I have documented my concerns about the so-called “outdoor dining” situation in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn. In one article, I reported on a filthy outdoor dining shed in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens sitting next to, and atop, dirty standing water. In a follow-up post, I reported on pigeons turning a shed in neighboring Boerum Hill into a pigeon coop (note, however, that pigeons were probably the cleanest animals to spend time in the coop). Were I to regularly report on these unhygienic eye-sores, The New Leaf Journal would necessarily turn into a full-time muckraking publication, sifting through the mud (is it mud?) of the restaurant shanty towns. Because I prefer for The New Leaf Journal to remain the online magazine where the leaves are perennially virid, I refrain from offering daily accounts of the shanty situation. However, three events caused me to return to New York City dining shed reporting for today’s article. I will note two of the events while offering my running commentary on a new New York Post report.

Introducing The New York Post Dining Shed Lawsuit Report

On August 1, 2022, the New York Post published an article titled NYC pandemic-era outdoor dining sheds destroying quality of life with rats, drugs, noise: suit. Ms. Priscilla DeGregory and Ms. Bernadette Hogan are credited with the piece. The article covers the following story:

A group of Big Apple residents have slapped the city with a lawsuit opposing an outdoor street dining program started during the pandemic – claiming it has increased trash, vermin, drug use, graffiti, noise and awful stenches throughout the boroughs.

Thank goodness. Sometimes I have been left to wonder whether anyone sees the urban blight consuming our sidewalks, eliminating parking spots, and accruing filth. It is good to know that I am not. This suit reminds me of when I received some favorable feedback on one of my earlier dining shed reports.

While I am a legal research specialist by trade, I will not assess the legal merits of the instant suit. Instead, I will focus on another aspect of the New York Post’s report: First-hand accounts of the shanty scourge. What struck me about the article was that all of the accounts are very familiar to me. Let us go through the report, gory anecdote to gory anecdote, in order to highlight the depth of the depravity of New York City’s outdoor street dining program.

The Perennially “Temporary” Restaurant Program

The New York Post explained that the “Temporary Restaurant Program,” which is what has permitted the proliferation of restaurant chicken coops in New York City, was originally “meant to help eateries and bars stay afloat during the COVID-19 outbreak by allowing them to expand seating outdoors.” (Similar accommodations were not made for many other businesses that New York City shut down or restricted.) Expand seating they did – into the streets and on the sidewalks, on both sides of the sidewalks even when the same New York City authorities signing off on outdoor dining were simultaneously endorsing recommendations for people to remain six feet apart at all times. Many restaurants that already had outdoor seating before the onset of the Wuhan coronavirus availed themselves to the golden opportunity to add more outdoor seating. Other restaurants had nowhere to put outdoor seating, highlighting the program’s tendency to arbitrarily choose winners and losers in a competitive industry.

But regardless of the merits of the program, is it not high time for some of the rules that were supposedly enacted to help mitigate the effects of the deleterious effects of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response to it to fade away? After all, the situation on the ground in New York City in August 2022 is not the same as the situation in June 2020. Many 2020-policies are no more, yet the “Temporary Restaurant Program” expands. Apparently, I was not the only one to notice. From the New York Post article:

[T]he residents [filing a lawsuit against the program] note that other pandemic-era rules, like those involving masks, vaccines and social distancing, have ended as the outbreak has eased, and argued that there is no longer justification to continue the [Temporary Restaurant Program] on an emergency basis — especially since the dining sheds have led to the decline of their neighborhoods, according to the Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed late Friday.

As the editor of The New Leaf Journal, I am acutely aware that the pandemic situation has changed. My colleague, Victor V. Gurbo, wrote an in-depth review of fancy protective masks back in December 2020. It was popular for just over a year. People mostly stopped reading it after January 2022. If Victor’s world-renowned mask content is no longer generating much traffic, why am I still being subjected to dining sheds.

A Brooklyn Walker Assesses Dining Shed Horror Stories

Mr. Douglas Amer, one of the 35 individuals filing suit against the City, is a resident of lower Manhattan. Now I do not spend much time in Manhattan. Manhattan was mostly unpleasant before the pandemic. Now it is also smelly and has higher crime rates than it did before. My general rule is to spend as little time in Manhattan as possible, except when a journey calls. But I digress. Let us see what Mr. Amer has to say about the sheds in his area:

The open restaurant program has transformed what used to be a pleasant city block with a healthy balance of commercial and residential use into a gritty, shanty streetscape fueled by alcohol sales and marked by sanitation and noise violations.

There are many such cases my fair readers, many such cases. Montague Street is the commercial center of Brooklyn Heights, the first historic district in the United States and colloquially known as “America’s first suburb.” Now Montague Street is populated by both vacant storefronts and dining sheds (there are still a few real estate offices, but they fortunately do not have sheds). The stretch between Henry and Clinton Streets is particularly bad. There is one shed on the corner of Clinton and Montague that is simply obscene. It blasts bad pop music from cheap speakers attached to a phone, despite being in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The shed is filthy and beginning to fall apart. The food smells terrible, especially in the summer. In the winter, the shed is used for storage.

A dirty outdoor dining shed just off Montague Street in New York City's scenic Brooklyn Heights.
My poor picture of the slowly-crumbling shed. This is the most flattering picture one could take of it. It looks worse from the other side.

Before continuing, let us address the alcohol. When New York was choosing winners and losers at the onset of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in 2020, choosing which businesses were “essential” and which businesses and jobs were expendable, the New York government determined, in its surely infinite wisdom, that liquor stores were essential. Whenever you walk by a full outdoor dining set-up, no matter the hour, you note that nearly everyone has alcohol (including parents accompanied by their children, but the children are often watching videos on phones in any event). Now I do not drink, but even if I did, I am not sure that I would see the wisdom of encouraging residents to “lock down” while also relentlessly promoting alcohol consumption. Why, I must ask, does the government of New York appear to view day-drinking as an unqualified good?

Mr. Amer’s complaint about the sheds continued:

The sheds ‘harbor vermin, collect food waste and impede garbage collection’ and there is broken glass and standing water in the gutters, according to an affidavit he filed in the case.

Yes, yes, and also yes. Here I thought that I was the only one who understood that standing water is bad (perhaps the province of people who are loved by mosquitoes).

Photo of standing water outside of a Brooklyn dining shed, taken in May 2021.
My photo of standing water outside of a dining shed in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, taken on May 18, 2021. See the full size version on Pixelfed and my original article.

On the evening of July 31, 2022, I happened by an enclosed dining shed sitting atop a puddle of standing water and sitting next to unattended garbage bags. I peaked inside the shed, which (thankfully) was empty that evening. There was a large rat happily running around in the shed. People will be eating there soon. I saw no evidence that anyone cleans it. Instead of maintaining dining sheds, restaurants appear to think that they are great buttresses for piles of garbage bags (the rats agree).

Returning to Mr. Amer, he complained about the “party” atmosphere created by drunken patrons, noting that it is intimidating for young children. All I can say is that I am happy to not live on top of a restaurant.

Ms. Angela Bilotti is a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While I have published at least one photograph from Williamsburg (see full-size version), I have not been there in a while. There is a reason for that. Williamsburg is a place to pass through going somewhere else, not a place to spend meaningful time. But I digress. Ms. Bilotti complained about rodents, garbage, mosquitoes, and a “horrendous” stench. She also concerned about shanty rats disturbing her evening dog walks.

Dogs. This is another issue. But I mean “issue” in a different sense than does Ms. Bilotti. Now I cast no aspersions on Ms. Bilotti, I am sure that she is an excellent and responsible dog owner. But the overall quality of dog ownership in Brooklyn has taken a decisive dip since the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus. One might begin to suspect that a large number of self-involved, entitled, irresponsible people decided to get dogs while they were “social distancing,” and that they should not have done this. Whatever the cause, the behavior of many dog owners in Brooklyn over the past couple of years has been obscene. People refuse to shorten their leashes or train their dogs. Dog owners walk their dogs into tree pits, flower beds, and alongside front gardens, begging them to mark all the territory. They take dogs into stores that no one as recently as four years ago would have contemplated bringing their dogs. I see dog owners take their dogs into stores selling and serving food. Do you see where this is going? Why are people bringing dogs into mostly-enclosed outdoor dining sheds? Why are the dogs sometimes on tables? No one cares how lovely your “furbaby” is. Dogs do not belong in restaurants.

Ms. Bilotti continued: “Riding my bike means dodging rat roadkill.” To be fair, walking in Brooklyn means dodging bikes to avoid becoming person roadkill. Wait, I need to stick to restaurants. We can only tackle so many New York City problems in one article.

Next we hear from Mr. Robert Camacho of Bushwick, Brooklyn. I have only been to Bushwick on two occasions in my entire life. One of those occasions yielded a photo which led to two of our most-read articles (see Blob Dylan I and Blob Dylan II). But I digress. Regarding dining sheds, Mr. Camacho complained that restaurants use the sheds for storage. This is true. The “chicken coop” that I documented a few months ago was used more often as a shed than a dining establishment. The same is true of the monstrosity on the corner of Montague and Henry until the summer.

Mr. Camacho also complained that “kids” use unoccupied chicken coops to drink and get high, leaving empty bottles and condoms in their wake. On August 1, I happened to be walking past a dining shed in Boerum Hill. It was not being used for dining. I was occupied, however, by about six teenagers. It smelled nasty. It was as if there was a skunk in the dining shed with the teenagers. From the strength of the smell, I estimated that there could be two or three skunks. Maybe the kids were waterboarding a skunk using the standing water around and under the shed. Surely it was a skunk and not marijuana.

Mr. Camacho also complained that the sheds smell “like urine and human feces” thanks to the water accumulation. While this may be so in areas where I have walked, I will note that New York City’s maintenance of sewer lines has been less than optimal over the last two years, so it is not always easy to pinpoint the source of the smells about which Mr. Camacho is complaining. Maybe it is obvious in Bushwick.

The Definition of “Emergency”

Mr. Michael Sussman, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, expressed concerns about how New York City is using emergency laws to justify the continued existence of the shed-promotion program without going through the normal regulatory process. Rather than re-print the whole quote as a block, I will conclude the instant article by responding piece-by-piece.

We didn’t challenge [the program] because the emergency was still going on

There is probably a valuable lesson here about the pitfalls of not challenging the abuse of emergency powers due to the fact that there is an emergency.

But when the emergency ends, you can’t just say there is still an emergency.

That is one of the most adorable things that I have read in a long time.

That’s a dangerous precedent. What else can they do?

I do not like where this is going…

We will have martial law.

Stop giving them ideas!

You can’t run a city that way.

In light of the fact that this article was published right after New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency over monkeypox, I am calling upon Mr. Sussman to stop inadvertently daring municipal authorities with too much power and too little accountability to “run a city that way.” Please win your lawsuit before you accidentally give these people more ideas.

My critique of Mr. Sussman’s comments is (mostly) in jest. Both he and the 35 plaintiffs suing over New York City’s permanent state of emergency regarding the construction and maintenance (or non-maintenance) of sidewalk shanty towns are performing a great public service. For the sake of the cleanliness of New York City, I hope that their lawsuit is successful.