OP-ED: Empathy, but not support, for foes of Duane Street mini-park

The “Street Seats” on Duane Street that Luaghing Man wants to expand.
Photo by Charles Komanoff

BY CHARLES KOMANOFF

After much head-scratching, I think I’ve figured out why a handful of my neighbors — good people, all — are rebelling against the lovely new kid on our block: the “street corral” operated by Laughing Man outside its high-end coffee bar on Duane Street.

The corral is wildly popular. Daily, from early spring into late fall, it teems with customers and passersby, business folk and parents, Citibikes and strollers. It’s a civilizing piece of Paris, and a redoubt of hedge fund country.

The corral’s 22 feet of attractive wood benches and rails — soon to be 30 if Community Board 1 okays the proprietor’s bid for an extension this week — occupy two parking spaces, and maybe soon a third. Yes, messing with parking arouses passions everywhere in our city. But dig deeper, and you may find two additional phenomena fueling the pushback against Laughing Man: virtue signaling and placard abuse.

“Virtue signaling,” says my on-line dictionary, “is the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.” The character being demonstrated in this instance is that of a Tribeca pioneer. The four men who spoke against the corral extension at last week’s CB1 subcommittee meeting moved to the block in the 1980s or earlier (one’s residence dates to 1969), and in their remarks they made sure everyone knew it.

During this time, the four have watched Tribeca and Duane Street change a great deal, which they might understandably resent. Now in late middle age or older, on their block they see men and women half their age, some clearly flush with money, congregate at the corral and sometimes laugh loudly or spill onto the sidewalk. Pushing back against this new group’s social space becomes not just a bid to restrain it but a way to signal: “I’m here. I may be old, but I’m still here. And you know, I brought this neighborhood into being. I homesteaded, I sweated, I made this no-man’s land nice so you and your precious family could move in. Don’t you dare forget that.”

If virtue signaling is one part of this week’s pushback against Laughing Man’s corral, the other bears a different stamp. It came from Madeline Lanciani, whom I name here out of respect for her culinary artistry and her neighborhood fame. Since 1992, when she founded Duane Park Patisserie, Madeline has been the beating heart of Duane Street. (Disclosure: Duane Park Patisserie is a tenant of a real estate partnership in which my wife and I own shares.)

Madeline told the committee that the corral has cut into the pool of curbside spaces available for her delivery van. Yet even she characterized it as merely the last straw, telling the committee, according to the Tribeca Trib: “Most parking on the street is taken up with city agency cars, making deliveries difficult… The Street Seats infringe on the [already difficult] commerce on that block.”

Madeline’s right about the agency cars, but let’s again go deeper. There would be a lot fewer agency cars on Duane Street if cops, their enablers and allies, and other placard holders weren’t routinely parking their personal vehicles at a thousand or more spots all over Downtown.

It’s been going on for decades, of course, but now there’s a name for it: placard abuse. There’s a hashtag too, with a dozen civic activists tweeting out pics of placard-abusing vehicles. Prominent journalists like NY1’s Errol Louis and the Post’s Nicole Gelinas are increasingly outspoken about placard abuse as well, calling out not just the scourge to traffic but the corruption. “Open-air systemic theft of public services rightly damages public trust in the police” and “NYPD is illegally commandeering private property to park their personal cars and nobody at the NYPD will do anything about it” are just two of the scores of tweets on this theme posted in the few hours I spent writing this op-ed.

I wish I could confidently tell Madeline that those agency cars will soon relocate to their intended spots so she need not fret over the two or three spaces taken by Laughing Man’s corral. Placard abuse and corruption might come crashing down next month, or it might last for another decade. But either way, I don’t want the corral to be one of those “nice things we can’t have” because our system is rigged.

Alongside other public-space advocates, I’m fighting to un-rig the system. I believe there’s space enough for all of us, on Duane Street and throughout downtown and our city. At the full CB1 meeting Tuesday evening, Feb. 27, at BMCC, I intend to stand with Madeline and my other neighbors while I urge the board to approve not only the 2018 renewal of Laughing Man’s street seats application, but the 8-foot expansion as well. We can honor Tribeca’s homesteaders while we make a future together.

Charles Komanoff is an energy-policy analyst, transport economist and environmental activist.

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