Just when you’d started to think summer was going to be a disaster – no beaches, no house shares, no concerts – at least one glimmer of hope appeared yesterday. Council speaker Corey Johnson has introduced a bill that would require the city to open up our streets to bars and restaurants. And Restaurant Row could be one of the first.

“As we continue to address the struggles due to COVID-19 and try to move forward,” says Johnson, “supporting New York City’s restaurants, bars and dining establishments is essential as they have been especially hard hit by this crisis. Expanding outdoor dining space will not only help these restaurants thrive financially but give our city a sense of normalcy.

“The restaurant industry is a huge part of New York City. No matter where you live, you love your local restaurants. This legislation will help give all New Yorkers better access to enjoy and support their local restaurants.”

The legislation would identify open spaces – sidewalks, streets, and plazas – where restaurants and bars can follow social distancing measures and safely serve customers outside.

Tim Tompkins, the President of the Times Square Alliance says: “The initial idea is that restaurants could do takeout, where you can get some food from your favorite restaurant, then there are some tables and chairs out either on the sidewalk or in the parking lane of the street. And Restaurant Row, especially because it’s got such a concentration of restaurants, seems like it could be a great place to pilot it.”

“It’s called Restaurant Row,” says Shane Hathaway, co-owner of Hold Fast bar on the block. “What better model in this neighborhood than to create a community, almost like a Stone Street or somewhere in Europe? And you have everybody out, you have tables, you work together. I think it would be really fun. And we get back to the old-school New York sense of community.”

Under normal circumstances, a restaurant would have multiple issues with licenses and permissions. “So all these rules and regulations would have to be waived,” says Tim. “But our basic position is, ‘Let’s make this a temporary/emergency program, where the city can waive some rules in the short term, and we test it out.’ Because, of course, it’s not just the restaurants. It’s the literally hundreds of thousands of people throughout the city who work in restaurants. Also, as we all know, many of the back-of-house people in restaurants don’t have a great safety net, may or may not be eligible for unemployment insurance, and so it’s a real economic need to try and do what we can to help these places get back on their feet.

“For years, everyone in New York rightly has been worried about losing the independent restaurants and small businesses. And what we know is, if this goes on indefinitely, so many of those smaller, independently-owned restaurants won’t be able to come back. And that would be terrible for Hell’s Kitchen, it would be terrible for New York City, and it’s also terrible for the people who work in those restaurants.”

Shane says the plan is essential for survival. The bar has been doing take out for a month, without even covering their costs. “But if you don’t open, you know you’re going to get zero,” he says. “And we opened for two reasons: to supply some individuals with a job, and to provide a place for people to come to mentally release and be around others.”

Opening the streets alone, he says, is not enough. “Is it going to save us? No, but it’s going to help. We’ve spoken with our landlord about opening up our books to see, maybe we pay a percentage of the sales.

“We’d just be really open and say, ‘Here we are, this is where we’re at. We have built our reputation in the community, and we’ve shown you that we have the ability to pay. We want to be a partner with you.’ And I think if you have that open dialogue with the landlord, you stand a chance.

“It’s going to be hard as hell, but we’re totally willing to do everything we can. And if that means working seven days a week, that means working seven days a week. It’s why we opened the businesses. That’s why you’re an owner. And, especially with a name like Hold Fast, if you don’t stand strong through this, what are you doing?”

“Our small businesses in the service industry are a part of our identity,” says long-term Hell’s Kitchen resident Christopher LeBron. “The crossroads of the world is not Times Square; the crossroads of the world lives and breathes in the establishments of Hell’s Kitchen; where a red stater can drink next to progressive kid from Hell’s Kitchen, before going to a rap musical by a Nuyorican. The crossroads lies in our interactions with our American cousins and our international guests.

“Getting to tomorrow,” he says, “begins with embracing cafe, pedestrian, and bicycle culture much the way Montreal recently has, or Europe. Generations of Hell’s Kitchen children have developed bronchitis and asthma because the 9th Avenue corridor has been used as a highway, the beginning and terminus for deafening tri-state gridlock. After COVID-19 this is a no brainer. Advocates of car culture must give way to alternative modes of living and transportation.”

Photographs: Denice Flores Almendares

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