk back to 14th Street via Avenue B. You don’t remember Northern Spy until the next meeting.

Yet, with the bench around the tree you are likely to check who, if anyone, is sitting there; whether there’s a dog tied up to the bike rack that immediately precedes the bench and whether it’s a lab or a pug; and whether anyone is exiting or entering the restaurant. You look through the plate glass window and try to determine whether those you see inside look like you or like those you aspire to become, so that perhaps you’ll eat there next time. You are approximately 52% more likely—I made that up—to stop at that moment and check the menu. Which makes it 50% more likely that indeed you will ever check the menu at Northern Spy.

The addition of this bench, therefore, has created a new space in front of the restaurant. There are benches on either side of the entrance facing out to the street. So there are two areas to sit in—the tree bench and the benches against the façade. But this combination—not possible with just the entrance benches and a row of cars or, worse, empty curb—creates a third human space.

It creates what I am going to call a “curbside parlor.”

It’s a bit like Christopher Alexander’s “Public Outdoor Room” (pattern #69) and a bit like a “Flow Through Room” (#131) but located outside a building. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist in his book, “A Pattern Language.” Yet it very much makes that stretch of concrete which is otherwise a pedestrian thoroughfare—not a bad thing—into a locus of social intercourse.

It makes that concrete space come to life.

This tree bench and the restaurant itself with its benches create a “parlor” in between where people can congregate. Most of those people are ostensibly connected somehow to the restaurant: they are waiting for their table or they stopped to talk to a friend who is. But it’s possible that some of the people sitting or standing near there are neighbors who live above the restaurant. Maybe their roommates don’t like them to smoke cigarettes inside the apartment, so they have to go downstairs and onto the sidewalk, but until the tree bench came along, they had nowhere to sit and smoke. There are no stoops here.

(New Yorkers who smoke, after all, may soon find themselves huddled on a dedicated barge in one of the rivers. There, or living on Staten Island.)

The word “parlor” comes from the Old French parleor or parler (meaning “to speak”). It originally meant, “a place set aside for speaking with someone, an audience chamber” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1993, via Wikipedia). This outdoor urban parlor, extending to the curbside, bottlenecks foot traffic in a mostly pleasant way, allowing for people who may not normally speak to do so, and it creates an “audience chamber.” It also increases the likelihood that people like me will stop and check the menu.

A new pattern: #69.2, “Curbside Parlor.”

photo: Google & manipulation by H. Freeman in Instagram