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The Americans for the Arts blog had an interview with an arts group that was flexing their skills to solve problems in their community. They spoke with Yin Kong, one of the founders of Think Chinatown which started the initiative Assembly for Chinatown to provide outdoor dining for restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown.
While restaurants in other parts of the city were able to find ways to cope with Covid restrictions by setting up dining on sidewalks or in dedicated parking spaces on the street, Chinatown has narrower sidewalks and streets. Regulations frequently changed and violations earned a $1,000 fine. Outdoor dining really hadn’t been part of the business practice among Chinatown restaurants so between physical restrictions, legal hurdles, and custom there was little incentive for the financially ailing restaurants for that neighborhood to pursue outdoor dining options.
Think Chinatown collaborated with A+A+A Studio to write a guide on how to build affordable structures that met Department of Transportation guidelines. Artists worked with business owners to decorate the structures in colorful murals.
We removed the financial risk for these restaurants by covering the construction costs. We selected restaurants where we believed the impact could most be felt. For the most part, the project has helped bring attention to businesses and provide more space.
We are still connected with the restaurants who participate—we do not drop these and leave. We live in the neighborhood and are here to adjust. For some murals, it has been almost a year [since they were created], so we are repainting. We want them to continue to be colorful, delightful work.
The Assembly for Chinatown page mentions the project has helped 13 businesses at nine sites. In some cases, adjacent businesses got wrapped into the effort. In one case, a restaurant, cafe and florist had a structure constructed. In another, a restaurant and neighboring tea importer shared a space.
The interview is short, but it is clear that the perceptual, legal, and logistical hurdles they faced required a lot of time and effort to navigate before the first two pieces of wood were attached together. They provided access where it didn’t exist or seemed difficult to achieve and got people thinking of new possibilities for doing business in their neightborhood.