The threat of the virus has transformed outdoor spaces that would normally sit empty during cold-weather months — though some options are priced beyond the reach of many New Yorkers.
By Winnie Hu
As New York City braces for a pandemic winter, many parks, plazas and open spaces that are so vital to its public life in warmer months have been transformed into cold-weather playgrounds.
Outdoor space has become essential for a crowded city with the virus surging and new restrictions imposed on indoor gatherings.
As a result, the menu of outdoor offerings has gone beyond the usual ice rinks and winter festivities to make way for a far more robust outdoor culture.
There is a new iceless curling cafe in Bryant Park in Manhattan, where players slide stones across five slippery synthetic lanes. Outdoor movies play in a nearby plaza in Hudson Yards. An “outdoor living room” with timber benches beckons in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. And an empty lot in Astoria, Queens, has turned into a drive-in theater.
Heated igloos and cabins dot the cityscape, and at the base of a skyscraper on Madison Avenue, a glass canopy being built over part of a public garden will eventually shield visitors from rain and snow.
Just as the pandemic has transformed New York’s car-dominated streets with outdoor dining and shopping, the threat of the virus has spurred a broad reimagining of public spaces that normally sit empty during cold-weather months.
“New York is not a city that universally celebrates outdoorness during the winter,” said Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University. “It’s not a place that traditionally breaks out the chain saws for ice sculpting competitions.’’
Still, Mr. Kayden said, that could change if the city’s public spaces were weatherproofed with heaters, heat-absorbing materials, designs that maximize natural sunlight, and other measures to “position the outdoors of New York City in ways that are friendly in the cold.”
Even before the virus, there have been efforts to create more year-round outdoor public spaces. The design for a glass-and-steel canopy at 550 Madison Avenue — a city landmark that was once the home of AT&T and the Sony Corporation — was unveiled in 2019.
But the pandemic has brought plenty of new and expanded outdoor options across the city — though many are in well-off neighborhoods and priced beyond the reach of many New Yorkers.
“They serve people who can afford it,” said Claudia Coger, 85, a retired city transit worker who has been treated to shows at the Astoria drive-in theater and would like to see more outdoor options around the city for everyone. “The rest of the people get left out. They need to go back to the drawing board at a time like this.”
Still, some groups have organized free and low-cost outdoor activities. There is a new audio guide to Belvedere Castle, a fairy-tale lookout point in Central Park. During the holidays, there was a pop-up market with Caribbean and Black artists in Prospect Park.
Later this month, 25 giant prisms will cover a block of Broadway like a rainbow-hued forest. The Garment District Alliance, which runs the business improvement district, is installing the show, titled Prismatica, to lift spirits in a hard-hit neighborhood where foot traffic is down by more than half during the pandemic, said Barbara A. Blair, the alliance’s president.
In Lower Manhattan, Ziggy, a whimsical art installation that resembles a glowing neon jungle gym, doubles as outdoor seating on Water Street.
The Brooklyn Public Library, which is open only for grab-and-go book service, set up a free outdoor living room with internet access outside its central branch in Grand Army Plaza, which will remain through the winter — but without heaters.
The library is also planning so-called story walks, in which pages from children’s books will be displayed in an outdoor trail. “If we can’t bring people into our buildings, we’ve been thinking about bringing our services out,” said Fritzi Bodenheimer, a library spokeswoman.
Yet, many of the coolest outdoor experiences are not for those on tight budgets.
A 1.2-acre stretch of Astoria waterfront slated for development has been temporarily converted into a drive-in theater with a huge movie screen and stage built on top of shipping containers. There have been 22 shows, which combine movies with live performances and have drawn more than 1,000 people.
Ticket sales — $100 per car or for up to four people at a picnic table — have helped support local actors, musicians and stagehands in the shows, many of whom are out of work because of the pandemic, said Jeremy Shepard, the producer.
Ms. Coger and other residents of the Astoria Houses, a public housing development across the street from the drive-in, have been admitted free. Ms. Coger went to three shows and told her neighbors to go.
“A lot of people had never been to an outdoor show,” she said. “They enjoyed it. They thought it was a plus.”
In Bryant Park, iceless curling games start at $200 for a 90-minute session for up to four people playing on a dedicated lane. The price includes drinks and snacks served in heated tents.
For those who prefer the feel of pandemic glamping, there are also five cozy igloos with electric heaters, lounge chairs, and treats like mulled wine, salted caramel apple cider, artisanal cheese plates and charcuterie boards. The igloos start at $200 for 90 minutes for up to four people, and are aired out and sanitized after each use.
Shaival Patel, 37, a director at Mizuho Securities, recently proposed to his girlfriend, Aditi Desai, 30, a marketing manager, inside an igloo. Their first date was in the park in 2019, sipping hot chocolate together. This time, he spent $250 for an igloo where he got down on one knee. She said yes. Afterward, they toasted with mulled wine.
“I thought it was absolutely worth it for something you remember the rest of your life,” Mr. Patel said.
Heated igloos also sit along the Hudson River at City Vineyard at Pier 26, and in a pop-up wine garden at Rockefeller Center. Michael Dorf, the chief executive and founder of City Winery, which operates both sites, said the winter domes were added to expand their outdoor dining space.
For a brief winter getaway, there are 28 heated glass cabins on top of a dining and entertainment complex at South Street Seaport. The outdoor expanse, called The Greens on The Rooftop at Pier 17, was divided into personal outdoor spaces in response to the pandemic, said Craig Manfra, its marketing director. During the summer, there were socially distanced mini-lawns with artificial turf, lounge chairs and umbrellas.
The winter cabins come with roomy booth seating, virtual fireplaces, air purifiers and contactless deliveries of cocktails and hearty fare such as fondue and truffle grilled cheese.
Reservations for the cabins cost $5 for weekday lunches, and $50 for dinner and on weekends, with part of the proceeds donated to local charities. The cabins sell out almost every week, and have a waiting list of more than 17,000 requests, Mr. Manfra said.
There is even an outdoor gym to get in shape. Equinox, which has an upscale hotel and fitness club in Hudson Yards, took over a vacant lot nearby to build an outdoor fitness club offering state-of-the-art fitness equipment, personal training and group classes under a sprawling heated tent with sides that open for ventilation.
The outdoor club opened to Equinox members in October — memberships start at $270 a month — and has been visited more than 10,000 times.
Just steps away, an outdoor plaza behind a luxury shopping mall in Hudson Yards has been turned into a communal backyard. It has hosted free screenings of classic movies, including “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” and displayed murals by local artists that before the pandemic were placed inside the mall.
Faith Salie and John Semel, both 49, have brought their two children to six outdoor movies so far. Ms. Salie, a writer and performer, said that before the pandemic they used to go out in the cold only to get somewhere else indoors, but now they are looking for reasons to stay outside.
“It’s the only safe way to enjoy the city and people we know at a distance,” she said. “It’s a new experience and sometimes I feel like I’m a better mom sending my kids out and seeing them come home with rosy cheeks.”
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