A crowd of at least a dozen people waited near the corner of 10th Street and Avenue A on Tuesday night. The hottest club in town, or at least in the East Village, was actually the Manhattan Community Board 3 meeting — one of its first in-person meetings since the start of the pandemic. On the agenda: making outdoor dining permanent, meaning the streeteries that had proliferated during the pandemic would become a lasting feature in the city. On this night (and in upcoming community-board meetings around the city), the city is gathering feedback on a change to the zoning code that would allow sidewalk cafés and streeteries to expand beyond commercial and manufacturing districts to set up on residential blocks, as they have during the pandemic. While the Open Restaurants program has been a boon for the restaurant industry and for street life, there’s growing opposition to keeping streeteries around for good — and the antis were out in force, waving black-and-yellow signs that read “Outdoor Dining Is Home Invasion” and “Outdoor Dining Feeds the Rats.”
Inside the East Village Boys’ Club, over 50 people sat in crooked rows of folding chairs in the first-floor auditorium, plus around ten more stood in the back, and still more were stuck outside since the room was at capacity. As representatives from the Department of Transportation and City Planning presented details of the plan, audience members stood up from their chairs to boo and yell throughout the presentation — and it only spiraled out of control from there. Here’s how the evening went down.
6:40 p.m. | As I arrive, I see at least 12 people holding anti-streetery signs yelling at a woman handing out informational fliers about the meeting’s livestream, demanding that they be let in. One black-and-yellow sign reads, “We’re just getting over a pandemic, how can this be a good idea?” Under the word “this” are photographs of a dead rat and of trash bags piled next to a streetery.
6:43 p.m. | The seats are already full when I get into the auditorium, so I find a seat on a radiator in the back. Even though it’s a mild 70-something degrees outside, it’s insanely hot inside. I scan the crowd, which is predominantly white and late-middle-aged. A Department of Transportation rep opens the meeting with a non-restaurant-related item on the agenda — the M14 SBS route — and it’s a little hard to hear over the voices coming in through the open windows. A community-board member goes outside to ask the people who weren’t allowed in to lower their voices.
6:57 p.m. | An NYPD officer — rarely seen at community-board meetings — enters the room and stands next to me. The M14 bus presentation ends, and there are only a couple of questions. Clearly most people are here to yell about outdoor dining.
7:00 p.m. | The streetery presentation finally begins. The Department of City Planning’s Matthew Pietrus says that based on the letters his department has received and the size of the crowd, “We understand that this is a passionate issue.” He introduces the two speakers, Jennifer Sta. Ines from the DOT and Carolyn Grossman from DCP.
7:10 p.m. | The booing from the audience starts shortly after the presentation begins, and gets louder as Sta. Ines says that no matter what, outdoor dining will continue in its current form through the winter. Someone in the crowd says, “Let her speak, calm down!” When she again says that the program will carry on regardless of whether the city’s proposal passes, nearly half the room starts yelling, “WHY? WHY? WHY?” Perhaps the most elegantly dressed person in the room, a bald man decked out in a navy suit and beige shoes, yells back, “Why not? Everybody be quiet and let her speak!” Sta. Ines barely gets a word out before people start booing again and waving their signs.
7:24 p.m. | Grossman from City Planning explains how sidewalk cafés were historically regulated, and shows a map detailing the areas where they are currently allowed. People mumble loudly, and one lady yells, “Who cares about this?” Another gentleman yells something inaudible and Grossman says, not for the first time, “I ask for your patience” — to which the man responds, “I’m perfectly patient!”
7:38 p.m. | The presentation ends and members of the community board start to ask questions. A member of the community board, David Crane, says the program “is going to turn this area into an open-air alcohol zone.” Another member says the open restaurants program is a “massive land giveaway for restaurants.”
7:56 p.m. | A Latino man in a baseball hat, Francisco Valera, stands up in the audience and interrupts the DCP representative by talking about noise in his neighborhood and the audience applauds. A board member tells him to wait his turn, but he says, “I’m passionate, I have to say something” — and continues to rant about how he can’t sleep and that he loves the neighborhood before sitting back down.
7:58 p.m. | Here we go: Comments from the community begin. One minute per person is allowed. Alexis Adler, a red-haired woman in a striped dress, goes first: “These sheds are rat traps — we are inviting the next pandemic with these sheds!”
8:06 p.m. | A young guy in his 30s named Sam Zimmerman stands up and speaks in support of the program — just the second person to do so thus far. He says the meeting’s attendees are not representative of what the neighborhood actually thinks about streeteries, and that most people support the program. “People who are against it are people who come out to these things,” he says, and is promptly booed. “There’s 165,000 people in this district,” he continues. “How many of them are here? People don’t want to get screamed at by their neighbors.” Everyone mumbles loudly, and someone yells “Where are you from?” and he responds: “From here!”
8:11 p.m. | Comments continue, but some people start to head for the door. One of the board members says something to the cop standing next to me, who immediately moves toward the front of the auditorium, sitting right next to Valera — the guy who had earlier interrupted the board. Valera yells, “I don’t feel safe, sorry! Do not sit next to me, sir, because I don’t feel safe,” and moves across the room.
8:18 p.m. | The cop moves back next to me. A woman comes in with a black Dachshund dog that barks occasionally over the speakers. The comment period continues. A woman stands up to comment and points her finger at the city reps and says, “Your presentation is mistaken!”
8:32 p.m. | Things deteriorate as comments devolve into insults. “Stupid” gets thrown around a lot. A woman in a light-purple shirt stands up and says there are three bars on her block. “I have a dog, he walks and he pisses anywhere,” she adds, “so I don’t care that he pisses on someone’s feet.”
8:40 p.m. | A guy named Marcel who looks to be in his early 30s stands up and says, “You do this whole slide and you don’t mention the word ‘residents’ or the people living here — you sit here with a blank face.” He points at one of the DOT reps and adds, ”Yeah, especially you.” A board member asks the audience to stop the personal attacks. But people continue to stand up and insult the city reps.
8:46 p.m. | People start leaving and begin to fold the chairs. One of the last people to speak, an older man, implores his neighbors to spread out over the city. “There’s going to be 59 community board meetings like this, but they’re not going to come out like we are,” he said. “We have to get to those meetings — we are needed elsewhere, not just here.”
9:00 p.m. | After the meeting, a handful of anti-streetery people holding signs linger outside, talking excitedly about what they plan to do next. A few jump in front of the dazzling white beams of the NY1 cameras, ready to relive the evening.