This post would have made a much better podcast, with a little snark and chuckle over the swift and all too predictable change in the American heart… but alas, I’m never home alone in my small apartment to record anymore, so a blog post it is!
Recently a popular local bar, Nail Creek Pub in Utica, New York outlined a proposal to close a portion of Varick Street so that their customers, as well as patrons of other bars on the small stretch of road might have more room to enjoy an adult beverage or 6. Varick Street is a small right of way, but it is the epicenter of the Friday and Saturday night party scene in this hard working city of 60,000 people. It is also home to the famed FX Matt Brewery, maker or Saranac beers as well as Central New York’s bohemian brew of choice, Utica Club.
The proposal made it to social media… and where stories like these are usually chicken fodder for “I-wanna-drive-and-park-everywhere” pundits, the social media comments surprisingly showed an overwhelming support for the street closure. Suddenly, the frantic desire to drive and park on this tiny street gave way to the desire to drink and party at a safe distance.
It took a pandemic to reveal the fact that the one thing Americans love more than their cars is drinking. I can’t argue.
Sadly, the proposal was quickly shot down for multiple reasons, namely liability with the city. But one of the other reasons cited for denying closure of part of the street (not cited in the linked article) was that it would not be fair to other bars that could not have access to the same sort of street closure.
Wait, was I hearing this right? Traditionally, the hardest part of advocating for street closures, parking removal and traffic calming is convincing local business owners that these will be good for their bottom line. Countless efforts across the country to take excessive car infrastructure and give it back to pedestrians and cyclists have been struck down by the insistence of shop and restaurant owners that this will be the death of their business, despite information that shows otherwise.
And yet here it was, a small business asking for a street closure, and a sea of commenters who were almost universally in favor of it. And not one “but where will I park?” The world has truly been turned on its head.
So we know the formula… people will happily give up car access if it means they can still party with friends at will. When priorities are restructured in our society, our personal priorities respond accordingly.
I write this because, as much as our cities are taking it at the shins right now, there are some positives to be had. One is that the pandemic has caused us to think differently and creatively about space in our communities, and how we distribute and utilize said space. And while this particular effort to reclaim space from the automobile was denied, it was a first step. Across the nation, cities have successfully closed streets, and the results have been extremely positive. Perhaps the city of Utica, in time, can look to these examples and see that closing a small street to traffic in favor of safe access for pedestrians and bar-goers could be a very powerful addition to the community.