9 The Management of Spaces

From: City

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9 THE MANAGEMENT OF SPACES If you want to seed a place with activity, the first thing to do is to put out food. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor or two at the corner and a knot of people around. Vendors have a good nose for spaces that work. They have to. They are constantly testing the market, and if business picks up in one spot, there will soon be a cluster of vendors there. This will draw more people and yet more vendors, and sometimes so many converge that pedestrian traffic is slowed to a crawl. Fifty-ninth Street off Fifth is a notable example. In front of Rockefeller Center one day during the Christmas holidays I counted the biggest concentration ever: fifteen vendors in a forty-foot stretch of Fifth Avenue. The civic establishments of most cities deplore vendors. There are enough ordinances to make it illegal for vendors to do business at any spot where business is good, and if they are licensed, it is still illegal. The police don't like to bear down on vendors but the merchants are always getting on their back to enforce the ordinances. Sometimes there are sweeps, the police arriving with vans to haul the vendors' carts away. These confrontations draw big crowds, and they are almost always on the vendors' side. By default, food vendors have become the caterers of the city's outdoor life. They flourish because they are servicing a demand the downtown establishment does not. The optical leverage of open air cafes is tremendous. For basic props nothing more is needed than several stacks of chairs and tables and some canvas. Put up the tables, bring on the waitresses and the customers, and the visual effect can be stunning. [142] CITY And well they should be. By default of others, the vendors have become the caterers of the city's outdoor life. They flourish because they are servicing a demand that is not being met by the regular commercial facilities. Plazas are parasitic in this respect. Hardly a one has been constructed that did not involve the destruction of luncheonettes and restaurants. The vendors fill this void, and how important they are can become quite clear when they are temporarily shooed away by the police. A lot of the life of the plaza goes away too. New York City is less puritanical than many other cities. Some have ordinances that not only forbid the purveying of food outdoors but the eating of it as well. If you ask officials about this, they will tell you of the dreadful things that would happen were the restrictions lifted: the dangers of tainted food, the terrible litter problems, the bankrupting of cafes. One of the most interesting hearings I have attended was before the Dallas City Council on a measure enfranchising food vendors. There was strong citizen support, mostly on the grounds that they would liven up the city's street life. The restaurant owners said it would be catastrophic. It wasn't just the danger of poisoning, or the swamping of the streets with litter, they said. A great moral issue was at stake. If this measure was passed, said the principal spokesman for the restaurateurs, it would signal the end of the free enterprise system as we know it. The measure did pass. There was a marked improvement in the liveliness of the streets of downtown, including the beneficent congestion of two major street corners. The litter problem was reasonably well handled. The restaurant owners did not go bankrupt. For a number of reasons, more good new ones were opening up than ever before. Outdoor eating has a strong shill effect—which is to say, food attracts people, who attract more people. We had an excellent opportunity to test this effect through a semi-controlled experiment at the rear plaza of the Exxon Building. At first, there was no food. There was not much of a crowd, either; usage was below par for the amount of space. At our suggestion, management put in a food cart. It was an immediate success. More people came. Soon a regular pushcart hot dog vendor set up shop on the sidewalk; then another. Business continued to pick up. Next, the management had one of its restaurant tenants install a buffet open-air cafe on the plaza. More people came, and yet more—and...


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