Updated: Feb 19
BRAVE NEW WORLD.
Southeast of Morningside Heights, Manhattan Valley business owners grapple with COVID and Columbia.
By Annelie Hyatt.
The sun consumes the streets, rescuing the asphalt from the burgeoning October chill. It is Saturday afternoon on Amsterdam Avenue, and the streets are closed to vehicle traffic; pedestrians can venture out of quarantine to eat under a restaurant’s canopied outdoor seating area, or they may simply ditch the pavement for the wide breadth of the streets, unimpeded by its normally suffocating traffic.
The Columbus-Amsterdam Business Improvement District (BID) has overseen Amsterdam Avenue Open Streets since the middle of August, when the NYC Department of Transportation permitted them to bar cars from 97th Street to 110th Street on weekends. This endeavor does not impact Morningside Heights, which has yet to announce any Open Streets programs in their neighborhood.
Open Streets enables restaurants to extend their seating areas into the streets, where many customers shed their masks and converse with friends as they eat. Parents push their children in strollers, residents run their errands, and people spend their afternoons outdoors, their bones still aching from the chronic loneliness of the past half-year.
Wandering the streets of Manhattan Valley, it is easy to forget its dynamic history. In the early 18th century, it constituted but a small section of Bloomingdale Road, which ran from Madison Square to West 147th Street. The neighborhood gets its name from the natural depression that occurs on the Upper West Side. Much of its tenement architecture was constructed in the early 1800s while it was populated by German and Irish immigrants. In the 1950s and 1960s, white flight beset the neighborhood, leaving a vacuum that many Latinx residents filled. Although the area began to gentrify as early as the 1980s, and its population of white residents has increased, Latinx people remain the most represented group in the neighborhood, constituting 40% of residents, in comparison to the 27% of residents that are white, the 21.1% of residents that are Black, and the 4.5% of residents that are Asian, according to a 2018 study conducted by Columbia.
Similar to many of the neighborhoods in the city that sustained severe disinvestment in the 1970s and 1980s, Manhattan Valley gained notoriety for its crime rates and gangs. The neighborhood, though, began to consciously distance itself from this reputation in the nineties. Associations such as the Columbus-Amsterdam BID were created to provide employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for local residents, and have since supported a number of small businesses that serve the neighborhood’s diverse population.
In response to the pandemic, the BID has restructured Manhattan Valley to accommodate its people, who are free to spill onto the streets in the absence of spatial restrictions. This portrait of vibrant city life was inconceivable in March, when nearly two-thirds of the restaurants in Manhattan Valley closed their doors.
“No one was coming around,” said Norma Jean Darden, who co-owns the Southern restaurant Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too on 110th street. “Everyone was in a panic. You would see people with huge boxes of food from grocery stores, because they didn’t know how long they’d be in their homes. And so long as they were buying all that food and cooking it at home…” Darden laughed.
As revenues plummeted, many restaurant owners discovered additional expenses brought on by the pandemic. “The amount of staff needed has gone up,” said Jacob Poznak, the owner of Moonrise Izakaya, a Japanese gastropub that celebrated its first-year anniversary in October located on 96th street. Not only did their number of tables rise due to the increased dining space provided for them, but the distance traveled by waiters did as well. “Whereas pre-COVID, servers would handle multiple tables at one time, given the cleanliness and sanitation processes we’ve implemented, you can’t carry food outside for two different tables at one time. You have to make two different trips.”
Most restaurants had to subsist on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federal Small Business Administration loan meant to help businesses continue to pay their employees. But for many, this money is running out―or already has.
“I’ve started to make decisions on whether I can continue assigning the same amount of shifts my employees are working now,” said Steve Hlay, the owner of Crepes on Columbus, near 109th Street. Hlay was excited about the possibility of a second federal stimulus package: “That will get us through the spring, because this is going to last another six months.”
Some owners regard the government’s policies as damaging. “My crew is getting unemployment,” Darden said. “If you’re making the same amount of money not working, who wants to work?”
While owners widely agree that the outdoor seating policies are a tremendous help to their restaurants, everyone worries about the impending threat of winter. “We are building a roof around the street dining, and then for the tables on the sidewalk, we ordered a permanent tent,” Poznak said. “We are getting heaters for every area.” They’re even planning to clothe cold patrons. “Starting next week, we’re going to sell sweatshirts at cost, so we’re not trying to make money on them. We’re just trying to help someone who is cold, and the heaters aren’t doing it for them.”
At Miss Mamie’s, Darden feels less confident. Her outdoor seating area is not canopied; she can’t seat customers when it rains, much less when it snows or sleets. She already feels indebted to those she couldn’t serve during the pandemic, and she worries about those numbers increasing as the cold months further frustrate her desires to conduct business as usual.
“Now they tell us, ‘You can do it all winter long,’ but I’m not following that,” Darden said, referring to the indefinite extension of the outdoor seating policy that was passed in late September. “Do I have to put on galoshes and boots and scarves and bring the food out when it’s snowing?”
Hlay elaborated on the limitations imposed by strict capacities, which are designed to keep customers distant. “The old idea was to get as many people in and serve them and turn tables and do the best you can. And that just can’t happen.”
Because Manhattan Valley restaurants also depend on students at Columbia and other nearby institutions, their revenue has been devastated by this fall’s smaller population on and near campus.
“I used to have a good relationship with them,” Darden said. “I did weddings at Columbia in the Chapel. I did fraternities and sororities. We used to do a lot of catering and drop-offs at Columbia and participated in a lot of their functions. But we haven’t heard from anyone this year.”
Hlay concurred. “Mostly, we are really popular with all of the colleges and universities in the area,” he said. “They would probably be our first major patrons.”
Restaurants did see their revenues increase, though, as students returned to the area in September. Many relocated to Manhattan Valley, where rents tend to be more affordable than those in Morningside Heights.
“We’ve been open for three and a half years, and from the very beginning we have noticed the impact that the students make,” said Angel Hidalgo, the owner of Demitasse Cafe on 108th street. “Whenever it’s vacation, our revenue drops dramatically. Just as soon as students started arriving in the neighborhood, we can see the biggest impact on sales.”
Restaurant owners thus raise the perennial―and perennially fraught―question of Columbia’s impact on nearby neighborhoods. While it is undeniable that the flood of affluent or soon-to-be affluent students into Manhattan Valley has contributed to a rise in rents and the subsequent displacement of many of its lower-income residents, Columbia is now an entrenched economic force in the area, and small businesses have come to rely on its operations.
Peter Arndtsen, the Manager of the Columbus-Amsterdam BID paints a more rosy picture of neighborhood relations. “Columbia students are a cherished part of the people that come to visit the avenue, both Amsterdam and Columbus,” he said. “It is hard with them not being here.”
But setting students aside, Arndtsen was more concerned about the University’s neglect to inform the Columbus-Amsterdam BID of their commercial ventures in the area. “Back a number of years ago, they told us that they would notify us if they wanted to buy a building. That did not happen the way it was supposed to,” he said. “I would like to think that they are supporting local businesses, but I have not gotten that sense from them.”
Arndtsen has been at the forefront of Amsterdam Avenue Open Streets. Alongside a team of six other BID employees, he opens and closes the streets each weekend, lugging barriers to and from the curb line. Opening the streets presented a unique set of challenges for the BID, in part because of the avenue’s various bus and truck routes as well as the strained fourteen blocks it covers—it is longer than the average New York BID.
“When the pause was first announced, less than a third of our restaurants and businesses were open. We’re now up to 90 percent,” Arndtsen said. “Many of them are mom-and-pop businesses, and you get to know these people, and see how they are stretching themselves to make this work.”
The BID plans to focus its resources on Open Streets for the foreseeable future. “We are looking at heating, and how to deal with that. We’re trying to think about how to move forward,” Arndtsen said. “We have tried to raise the standard of the neighborhood―of what it means to live in the neighborhood and to visit it.”
There’s a poignancy to strolling down Amsterdam these days, surrounded by strangers and restaurants and so much space aching to be filled. There is the sense that people are reclaiming what has been lost―from the cars, perhaps, or more accurately, from the secluded, paranoid lifestyle that has emerged during quarantine. Winter bites at the arms, a reminder of the transience of this moment: it is easy to imagine the streets once again devoid of people, the wooden chairs rotting amidst a dead, sinister chill. And yet there is a Sisyphean bliss to the masked children running in the playground, to the people laughing while seated at their socially distanced tables, to the smell of fresh tacos wafting to one’s nose. It is the sight of a people learning to open up again.