The Power of Outdoor Seating

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Little Italy, Manhattan, NYC.

Outdoor seating. The name connotes images of khaki clad brunch goers. It’s coveted by white women in sundresses, privileged real estate for post-work happy hours. As the months grow warmer, people increasingly flock to restaurants and cafés that offer the possibility to eat outside. As though eating outside is the best possible activity one in which one could partake.

And that’s because in many ways it is. It’s a way of actively interacting with the space around you while enjoying something you’ve had to enjoy inside for months. It’s a way of watching the city, its inhabitants offering a continuous source of fleeting entertainment.

Restaurants with outdoor seating often carry a higher price-tag that restaurants that don’t, the spaces symbolically quarantined by the restaurant branded barricade separating the restaurant’s guests from the world they’re sitting outside to observe. The best kind of outdoor seating, however, is not the kind that you need to wait an hour for. It’s not the cafe that’s gated off, people’s posh dogs tied to a post. It’s when people make their own outdoor seating – when they don’t wait for anyone to tell them that their table is ready.

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Bushwick, Brooklyn, NYC.

But sitting outside as a form of urban entertainment, at least in the United States, may have started with “porch sitting,” a practice typically associated with the south. Due to high temperatures, sitting on the porch was as much a necessity as it was a luxury. While the increased ventilation played an essential role, it was the social networks that were created as a result of this outdoor seating that proved to have lasting effects. It is, perhaps, what eventually lead to the “stoop sitting” we associate today with northern cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

While the stoops themselves have existed since the Dutch settled in New York, it’s possible that the stoop as communal space came with The Great Migration. As African Americans moved North, they brought certain southern practices with them, among which would have been porch sitting. But, without a porch on which to sit, the stoop served as an ideal substitute. And as an ideal location in which to engage in community organization and activism. In New York, the stoop played such a pivotal role in African American history that the Studio Museum in Harlem modeled its entryway after the stoops in the surrounding neighborhood, designating the area as a gathering space. Such spaces have proved especially important to marginalized communities. Public spaces in which to organize not only provide comfort, but they also serve as a space in which to organize socially and politically.

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Washington Heights, Manhattan, NYC.

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Washington Square Park, Manhattan, NYC.

One is more likely to see people utilizing outdoor space in marginalized neighborhoods than, for example, on New York’s Upper East Side. Walk through Harlem or Washington Heights on a hot day and you will see people splashing in the fire hydrants, playing dominoes, and interacting with the communal space around them. Walk on the Upper East Side and the reprieve from the heat comes from a burst of air conditioning wastefully emanating from a store most people could never afford. One of the best parts about this variety of outdoor seating is that you don’t have to buy anything to use it.

And, if a stoop is unavailable, the practice manifests itself in various ways: lawn chairs, park benches, and curbs all serve as civic spaces in which neighborhoods can gather. It’s this type of “outdoor seating” that we sought to capture.

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Washington Square Park, Manhattan, NYC.

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West Village, Manhattan, NYC.

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nullnullWalking through Chinatown it becomes apparent that outdoor seating serves a significant professional purpose. Many of the stores in the neighborhood have limited space and require a space for the employees to converse, a sort of break room. Mismatched chairs line storefronts, acting as a place of reprieve, a place of removal from the chaos of the workplace. Through this space, employees are allowed to congregate, have a smoke and casual chatter.

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Sign: “This sofa is for the respect of eldest people for waiting bus. Please give up the seat for elder people. Thanks” Taken in Kensington, Brooklyn, NYC.

In her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs discusses outdoor seating as a form of community vigilance. In communities in which the police cause more problems than they create, a type of community policing is far more effective at preventing crime than an external source. Additionally, when resources in a neighborhood are scarce, the community will seek to fill those needs. In this photo, due to a lack of seating at the bus stop, the community put benches (what appear to once have been booths from a restaurant) outside to meet that need.

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Queens, Brooklyn, NYC.

Preconceived spaces of congregation come with the negative connotation that people are irrelevant because of the inorganic nature of planned and orderly created spaces. When people create their own space they have a certain freedom that is void in planned spaces. Reclaiming their space on their terms is a civic duty that promotes free speech and allows for the community to create a space that suits their specific needs.

And often, that specific need is at odds with whom the state actually seeks to serve: the ruling class. It’s well known that anti-loitering laws target minorities. People can be arrested or fined doing nothing more than, as the law states, “remaining in a particular public place for a protracted time without any apparent purpose.” There are also laws that have made it illegal to sit on the sidewalk (under the guise of obstruction) or even (as Giuliani was fond of doing) cracking down on places where people dance. Based on the racial tilt to the way these laws are enforced, it becomes apparent that what people are afraid of are places where people of color and poor people congregate. If people have places in which to communicate, then they have spaces in which to organize. And maybe that’s what the state is truly afraid of. But this also solidifies its importance.

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