The dining shed—soon to be banned in NYC—awakened a sense of what’s possible with the city street
Graphic by Alex Hinton | Photos courtesy of Aaron Timms | iStock
Introduced at the height of the pandemic, these ad-hoc sidewalk structures prompted a host of worthy questions about the use of public space.
As Covid raged through the last two years, dining and drinking sheds of varying complexity and “sheddiness” annexed the gutters of New York City: patios enclosed by flower beds, bubble pods for individual dining parties, beer huts half-open to the sidewalk, trellised gardens thick with vegetation and piped music, tents and tarps fastened to walls and held down by sandbags as if in anticipation of an approaching invasion, and countless structures that riffed on the design of the ski lodge, the wilderness cabin, the Tuscan villa, the truckstop diner, the yurt, and the yacht. In a cityscape historically dominated by glass, steel, brick, and tile, corrugated fiberglass and plywood suddenly became an indelible part of New York’s visual grammar, as recognizably “of this place” as the tenement facade, the fire escape, or the mountain of uncollected trash.
Undoubtedly some of the more fanciful designs, put up at great expense by tony restaurants catering to the rich, offered a street-level reminder of the city’s enduring inequalities. The sheds, also known as “pods” or (more unfortunately) “streeteries,” were not a perfectly democratic institution; some were more luxurious than others, and not everyone in the city could afford to enjoy them. They were also noisy, attracting frequent complaints from residents accustomed to less boisterous streets. And since they were often fully enclosed and barely ventilated, few of these structures offered much protection against infection, defeating their alleged pandemic-fighting purpose..
In a city starved by Covid of meaningful opportunities for social interaction, the sheds became an important sanity-preserving island of human contact.
But the shed itself quickly became a cross-borough institution, as much a part of dining out in Jackson Heights as on the Upper East Side, a significant extension for the budget family restaurant and high-end degustation temple alike. Of the 12,000 outdoor dining permits issued by the city under the Open Restaurants program since the start of the pandemic, half have been for restaurants outside Manhattan. As grating as some of the more outré dining structures in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods were, the shed’s most elemental and common form was the lightly adorned nail-and-plywood shack—and the economics of shed construction, pitting the cost of the buildout against viable seating space, made sense for restaurants at all levels of capitalization. The new scheme was also popular, ragingly so: In a city starved by Covid of meaningful opportunities for social interaction, the sheds became an important sanity-preserving island of human contact.
Reclaimed largely from repurposed parking and sidewalk space in the worst days of the pandemic’s first summer and fashioned into a kind of stationary liferaft for restaurants, the dining shed is now entering its final days in New York. City authorities have signaled that while outdoor dining will continue to be allowed on both sidewalks and the street space normally given to cars, enclosed sheds will soon be prohibited. (Umbrellas, tents and barriers will still be allowed.) But the dining shed as we know it will come to an end, closing a negotiation between the hospitality industry and public space that broke new ground. Other cities throughout the country implemented outdoor dining programs to support businesses hit by the pandemic, but New York saw the fullest exploration of what was possible with the streetside shed—and it’s the experience of this city that will serve as a laboratory for the national post-pandemic transition. The sheds awakened a popular sense of what’s possible with the city street. Now a more delicate task looks set to begin: figuring out which transformations should survive their demise.
Other cities throughout the country implemented outdoor dining programs to support businesses hit by the pandemic, but New York saw the fullest exploration of what was possible with the streetside shed—and it’s the experience of this city that will serve as a laboratory for the national post-pandemic transition.
The shed’s reimagining of public space represents one of the pandemic’s more surprising legacies, especially when you consider the direction of development in pre-pandemic New York. In 2019, a few months before Covid hit, the only shed attracting any kind of discussion here was The Shed. A kinetic new arts complex in the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s western edge, The Shed opened in 2019 amid a flurry of high-minded pronouncements about democratizing access to art. Explaining the structure’s name, artistic director and CEO Alex Poots told The Guardian: “I liked the idea of the shed because it’s where you make things.” The retractable skin covering The Shed’s main performance hall, looming large over 30th Street, seemed to promise a new collective understanding of public space, of the shifting relationship between inside and outside, private money and civic wealth, leisure and democracy. On the other hand, it suggested nothing visually so much as an uncircumcised penis, creating the impression, as it was rolled back and forth on its giant scrotal wheels, of a corporate arts establishment intent on relentlessly hammering the city. Naming sponsors of The Shed’s main spaces included Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin.
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As thinkpieces multiplied questioning The Shed’s role in “artwashing” Hudson Yards—a new playground for the one percent, complete with luxury apartments, supertall commercial towers, and upscale shopping and dining—the pandemic intervened to put a major dent in the new arts venue’s activities. The economy seized under the strain of Covid and restaurants, like many local businesses dependent on face-to-face interaction, scrambled to stay alive. Before long, New York was transformed into a city of two sheds: the improvised, DIY dining shed of the pandemic, and The Shed of Hudson Yards, with its elite patronage, deep pockets, and gestures toward community outreach. With something like a global post-pandemic return to normality (hopefully) approaching at last, the visual contest between these two versions of urban life now seems certain to be settled in favor of the latter. But the questions prompted by the former—about the types of cities we want to live in, and who should benefit from the redevelopment of urban space —will hopefully endure.
In its most common nail-and-plywood form, the shed changed the aesthetic of the city, suggesting a different version of New York to itself. In a city made safe for corporate interests, in which the CVS, the Bank of America, and the Blink Fitness have come to dominate the horizon, the sight of these shabby, low-fi, cobbled-together huts lining the streets, their backs turned to traffic and often open to the walking public, introduced a charmingly discordant corrective. They showed that the city could still be a place built on the ancient art of making do, rather than one made safe for those who never go without. Here at last was an urban reality birthed from the very qualities that New Yorkers always fancied themselves to possess—resourcefulness, adaptability, cunning—and that an increasingly generic and policed city sought to suppress. After decades in which the city was given up to the supertall dreams of developers, the dining shed brought New York back down to a human scale.
High-minded critics decried the sheds for their visual blight and “performative urbanism.” Those less charitable complained that the structures were becoming a magnet for drugs or—worse—the homeless, as if affording even a token of temporary shelter during a housing crisis was a mortal injury to the city. However accidentally, the restaurant, often depicted as a visible symbol of gentrification and dispossession, found itself in the strange position of opening up—quite literally—space for a new use of public land. The dining sheds were an emergency measure, introduced out of financial necessity, that forced a much-overdue reconsideration of a critical question: What is the street for? Who owns it?
In a technical sense, of course, the answer was and remains: the state. And whatever the emancipatory promise of the restaurant’s initial advance beyond the curbside, the city’s residents weren’t “all in the gutter,” as Oscar Wilde once said. Only some of us were: The space for enhanced participation in civic life created by the sheds mostly rewarded those able to afford to eat out regularly. But in a pedestrian-friendly city of small apartments like New York, that constituency is still large. The dining shed expropriated the roadway, from cars, for people—a reclaiming of the commons, if only in the service of middle-class pleasure, that would have been virtually unthinkable prior to the pandemic. This was a genuinely radical break: New York, for all its legendary walkability, is still in many ways the city that Robert Moses built, a kingdom of the car.
What did those in the dining sheds do with this conquered land? They sat there and enjoyed themselves—enjoyed food, drink, each other’s company, and the spectacle of the street. The shed may be a place where you make things, as The Shed’s CEO once said, but these sheds were places where we ate things—sites of purely static consumption. The old America of builders was now a nation of spenders. The shed’s popularity recalled something about the national nostalgia for a more practical past, mirroring the bipartisan lament that “we don’t build things anymore.” It became a symbol fit for a financialized consumption economy whose defining operational characteristic is the perpetual management of crisis.
They revealed the street as a place to sit, to rest, to be, rather than a mere place of passage, opening the way to more creative and inclusive conceptions of streetspace beyond outdoor dining.
The sheds were neither a truly public space nor a venue for authentic interaction between diners and the passing public: More often than not they offered, as do regular brick-and-mortar restaurants, refuge from the city rather than full immersion within it. But in New York, space to pause remains a valuable commodity. Walk the streets of the city today and the dining sheds you’ll see—many of them now neglected and falling apart like wreckage of ships run aground on the gutter—more likely serve as gathering points or rest stops for random passersby than as venues for dining. Even in their late-pandemic dilapidation, dining sheds offer us a reminder of what New York has lost as it’s upzoned its way to corporate respectability: a spirit of coexistence, dialogue, association, even friction, in short all the building blocks of a thriving urban order.
Places of the gaze rather than scenes of authentic discourse, the sheds nevertheless showed that the car is not unconquerable. They revealed the street as a place to sit, to rest, to be, rather than a mere place of passage, opening the way to more creative and inclusive conceptions of streetspace beyond outdoor dining. Schemes to pedestrianize cities, not only in New York but elsewhere throughout the country, pre-date the pandemic. But the dining shed was unique in its citywide reach—it wasn’t simply a one-off development linked to a single city block or neighborhood—and in New York, it blurred the space between sidewalk and road in a way that felt genuinely different from previous pedestrianization initiatives like Times Square. By virtue of their sheer ubiquity, the sheds have hastened a reimagining of urban space set in motion by earlier attempts to weaken the dominion of the car, engaging residents across the city in a vital question: What other uses could stretches of roadway be put to along the city’s retail and residential corridors now that we understand that this space has civic value, and need not be given up solely to cars? The “roadway cafe” that city authorities have signaled will replace the dining shed—essentially removing the shed’s roof and walls and leaving behind a semi-covered dining space enclosed by a waist-high traffic barrier—represents one answer to this question. But other answers, both imaginative and banal, surely beckon. What matters is that the question is now up for discussion—and it’s this question that represents the real legacy of the shed.
Under Frederick Law Olmsted’s old vision of public space in America, expressed most clearly in New York’s Central and Prospect Parks, civic landscapes were designed to bring together people of all classes and ethnicities in common pursuit of bourgeois recreations and pleasures. Public architecture took shape through mixing: a project the historian Mike Davis called “urban liberalism.” If the car, the highway, the Hudson Yards-style mega-development, and the hedge fund-sponsored public art boondoggle represent the death of urban liberalism, the dining shed’s disruption of the New York street’s subordination to the automobile opens one small, if closing, pathway to its resurrection. This won’t happen via the restaurant—dining out, after all, is an inherently exclusionary act—but via the possibilities for public space that the restaurant’s advance party into the street has created. Our cities need fewer Sheds, and more sheds.