The Ugly Side of New York’s Outdoor Dining Renaissance

On Wednesday afternoon, at the height of the lunch hour, Nick Accardi sat in one of his three Hell’s Kitchen restaurants, Tavola, on Ninth Avenue, and looked out toward the empty tables that lined the street, with a sense of grievance and envy. It was not as though the other restaurants nearby were doing better. They were not. But this situation was an anomaly amid the city’s vibrant outdoor dining renaissance. Even later, in the no-man’s dining hour of 3 p.m., tables in the West Village and TriBeCa were lively and full.

The problem in Mr. Accardi’s view was the vagrancy and disorder furthered by the city’s placement of so many people experiencing homelessness — among them addicts and those who are seemingly struggling with mental illness — in hotels on the West Side of Midtown. Their suffering was obvious and immense. But what was he to do now that his own livelihood and the fate of his workers seemed so precarious?

In an effort to stem the spread of Covid in the shelter system, the Department of Social Services has used more than 60 hotels around the city to more safely disperse those with nowhere to live, a measure that has been largely successful.

Hell’s Kitchen, though, has long been a repository for social maladies — strung-out junkies hanging around the Port Authority, methadone clinics, the pedestrian dead zone at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey. Before coronavirus, Mr. Accardi could handle that — eating happened inside, anyway, at a remove. Now the situation had become untenable.

The pandemic has, in effect, created bitterly competing demands for our compassion, pitting need against need. A fire put out in one place creates the eruption of another somewhere else. “We are limited to seven tables,’’ Mr. Accardi said, explaining Covid restrictions for outdoor dining. “So even if I am at full capacity — and I’m one of the busiest guys on the block — I can barely pay my labor costs, let alone rent.”

Eight years ago, Mr. Accardi bought the building that housed Manganaro’s, a 100-year-old grocery famous for its sandwiches, to open Tavola; this January, he opened Tavolino next door. Mr. Accardi lives in an apartment above Tavola, but the pandemic caused him to lose three of his eight tenants.

Last month, feeling desperate, he organized a petition of local business owners asking the city to do something that would make his stretch of Ninth Avenue, around 37th Street, more appealing to people who find themselves put off by the notion of eating outside while people who might not be wearing masks touch them and ask for money (or use tree beds as lavatories).

Mr. Accardi often calls the police — the Midtown South Precinct, in which the crime rate itself remained flat last month, is just around the corner — whenever he sees disruption at the restaurant. But by the time the police arrive, he said, some number of customers will have fled.

Why, he wondered, should his neighborhood have to bear so much of the burden of various mismanaged crises? How was it that the Upper West Side could shout and so quickly get heard? This week Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to relocate 300 homeless men from a hotel, The Lucerne, on West 79th Street, a move that followed an uproar from some in the community who galvanized, hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the city if the newest occupants of the Lucerne were not dispatched elsewhere. The mayor said that he had visited the Upper West Side and that and what he saw “was not acceptable and had to be addressed.”

As it happened, the move compelled a backlash to the backlash, as others in the community coalesced to express outrage over the apparent capitulation. “I am devastated to see the city government treat these shelter residents as chess pieces,” Corrine Low, a founder of a group called the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, said in a statement, “who can be moved around the board based on the whims of the rich and powerful.’

Mr. Accardi’s petition — which opened with the lines, “Demand your right to quality of life in Hell’s Kitchen! Close the homeless shelters in our neighborhood now! You can sign privately’’ — did little to invite sympathy and evoked a similar response.

Not long after the petition circulated, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, in Chelsea, called out its harmful rhetoric and asked for a community-led effort to help mitigate the catastrophes of homelessness. But it also acknowledged the despair of so many who worked in the restaurant industry, some of whom were now forced to rely on Holy Apostles’ services.

Mr. Accardi himself had contributed to Holy Apostles during the holidays, and for decades he has donated food and his cooking efforts to the Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street.

The stretch of Ninth Avenue below 42 Street and north of Chelsea has a storied place in the city’s food culture. The local butcher, Esposito, has been there since 1932. International Grocery is a beloved Greek market. In April, Empire Coffee succumbed to the pandemic and closed after 112 years.

Restaurants and shops remain unglamorous even as newly constructed high-rise apartment buildings have come to dominate the Far West Side. As Chelsea has given itself over to $10 million condominiums, Hell’s Kitchen became the center of a middle-class gay life in New York. Even with the arrival of Hudson Yards and its fantasyland conception of wealth several blocks west, this is one of the very last patches of Manhattan that still feels unpolished, true to something of the past — a culture worth preserving.

The problems that have arisen there since the pandemic ultimately reveal how lost the city seems to be when it comes to dealing with quality-of-life issues. After the profound and devastating failures of broken windows policing, the city seemed to opt for resignation over a system of empathic solutions. Suddenly, that has become all too visible.


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