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.

Unhurried and very aware

Still working my way through Robert Caro’s tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.  We’re at the section—in the 1950s and ’60s—where Moses is “hacking his way” “with a meat ax” through neighborhoods to make room for superhighways that are 200+ feet across.  Caro is describing East Tremont in the Bronx, the kind of place that most of us starry-eyed urbanists only dream of living in (to hear Caro’s sympathetic portrait of it).

It’s easy for a reader like myself, who loves the idea of the city (sometimes more than the city itself) and the experience of it, to be wistful as he hears about the vibrancy of yesterday’s neighborhoods and also to be envious as he considers what painstaking research Caro must have been able not just to endure but also to enjoy in order to word-paint such portraits of them.  Going through Moses’ old Triborough Bridge Authority records on Randalls Island or in a Chambers Street archive or held at the NYPL (wherever they keep them) thrills some of us—writers who like to be alone with people and things of the past who change only when our keystrokes change them. And interviewing people who were “there” can be both invigorating and saddening.

When reading about the city—both the city of the past and the city that “could be” that we see in blogs about sustainable cities, walkable cities, the City of God and the city of man—it’s never about being “present” in the city around you.  Reading about the city is about making sense of things.

For presence, I walk.

Sometimes things make sense, sometimes they don’t. But I often don’t have time to make sense of them; I try—in my best moments—to just let them happen around me as an observer.

Walking the sidewalks removes me from Armchair City Adoration and places me into a state that Tony Hiss (author of The Experience of Place) calls “simultaneous perception,” an almost zen-like movement through physical space where one is calm and experiencing the things and people nearby in an unhurried and very aware state.  Holly Whyte, in City: Rediscovering the Center, wrote earlier and similarly about walking in New York City:

The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit. …He moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so. Think of the orders and computers it would take to match him! Transportation engineers are spending millions on developing automated people-mover systems. But the best, by far, is a person.

We move through city space in Whyte’s way—autonomously aware of others’ vector changes—and in Hiss’s as well: we are aware of fellow walkers’ facial and fashion details and of aspects of buildings and street-level stores.

In this way, I can walk even familiar territory on the Upper West Side and enjoy simultaneous perception: getting off the train at 86th and Broadway (having known exactly which car on the northbound #1 to get onto so that I can easily get to the turnstiles at my stop); ascending the staircase with seemingly hundreds of others—a sudden burst of urban blood bursting through a narrow capillary that was barely widened by MTA workers last spring, a capillary that, when shut down during work, caused almost a stoppage in flow on the alternate staircase and underground heart attack—only to emerge and call Karen (“I’m off the train; want anything at the store?”); crossing Broadway with many of those others even though we pedestrians have the red hand (formerly “Don’t Walk” in a literate society) sign, knowing how long northbound taxis and other vehicles will take to reach us before we reach the median; passing Euclid Hall seniors and disabled, whose presence is ubiquitous enough in Mama’s Famous Pizza next door and in front of their own building to appear even on the street view in Google maps; getting then to Broadway Farm for a gallon of milk and grimacing at the prices we pay (we vow to switch to Key Foods one block out of our way) but reveling almost unaware at buying from a place that employs a Moroccan, several Dominicans, Pakistanis and a Caribbean Islander all under one roof consistently between Olympic Games; then back outside deciding to navigate either in front of the Victoria Secret windows and their Amazon-tall flesh-posters or past the Jewish restaurant that has always intrigued me but never appealed to me to dine in; deciding for Broadway and walking past the Origins store—pumping enticing cologne at us from vents—Baked By Melissa, and Coach; turning the corner to see the local homeless man defecating between cars on the south side of 84th Street in front of Ouest’s service entrance; then finding my body move into a steady rhythm as I walk downhill to West End Avenue, to our block, and then the final approach to our building.  A stiff Hudson River-born wind blows up the bluff in Riverside Park, over the Promenade and then leaps the schist wall on Riverside Drive to meet me as I walk westward.  I notice the white-wire holiday lights on the stoop of one brownstone.  The scaffolding (“sidewalk sheds,” they call them) across the street on the south moves along the block from building to building like a worm’s sheath, fertilizing each townhouse and making it more marketable.

A few feet from our stoop, the temperature drops about ten degrees.

I reach our building and pause inside the vestibule to dig in my right front pocket for my keys.  I am almost sad—glad to be home but missing already the intimate connection with the city I’ve had for the past seven to ten minutes.

It’s been a daytime romance.

It now becomes only an idea while I rest at home.

I write in sentences and carriage returns instead of think in paragraphs.

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