COVID and Cabin Fever Inspire New Uses of NYC Outdoor Space This Summer

COVID and Cabin Fever Inspire New Uses of NYC Outdoor Space This Summer

Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY

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A Brooklynite rests under a magnolia tree with their dog in Prospect Park.
A woman rests under a magnolia tree with her dog in Prospect Park. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Sure, air conditioning is nice. But after the year we’ve had, who wants to stay indoors this coming summer?

Much more of city life is expected to take place in expanded public spaces in upcoming weeks — with coronavirus infection rates slowing, vaccinations growing and a year of creative thinking setting the stage for a cautious outdoors rebirth.

Plans are already rolling out for new outdoor venues, events and a return of some classic summertime rituals. At the same time, expect that warm weather crowds will likely exacerbate tussling over New York’s most ubiquitous public spaces: our streets and sidewalks.

“The pandemic really invited us to recognize that fresh air is everywhere and New York has amazing open spaces,” said Fatima Shama, executive director of the Fresh Air Fund, one of the many groups looking to squeeze more sunshine out of the Big Apple this summer.

Grab a hat and sunglasses, here’s what’s good with New York’s great outdoors this summer.

New Spaces to Stretch Out

A number of new outdoor spaces are set to open at the start of summer, giving citydwellers extra options to spread their wings while social distancing.

Manhattan’s West Side is getting two major new parks within weeks. At Pier 76, work is ongoing to convert the dreaded old NYPD tow pound into a 5.6-acre open space set to open to the public by June, the governor announced in March.

The conversion had been on the drawing board for years. The tow pound will ultimately be demolished and turned into a more permanent park, according to plans from the Hudson River Park Trust. For now, the sped-up renovation will remove the pound’s roof so people can hang out underneath its steel beams.

“Little Island” off Pier 55 on the West Side nears completion, April 20, 2021.

About a mile away, Little Island at Pier 55 — once nicknamed Diller Island for its media mogul benefactor, Barry Diller — is just about ready to launch.

The hilly park, built over the river with concrete pylons at various heights, will debut by “late spring,” said Danielle Ruff, a spokesperson for Little Island. Live performances at a 700-seat outdoor amphitheater are set to begin there in June, according to the governor’s office.

Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, dropped a cool $250 million to build the island, one of the largest philanthropic donations for park space in the city’s history. 

The Hudson River Park Trust will own and maintain the man-made island’s structure, while the the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation will pay for its staff and operation, according to Claire Holmes, a spokesperson for the Trust.

If you’re looking to stay on the mainland, Lincoln Center is converting its 16-acre campus into public park-like space with new outdoor performance venues this summer.

The idea is to turn the venue’s plaza and open areas — which were not designed for recreation — into much more accessible spaces, said Jordana Leigh, Lincoln Center’s senior director for artistic programming.

“We have this amazing land, but it’s not the most welcoming feeling to just come in — where are you going to sit?” she said.

Over the summer, the famed arts center’s plaza will become “The Green,” a 14,000-square-foot open space covered in artificial turf designed by Tony Award-winning set designer Mimi Lien.

“She’s going to transform this into a space that’s green and lush, and really welcoming,” said Leigh. “You can just come and hang out and have another space to relax in New York City.”

From the Woods to the Concrete Jungle

City kids will also have new opportunities for outdoor play through the Fresh Air Fund.

Last year, the pandemic forced the 140-year-old nonprofit — born during a tuberculosis epidemic to give the city’s youth access to the rural outdoors — to figure out new ways to operate when it cancelled its in-person 2020 season. 

Included in the shut down were the fund’s Hudson Valley sleepaway camps and all visits by kids to host families in rural areas.

“[W]e creatively used all that we know about doing what we do in the woods to just do it here,” said Shama.

The plaza at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts will be transformed into green space.

The group is building off its pandemic-inspired Summer Spaces program, begun last July to create play areas in city streets, serving children in lower-income neighborhoods and areas most affected by the COVID-19 crisis, Shama said.

The program will offer three-hour blocks of time four days a week for kids ages 5 to 12 to participate in activities like dancing, arts and crafts, outdoor science, tech, math and music lessons — all socially distanced.

“I’ve never seen such creativity with hula hoops,” Shama said of the program, which last summer used the circular toy for both fun and spacing.

Struggle for Street Space

Street space, meanwhile, is poised for a repeat as New York’s hottest commodity this summer.

Yes, indoor dining is growing. But Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance, doesn’t expect the pandemic-era al fresco dining experience to dissipate any time soon.

“Outdoor dining will continue to be an enormous part of the city’s streetscape,” he said, especially since “some people still aren’t comfortable eating indoors.”

This season may bring even more creative and beautiful outdoor dining set-ups as new eateries set up shop — dozens of restaurants opened in April alone, according to Eater’s running list. The ones that have survived may have a bit more cash flow to further spruce up the spaces owners built out in a hurry last year, Rigie predicts.

Around many of those outdoor dining set-ups, the Open Streets program will run through the summer as city government figures out how to make the pandemic-induced traffic-stopping program permanent.

The Open Streets section of Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park in 2020.

Going into Year Two of the initiative, a number of challenges to keep the street clear have cropped up. THE CITY reported Thursday that struggling restaurateurs are having a tough time making it work without funding and support from City Hall.

New liability and permitting requirements for this year’s Open Street program have become hurdles. Transportation Alternatives is leading a coalition demanding changes from City Hall, as well as more funding, “to bring this program to the next level,” an open letter from the group reads.

“Right now, the city is heavily relying on volunteers to operate and maintain Open Streets without providing a clear source of funding for those groups to maintain those Open Streets,” said Erwin Figueroa, director of organizing at Transportation Alternatives.

“Just imagine, you get to dance in the middle of the street.”

And a small but vocal number of neighbors at various Open Streets locations have fought or sabotaged the system by ripping down or driving past barricades, ignoring “No Parking” signs and harassing volunteers.

Longtime Sunnyside, Queens, resident Roz Gianutsos, a psychiatrist who is one of those volunteers and self-described “barricade lady” maintaining the Open Street on 39th and Skillman avenues.

She’s had run-ins with aggressive drivers, she said. But, “more often, we get support” from locals, said Gianutsos.

“The original conception of the Open Streets was because of physical distancing … but the reality is, it does a whole lot more,” she said. “It brings you out in connection with neighbors.”

The Arts Outdoors

New York is nothing without culture, so artists and entertainers have been finding creative ways to perform publicly for months. This summer, that effort will go into overdrive.

Broadway stars have already shown up in storefront windows and in public plazas giving surprise performances as part of NY PopsUp, a state initiative to bring music, dance and theater back to New York.

The project began in February with a performance at the Javits Center for healthcare workers by “The Late Show” bandleader Jon Batiste and will run through Labor Day. There will be hundreds of events — but because of their “impromptu nature” not all performances will be announced in advance, a press release for the program said. You’ll have to follow on social media for alerts.

The city has also begun to allow artists to apply for permits through the new “Open Culture” program that brings socially distanced performances, arts events and public rehearsals into New York’s streets.

Naomi Goldberg Haas has used the program already to bring free dance classes to seniors. She is the founding artistic director of Dances For a Variable Population, a nonprofit that promotes creative movement and dance for older New Yorkers. 

Her group took part on “day one” of Open Culture — with dance lessons on a block on East 103rd Street in East Harlem that had been closed to traffic — and said it’s been “immediately popular,” she said.

“People get really excited by it. Just imagine, you get to dance in the middle of the street. There’s room, and also they feel protected,” she said.

A child jumps to pop a large and streaking soap bubble near Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, April 20, 2021.

The events tend to draw a crowd, though they are not necessarily meant to be performances.

“People come by just because the sight of older people dancing is very inspiring,” she said. Some want to join in then and there, but for safety reasons, they have to register first.

“Then they come the next week,” Haas added.

Meanwhile, some major outdoor performance classics are coming back in 2021, including the Tribeca Film Festival, which is slated to take place partially outdoors in June. SummerStage will offer live music events in city parks this summer, though exact performers and dates have yet to be announced.

At Lincoln Center, the Restart Stages program will bring a number of cultural organizations to the venue’s new outdoor performances spaces. A number of cultural organizations, including the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance and the Harlem Arts Alliance, are set to perform and tickets will be free on a first come, first served basis.

And, forsooth, Shakespeare in the Park will be back after its 2020 season cancellation. The Public Theater will stage “Merry Wives,” adapted from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed by Saheem Ali. As always, tickets are available only through a daily distribution in Central Park and in a lottery at the Public Theater.

Return of the Classics

Splashing in the pool, eating a hotdog in the stands, riding the Cyclone — rejoice! Your New York summertime favorites are coming back. Here’s more of what you have to look forward to:

  • City kids can cannonball once again: Nearly all public pools are opening on June 26, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month. That’s a big change from last year, when most pools were shuttered all summer and only a handful opened for the last half of the season.
  • City zoos will roar back with 50% capacity as of late April.
  • Baseball has stepped back up to the plate, with Yankee Stadium and Citi Field cleared to fill ballpark seats up to 20% capacity for now.

Coney Island’s amusements at Luna Park are back in business — though some rides set to open in 2019 are still not cleared for takeoff, as THE CITY reported earlier this month.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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