By Peggy Taylor
Want to tango and swing dance at a sidewalk cafe? Stroll hand in hand with your honey on a car-free, bus-free, truck-free street? Listen to live music? Enjoy curbside tastings? Take an architectural tour? Meet local artists? Have a baby shower? Get a hair cut in a rolling barbershop?
All these cool things you, your kids, and pets can do at Columbus Avenue’s second Open Streets Fest, starting May 15th and repeating every Sunday, until October 30th.
“Last fall we did eleven Sundays. This year we’ll more than double that,” says Nicole Paynter, executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). Some 40 vendors have signed up to take to the blocked-off Columbus Avenue streets on Sundays, offering tastings, sidewalk sales or other entertainment. “We got a lot of great feedback from the community, so we’re very excited to be back,” says Paynter.
The Columbus Avenue program is part of the Open Streets initiative launched by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in April 2020, in collaboration with the City Council; police, parks and transportation departments; as well as local BIDs and community organizations. It was an early pandemic-era attempt to give New Yorkers — particularly those with few public park options — more space to meet and relax while social distancing.
Columbus Avenue’s program is one of 156 locations that will host an Open Streets program this year, up from 135 in 2021. There are three BIDS on the Upper West Side—Columbus Avenue, Columbus Amsterdam, and Lincoln Square. Only the first two host Open Streets. Lincoln Square sponsors street fairs, the most recent of which took place on Sunday, May 8.
Columbus Amsterdam’s Open Streets, which has already begun, extends from 106th to 110th Streets on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 7 pm.
Open Streets on Columbus Avenue will run from 11 am to 7 pm on Sundays, with traffic blocked between 68th and 77th Streets, ending at the Grand Bazaar (formerly GreenFlea Market). Traffic will be cut off an hour before and an hour after to allow BIDs to set up in advance and clean the area after.
Not Everyone Is Open to Open Streets
The Open Streets program has its detractors. Many car owners dislike it because the barriers that are set up to allow pedestrian traffic, block through-streets and force drivers to navigate frustrating detours. Others complain that some streets are blocked off for pedestrian traffic, but offer little in the way of entertainment for them. A disgruntled local at one Open Streets complained that there was “nothing to do but walk around in the hot sun.” And there are enforcement issues: residents annoyed by the blockades have dismantled barriers, and driven off with them. In Greenpoint last year, protesters threw them into Newtown Creek.
Such complaints aren’t heard around Columbus Avenue’s Open Streets. The BID there has recruited a wide variety of activities, set up umbrellas to shield from the sun and staffed the area to enforce the rules. This summer, five staffers will be on hand, compared with the two who worked Columbus Open Streets in the past. According to Paynter, the staffing expansion was possible because of grants from the city, which are available to other BIDs and community groups that want to expand services for Open Streets.
In recognition of the Upper West Side’s ”very strong dog community,” says Paynter, “we’re making the rounds and getting vendors to have a full dog day and partner with an animal rescue group. By Halloween, we hope to have a dog costume contest.” Last year a vendor offered doggie ice cream, which was a big hit with the pooches.
One business returning to Columbus Avenue Open Streets is the NYC Barbershop and Museum, founded by Arthur Rubinoff, a fourth generation barber and passionate barbering memorabilia collector. His storefront is located at 290 Columbus Avenue, but for Open Streets, Rubinoff sets up a mobile barber shop across the road, where he regales clients with the history of barbering and the profession’s iconic barber poles.
He also tells the story of his barbershop on wheels, originally built so he could give his father hair care when he was hospitalized. Rubinoff operates two mobile units, which he takes to hospitals and senior centers. He has four storefront shops, three of which are on the Upper West Side.
Igor Segota, manager at Harvest Kitchen, 269 Columbus, thinks Open Streets is “great because it brings neighbors together; they get to know one another. Also, it brings more foot traffic to our businesses which have not fully recovered from the pandemic.”
Another business making its Open Streets return, with live music and extra tables in the street, is Il Violino, an Italian trattoria at 180 Columbus, which opened in 1993.
“The feedback from our customers last year was overwhelmingly positive,” says Il Violino manager Daniel Vlasceanu. “Having more space to protect customers against Covid gave us a sense of security, and we saw an increase in new customers and tourists looking to experience the open street culture.”
In-street dining “sheds” like Il Violino’s will be open for outdoor meals during Open Streets, but enjoy them while you can because, no matter how popular or charming, they will be phased out at the end of 2022, now that indoor dining has returned.
The sheds were authorized as an emergency measure when indoor dining was banned during the pandemic. Although the restaurant sheds have been popular with many New Yorkers, there’s been vocal opposition in some neighborhoods. Opponents in the Village and Alphabet City, for example, have called for an outright ban on street dining, citing noise, vermin, late night partying, trash, and sidewalks blocked for the disabled.
In February, the City Council voted to phase them out across the city, and “we don’t envision [sidewalk] sheds in the permanent Open Restaurants program,” said Program Director Julie Schipper. “They will be replaced by low enclosures and moveable furniture. No more houses.”
So enjoy them while you can.