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West Side Comedy Club
Photograph: Courtesy of Felicia Madison

How NYC's streets became its most coveted stages

From sidewalk cabaret shows to outdoor comedy clubs, open streets are the city’s hottest cultural destinations.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

There’s always been something about the streets of NYC: teeming with adventure and excitement every few blocks, it’s where New Yorkers often come face-to-face with new restaurant signs, posters for art exhibitions, concert flyers and even messages by lonely city dwellers looking for love. 

But until now, the avenues and streets we call our own have enticed us to explore the New York that’s hidden behind doors, asking us to visit an eatery, envelop ourselves in the aura of a Broadway theater or find the love of our lives inside a dark, secluded speakeasy. Alas, as a result of a global pandemic that has forced us all to either stay inside our private spaces or venture across wide open outdoor ones—albeit safely and while socially distancing—the very streets that have lured us inside for many years are now begging us to stay put.

Local programs like Open Streets have now become part-and-parcel of the city’s culture, making the outdoors the only real destination open for explorations throughout the past year. Cabaret shows, burlesque performances, comedy hours, dance recitals, exhibits and even restaurants have taken residence on sidewalks—and, given a recent bill that has made Open Streets a permanent fixture of the city's landscape, the trend is here to stay. 

Guilty Pleasures
Photograph: Amber Ink Photography

New York streets have officially become our town’s most coveted arts and culture stages—but are the folks tasked with managing the destinations excited about the changes? Are sidewalk shows as successful as indoor ones? How has COVID-19 permanently shifted the city’s cultural heartbeat? Can the local government do more to help businesses that have completely shifted their modus operandi? 

"The shutdown allowed us to be more creative,” says Andrea Palesh, co-founder and co-director of Guilty Pleasures Cabaret, which has been mounting sidewalk speakeasies uptown throughout the pandemic. "When there are boundaries placed on your creativity, they challenge it and force you to think outside the box. If it hadn’t been for COVID-19, we would never have thought of doing a virtual show or shutting down a street and turning it into a performance space."

What people like Palesh and Bridget Bose, her co-founder and co-director, are mostly grateful for is the pedestrian traffic that has always defined New York. "[The city] offers a built-in audience already," Palesh. "And that's unique to New York. There are always going to be people around."

That’s a sentiment echoed by Felicia Madison, the talent booker and new talent director at West Side Comedy Club, an uptown destination that has recently taken its comedy shows outdoors. "While setting up outside, I have people come up to me and ask about getting tickets to the shows," she says. "You have that walking-by environment, where people are just strolling and stopping."

West Side Comedy Club
Photograph: Courtesy of Felicia Madison

The benefits of outdoor performances in a city that bursts with cultural curious people primarily traveling on foot isn’t lost on Claudi, the lead singer of the band Pinc Louds. The group has been busking for years now, but has really stepped up their outdoor performance game during COVID-19, finding loads of fans at Tompkins Square Park, particularly.

"It’s a really beautiful thing to play outdoors," says Claudi. "I’ve always believed that the best way to do it is to play free, public shows because you really get everyone and anyone to see you. Indoor venues have a lot of pros but you’re basically playing for the people that came to see you and there’s a great feeling involved in performing for the city, the real New York, for people of all ages and walks of life in the middle of the street."

Pointing out a benefit that is specific to the life of a busker, Claudi also mentions that local police efforts have eased many of the restrictions that defined pre-COVID-19 public performances. "Amplified sounds were not allowed in parks, for example," she explains. "But they know that people need music and musicians can’t play indoors so those regulations are a bit laxer now."

Overall, creatives mention a built-in audience of walkers as a major benefit of being able to play outdoors, guaranteeing an extended fan base and an increased interest by folks that happen upon an open-air performance. Interestingly enough, that’s a development that most cultural purveyors also noticed when the pandemic first hit and art-related efforts were moved online on platforms like Zoom. 

"I loved Zoom," says Madison. "I still run a new talent program and do open mics through the platform and will continue to do so because it saves time, it's up close and personal and [...] I got to meet comedians from around the world and country. I might have not been able to get access to some if it wasn't for Zoom. There's nothing like the stage and hearing laughter live, it's like a drug, but I think Zoom is here to stay and so are online shows." 

Guilty Pleasures
Photograph: Amber Ink Photography

However, that greater accessibility found on Zoom has been been utilized on NYC's streets to an even greater extent. Not, that these new open air performances are without their challenges. As excited as venues are to take their projects outdoors, especially when allowed to do so through the city’s Open Streets program, there are a ton of issues to take into account. "It’s a lot of work," says Madison. "We have to sanitize everything, drag out tables, alert the police and close the street."

"We are basically creating a theater on the street so we have to bring out a generator, a curtain, a stage to dance on and chairs," reveals Palesh. "We just have a permit that allows us to use the space, so I do wish there were some sort of programs that could help [us] with this all."

Bose also says the duo has to physically head to the police precinct to pick up the barricades necessary to close down the street they have a right to use, a task that she feels should fall upon city officials.

Artist Claudi also mentions having to move around her band’s equipment to put on a show. "I used to play in the subway or by the station because I carry a lot of stuff but I ended up getting a wagon that allows me to move more," she says.

Clearly no easy work, plenty of industry folks have begged the city to try and help out more by easing some of the restrictions and taking their burdens into account. At the top of their list of hoped-for changes is the ability to serve alcohol and drinks outdoors, which isn’t allowed by Open Street guidelines just yet. 

"We can only sell tickets and collect donations. We’re not allowed to sell concessions or even merch outside," says Palesh. "We wish that was available to us."

For her part, Claudi hopes the laxer busking regulations will become permanent fixtures of the musical landscape and for the permit process required by all street performers to be a bit easier to follow. "We’ve applied for a permit twice and got denied twice," she recalls. "That is something I wish the city could help us with. Yes, we’ll apply for a permit but at least make it easier for musicians to actually get one!"

West Side Comedy Club
Photograph: Courtesy of Felicia Madison

And yet, according to many, even a sweeping revamp of the Open Streets program won’t turn outdoor shows into the only reliable conduits for successful business. "As a comedian, an indoor environment is just better," says Madison. "The laughter resonates more and reverberates against the wall and that's contagious. We've also had issues with people filming: we've had to go around and tell them not to do so. I think comedians prefer to be indoors, although there's a market for outdoors shows as well." 

What’s going to happen in the future as the city opens up (Broadway shows will officially resume on September 14, for example), is yet to be seen, but if the open air trend continues strong, it’s safe to say that the streets of New York will begin complementing the city’s indoor performance spaces. They will, perhaps, offer New Yorkers double the amount of available cultural pursuits—a figure we can gladly stand behind given the dearth of creative outlets that we’ve had to reckon with throughout the past 14 months. 

We’re confident that New York is coming back, although it might look slightly different than the New York we’re used to frolicking in. But isn’t that what has always made our resilient, beautiful city so damn special? 

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