From the Archive

In which urban planners (re)discover that food brings people together

September 2nd, 2010 at 12:24 am ET

photo.JPG…namely, that “if your aim is to attract people, food and drink are the main attractions,” in the words of Philip Myrick of the Project for Public Spaces.

The occasion is this story about cafe life in Portland — you can read it. Myrick’s point is that if you want people to organically gather on the streets of your neighborhood, you need food and drink, suitable for all ages and stages in the community, sold and served in a way that lets people consume them in an organic fashion outdoors or visible from the street.

All true. But argh!

I don’t disagree with any of this, it’s all true, and I mean no disrespect to the exceptionally committed people at PPS — my reaction is more a sense of frustration and missed opportunity that this isn’t intuitively obvious, that it has to be said, and re-said, and re-re-said every decade or so, to every generation. If you, dear reader, are just figuring this out now, what have you been doing to your own downtown for the past 25 years? And how many young people have you driven away, how many working-age people have you effectively locked in their office buildings all day for how many days/weeks/years, how many old people have you consigned to spend their waning days sitting in their apartments (or, worse, sitting on a bench in the mall) because there’s nowhere worth going to?

Let’s get with it, America!

Anyone older than about 60 who grew up in a healthy community probably already knows that food is at the center of everything social. Nevermind community events like church socials and picnics — every town over a thousand people had a drugstore, with big plate-glass windows and a soda fountain or lunch counter, once upon a time, where you could see people going about the private business of eating in a semi-public way. And even younger people know it, if we’ve lived part of our lives in a healthy big city. I was living in the newly minted municipality of West Hollywood when the first round of modern artisanal coffehouses appeared in the early 1990s; the moment cafes started to appear, whole new populations began to use the street. Nothing has driven the sidewalk re-revitalization of Santa Monica Boulevard over the past decade more than streetfront dining.

Closer to home, think of New York: the most transformational change to the streetscape in the five years I’ve been here has been the simple addition of lots of chairs and tables all over the place, including in what used to be traffic lanes in the middle of Times Square. People want to sit down and, very often, eat and drink, in public. What are the healthiest public spaces in Lower Manhattan? One of them is Stone Street, which today is given over almost entirely to street dining. (Photo above: the pop-up cafe thrown up by the DOT on nearby Pearl Street last month.)

Or look at the opposite case. I was on a message-board thread this week about Fulton Mall, the tattered retail strip in downtown Brooklyn that (due to the volume of people passing through, and the lack of local alternatives) commands among the highest retail rents in New York City, despite the fact that nobody can stand it. Sure, Fulton Mall is filthy and disorderly and way too crowded, but if you’ve ever been to, say, the Venice boardwalk in Los Angeles, you know that filth and disorder and crowds are not sufficient to make a place unlovable. There’s something else. And something landscape designer Gil Lopez said on the list reminded me that one of the reasons everyone hates Fulton Mall is also one of the most obvious: there’s nothing to eat except junk, and there’s nowhere to sit down and eat it!

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