People eating and drinking at outdoor restaurants on a summer day in one of New York City's Open Streets
Open Street with dog. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

Late last March, New York City piloted the program that would eventually become Open Streets. There was no outdoor dining yet and little outdoor socializing, so the original vision was less “public plazas” and more “giving people places to be far away from one another outside.” It didn’t work, but it is easy to forget the initial program’s failures because of everything that has happened since. By the summer, New York City had more than 67 miles of Open Streets — less than the original target but more than anywhere else in the U.S. — and had introduced a second initiative, called Open Streets: Restaurants, allowing restaurants to spill out beyond their barricaded outdoor eating areas and into the streets themselves. Now, with the weather warming up, it’s time to look at how the program will move forward this year and what it means for both restaurants and diners — as well as the post-pandemic future.

What is Open Streets, exactly?
There are three intersecting programs at work here: Open Streets, which turns stretches of roadway into open pedestrian plazas by restricting vehicular traffic; Open Restaurants, which allows restaurants to apply to use the sidewalk or curb lane alongside their businesses for outdoor seating and service (with proper barriers); and — the final piece of the puzzle — Open Streets: Restaurants, which was not a great name for a program but did have a certain logic because it allows Open Restaurants to extend beyond their own barriers into Open Streets.

The first notable change this year is the name. The Department of Transportation, which oversees the program, has since dropped the Open Streets: Restaurants designation, so now in-street dining is just part of Open Streets (even though not all Open Streets have in-street dining).

People have decided the whole idea is basically good?
According to at least one survey, yes. Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn is a prime example of what Open Streets can look like at its best. “When we started it, in our minds, it was really about helping to support the hospitality industry on Vanderbilt Avenue,” says Gib Veconi, a musician who, as chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, spearheaded the effort to open Vanderbilt Avenue last August. “The community embraced it with an enthusiasm that allowed it to take on a life of its own. Eventually people from other neighborhoods all over the city started to come to Vanderbilt Avenue on weekends. We had musicians that came. People would picnic on the street medians. One weekend, a couple got married on the street.”

Mazel tov!

Was it good for the restaurants?
Many restaurants along Vanderbilt say it was a lifeline. “It just absolutely beyond changed everything,” says Ellen Fishman, who owns Amorina, a low-key neighborhood pizza joint. She estimates business was up at least 25 percent above where it would have been during a normal, non-pandemic summer.

“It essentially doubled our revenue because of the extra seating,” agrees David Stockwell, who owns the Italian-leaning Faun. “Just the extra throngs of people who were coming through — that gave us a different kind of exposure.” In fact, Crain’s reports that restaurants along the avenue saw a 54 percent jump in customer visits in August, when Open Streets was in action, as opposed to the month before, when it was not. This year, restaurateurs along the avenue are hoping that, with the luxury of planning, they’ll do even better. Stockwell, for example, has bought lighter outdoor furniture for the occasion; Fishman is expanding into weekend lunch.

Sounds great.
Yes, but those are hardly universal numbers. In neighborhoods with less enthusiasm — or fewer prime locations — it can be difficult. “I single-handedly applied,” says Gertie owner Nate Adler, who oversaw the opening of Grand Street between Marcy Avenue and Roebling Street. “It was this long, arduous process,” he recalls, and while he had thought he would have the support of nearby restaurants, he had trouble getting other businesses onboard. Without that collective block-party energy, he says, keeping it going “just became a chore.”

Did all that work eventually pay off financially?
“No,” Adler says, with the caveat that his Open Street didn’t actually start until the fall. “So I can’t tell you definitively whether we would have benefited more from it if we’d had it all summer.” He will soon find out, though, because, despite the frustrations of last year, he’s gearing up to try again.

How does a street become an Open Street?
It’s confusing. The DOT oversees regulations and big-picture planning — if you file an application for an Open Street, you file with the DOT — but the agency doesn’t manage the day-to-day operations. Instead, it works with what it calls “community partners.” (Initially, the city picked which streets to open and put the NYPD in charge of management, but at this point, for all practical purposes, “the NYPD’s not really involved,” according to Erwin Figueroa, director of organizing at the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.)

Most Open Streets run between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., though there are variations. Bleecker Street, for example, is optimized for the dinner rush. Some Open Streets are open seven days a week, while others are weekends only and sometimes less than that. Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, for example, is an Open Street only on Saturdays; 41st Avenue in Queens does Fridays only.

When does the program start this year?
Theoretically, at least, it’s allowed to run year-round. But while some streets managed to run straight through the winter — in part to avoid ceding hard-won ground back to traffic — others shut down for the season. Restaurant operators were less excited about spending the winter serving unheated tables in the middle of the roadway, and volunteers were somewhat less eager to go out and patrol the barriers in the frigid slush.

So who’s in charge?
At this point, the streets that are open, including all of the Open Streets: Restaurants, are managed by volunteers — community associations, BIDs, or sometimes restaurants, which operate with the city’s partnership but not its financial support.

That means it’s up to those groups to make it work — not a minor undertaking. Open Streets, in all their permutations, require constant management: At the very least, someone has to put up the barriers on time, take down the barriers on time, replace the barriers when they get moved (which they often do), and fix them when they get broken (which they often do).

Open Streets with roadway dining are even more labor intensive, as Veconi, from Vanderbilt Avenue, explains: “Because restaurants are out serving in the street, there’s a requirement that the Open Streets: Restaurant have marshals out on the street for the duration of the closure to make sure that all of the guidelines about placement of barriers and the areas the restaurants are allowed to serve in are being followed.”

Sounds complicated!
It also costs money.

I thought they were managed by volunteers?
Well, yes, but a mostly unfunded all-volunteer program is, one may suggest, not ideal for building a sustainable or equitable program. For example, last year, Vanderbilt Avenue ran on a crew of 50 volunteers and the energy of overwhelming neighborhood support. This year, however, it will have to hire at least some paid staff. “When we started talking about this year, we realized very quickly: This is 33 weekends long,” Veconi says. “We could not hope to be able to schedule the volunteers we’d need to do all of that.” So far, the Bring Open Streets: Restaurants Back to Vanderbilt Avenue! GoFundMe has raised $23,650 of the $25,000 it estimates it will need to fund the spring season. Participants are hoping, Veconi says, to lean on corporate sponsors for summer and fall.

But Veconi is also upfront about the limitations of the Vanderbilt approach, which ultimately runs on a combination of disposable income, community enthusiasm, and organizers who are comfortable navigating cumbersome city bureaucracy. “We were able to do it because we have a community of people who are really enthusiastic about the program and have the means to help us fundraise to pay for it,” he says. “But as a city program, it has to reach neighborhoods all over the city, not just affluent neighborhoods.”

But the restaurants that already applied last year should be all set, right?
Not exactly. Here’s Adler, from Gertie: “I actually just got a call from the DOT. I had gotten an email from the DOT that said, ‘Oh, you need to reapply if you want to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I have to reapply? You have all my information.’ And the guy on the call was like, ‘Actually, you know, it will be pretty easy. Just, like, say you were already doing it. It’s not a big deal.’” All prospective Open Streets — both new and returning — must file an application laying out the details of their proposal. Increased (but still limited) funding is available this year too but only to groups with official nonprofit status.

So every Open Street needs a group of volunteers to manage it, and the hours or days it is open can vary depending on all sorts of different factors?
Yes. You can see the full list of Open Streets and their hours here.

Is this going to last forever?
There’s no guarantee, but people are working to make that happen. As Veconi points out, if you had said two years ago that you were going to close Vanderbilt Avenue for three nights every weekend, “people would have looked at you and said, ‘What did you have to drink?’ But in a crisis, you try all sorts of things to try to get through. And sometimes those ideas turned out to be things that were pretty good ideas.”

For it to be sustainable in the long term, though, the program would eventually need real support from the city — a fact the mayor at least seems to acknowledge. “We’ve got to sort that out,” Bill de Blasio told a Politico reporter last week. “But I think we also found, with everything we do, some places worked really great. Most places worked great. Some places didn’t work as well as planned, and, you know, new options will be looked at but I’m very confident that Open Streets is going to be a big part of this year in New York City and the future. It was an incredibly positive experience, and we’ve just got to keep improving it and fine-tuning it as we go along.”

That sounds pretty wishy-washy.
Well, yeah.

So will I be able to eat shrimp cocktail and drink martinis outside this summer?
Yes, and with any New Yorker over the age of 16 becoming eligible for the coronavirus vaccine next week, it looks increasingly likely that you’ll be able to do it inside as well, if you want to. But why? The summer of the ecstatic post-vaxx block party is (almost) upon us (hopefully)! So let us drink our martinis in the sun while we can.