The Assembly Design for Chinatown Dining Sheds
Photo: Trudy Giordano and A+A+A
They have been repainted, reinforced, moved and cut in half. But for three summers and nearly three winters, the nine outdoor dining structures built across Assembly for Chinatown — a pro bono collaboration between the non-profit arts group Think! Chinatown and the creative studio A+A+A – have (mostly) endured. Some have even become staples in the community. The buttery yellow structure painted with a koi pond shared between the tea and household goods shop Great Tea Imports and the Delight Wong restaurant hosted wedding receptions, retail pop-ups and art exhibitions in the two years since it was set up. “It’s a much-loved space,” says Alice Liu, whose family owns Grand Tea Imports.
Much anger has been directed at outdoor sheds — for their dilapidated appearance, for being a magnet for drunken brothers, for becoming havens for rats — but those built by Assembly for Chinatown avoided some of those pitfalls. This is because the objective of the program is not just to build streets or improve them; it is a question of supporting the entire life cycle of each shed according to the needs of local businesses, even if it means participating in their dismantling. What started in July 2020 as a lifeline for small businesses in Chinatown amid the first wave of COVID-19 and worsening anti-Asian sentiment has become a hyperlocal example of how consistent support and resources can make the program of outdoor catering in the city more responsible, more sustainable and more of an equipment for an entire neighborhood.
While some restaurants had tens of thousands of dollars to spend on the professional streets, most small businesses in the city, including those in Chinatown, didn’t have that kind of money to spend. “We’ve seen high-end restaurants really take advantage of the program, and our neighborhood was struggling with it,” says Yin Kong, director and co-founder of Think! Chinatown. Those challenges, Kong says, weren’t just financial, but had to do with the physical characteristics of Chinatown — the narrow streets, crowded sidewalks, near-constant deliveries, fierce battles over parking, and keeping streets accessible to people. old people trying to move. . On top of all that, it was difficult for “moms and pops who aren’t even on social media” to navigate changing rules and regulations, Kong says.
In the summer of 2020, during the first wave of rapid construction around the city, Think! Chinatown and A+A+A have started asking neighborhood restaurants if they need help with outdoor dining. Janie Wang, the owner of Bayard Street dessert shop Alimama Tea, had built her own street for $1,000 but wanted a sturdier and bigger structure for diners since her 300-square-foot cafe had moved to take-out. uniquely. Since Alimama has a narrow storefront, Think! Chinatown negotiated with nearby restaurant Yin Ji Chang Fen to set up a common street. Sweet Moment, a dessert shop on Mott Street, requested a mural to spruce up its simple plywood enclosure, and the Assembly for Chinatown team recruited a local artist to spruce it up with a mural of dogs and smiling cartoon cats made in bright orange and purple paint. The first “season” of outdoor dining, as the Assembly team refers to this time, was more experimental. For 388 Deli Cafe, a take-out restaurant on Eldridge Street that turned to window service due to health concerns, designers developed a compact three-seat counter that would line up with the storefront to that it is easy to manage for the owners.
This year, Grand Tea Imports decided to dismantle its hangar, which features a mural by Jia Sung.
Photo: Trudy Giordano and A+A+A
As restaurants and designers saw how people actually used dining sheds, A+A+A adapted the structures. Sweet House, another dessert café on rue Bayard, originally wanted a mobile structure that could be secured at night. A+A+A has therefore integrated wheels. When it turned out that drivers and delivery people moved the street whenever they wanted, the designers removed the wheels. Cars turning right from Mulberry to Bayard continued to hit the street at Alimama Tea, so designers shrunk the structure and installed a jersey barrier at the end closest to the corner, which reduced collisions .
When the first summer shifted to the second, it was clear that most of the streets hadn’t been built to withstand the cold, let alone an accidental run-in with a snowplow. Think!Chinatown and A+A+A were on deck again for what they call the “second season” of streeteries: winterization and reinforcement of structures. “It started with ‘How are we going to keep people warm?‘ But then it became to look at it more from the angle of “Will companies want to use these spaces in the winter?says Ariana Deane, a designer from the collective. “We were at that phase where it’s less about responding to an emergency and more about longevity.” They focused on improving the structures they had already built instead of adding more to the neighborhood as it was then saturated with outdoor sheds. Instead of completely enclosing them, A+A+A added transparent plastic pergolas that would let enough light into the structure while protecting diners from the rain. They also tweaked the hangars to make sure they followed DOT guidelines, which were finally starting to be enforced. When Alimama Tea received a warning for not having reflective tape on the side of its street-facing shed (which would have resulted in a $1,500 fine), A+A+A quickly installed some.
Alimama Tea’s dining shed before it was shortened.
Photo: Trudy Giordano and A+A+A
Assembly of Chinatown structures is now in “season three,” which, as the emergency schedule twilighted, meant businesses were preparing for the permanent outdoor restoration phase. The DOT has yet to issue new rules since the lawsuits, one of which was recently fired, halted work on the program. But since none of the emergency program structures will be grandfathered, all restaurants will need to apply (and pay a fee) to participate. To that end, A+A+A has compiled documentation to ensure Chinatown business owners can file all required documents when the time comes. For some, this chapter means the end of their street racing. The assembly team also works with them on this process, as dismantling and transporting construction waste is expensive and time-consuming (hence the plague of abandoned streets around the city). “It’s important for us not to let the people we’ve worked with hold the bag,” says Deane. In August, Grand Tea Imports and Delight Wong decided to dismantle their street after the number of homeless people using it as a shelter rose from two or three to groups of ten using it as a toilet. assembly companies, chaos built, quickly dismantled the streetery. He also helped Royal Seafood, a banquet hall, dismantle its shed. When Alimama Tea’s neighbor no longer wanted to continue eating outdoors, A+A+A reduced the size of the common street so that the cafe could use it solo. Alimama owner Janie Wang is happy to maintain her side of the structure and would like to apply for the permanent program as soon as she can. “It’s a better atmosphere, when there are more people in the streets,” she says.
For some traders like Liu, the spirit of mutual aid that propelled these structures were as important as their contribution to the smooth running of his business. While she started as an Assembly for Chinatown streetery recipient, she now leads community engagement for the program. This involves going from store to store to talk to local business owners about the support they need and how she can help them. “We hear about a bunch of other challenges — like marketing or finding another source of income — and what their dreams are for their business,” she says. Liu relays this information to A+A+A, whose members are discussing with DOT what the permanent outdoor dining program should look like. Their advice? To work with local nonprofits or neighborhood groups that can help facilitate the program. This is what they learned from their work on Assembly for Chinatown: that even in the same neighborhood, each site has specific needs and requires personalized support. This is a big step up from their thinking in 2020, when the program had just started and the designers thought they could create a guide that could be distributed to companies. But as Ashley Kuo, designer at A+A+A says, “there is no cover design solution, and therefore the rules cannot be the same”. Deane adds that this would help ensure that the permanent program is more equitable and “isn’t just going to benefit neighborhoods with really well-organized BIDs.”