Photo: IT’S BEEN DISHEARTENING TO SEE CONDITIONS ON CORNELIA STREET, above, and elsewhere in the Village, deteriorating as outdoor operations become more entrenched and permanent. Photo by Arthur Schwartz.

By Lief Arntzen

It’s been disheartening to see conditions on Cornelia Street and in the Central Village in general deteriorating as the outdoor operations become more entrenched and permanent over the long haul.

I can’t help but remember something from the past:

It was only a few years ago when we all united to rein in the IFC, a beloved institute of an art form we all love, from building a multiplex theater in their backyard, a large-scale business that would shred Cornelia Street’s quiet residential character and ambience, a character and ambience the small restaurants on the block depended upon as a key attraction to run their small business. One of the restaurant owners, Pierre, stood up at a Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) Public Hearing, and very eloquently and movingly described the small restaurants along Cornelia Street, likening them to being like small delicate birdcages, handcrafted over decades of respect and loving care by their owners, beloved by the residents of this block, and the Central Village neighborhood in general. The respectful balance on this particular street between residents and small business was a model of harmony. My recollection is he described the IFC film arts institute by comparison as being a beloved “art elephant” that lives on the wilds of commercial 6th Avenue, a well-known mecca for aspiring artistic filmmakers the world over. All of a sudden, for the sake of commercial profit to benefit one large coellepany (a public company), the City was lobbied to waive residential zoning restrictions to expand into their vacant back yard on Cornelia Street and build a six-story multiplex, and operate directly on Cornelia Street, instead of 6th Avenue. The original plan would have shattered the character and identity of Cornelia forever. Effectively, the plan would let the big business “elephant” Pierre described out the back gate to roam onto tiny residential Cornelia Street, where it would accidentally and tragically trample and crush the fragile small residential business “birdcages” built over decades.

That BSA Hearing was where we ALL attended and fought TOGETHER for two years for the soul and character of a vulnerable street. To me, Pierre had perfectly pointed out the self-destructive and divisive inner conflict we were creating for ourselves in our own neighborhood, and challenged us to think: How do we live with ourselves if we let our beloved elephant go down the street and destroy the decades of blood, sweat and tears we ALL put into building and supporting all these lovely little businesses and the fragile balance of the essential character of this street? After all, can we stop loving the elephant for just being an elephant? Can we blame anyone but ourselves for failing to see that this would happen?

Like anyone else on this block I grew to love our restaurants and their owners as they were, local and respecting boundaries. Nothing is perfect, but Cornelia always had a pretty good balance I thought.

Then covid came, and we all did what we had to do as best we could, and in general needed and supported each other.
Then during the Covid emergency the mayor came, along with the Hospitality Alliance lobby, to make the outdoor operations permanent. That fateful divisive decision abandoned vulnerable areas of the City from any notion of reason and acceptable permanent change in these Village neighborhoods.

Now, here we are, where 24/7, open or closed, the outdoor space and activity in this neighborhood is dominated by the outdoor dining operations, end to end, around the corners, everywhere you turn. It’s changed everything.

How can you blame restaurants for working hard just being restaurants doing what the City allows?

Now I’m confused. Now who is the elephant, and what is the lovely little birdcage?

Not just Cornelia Street, but on any one of these vulnerable streets and sidewalks around this area?

After decades of all of us being careful to respect boundaries, I feel like this is becoming an impossible situation with decisions being made by this City we’ll regret down the road.

Lief Arntzen is a jazz musician who lives on Cornelia Street. He is an active member of the Central Village Block Association and CUEUP, an anti-open dining coalition. He wrote this piece in October 2021 but it continues to be relevant today.