A Model for Main Streets Everywhere
The opportunity to create a new post-pandemic identity for Main Streets, rural and urban, is happening in many places. It is something we've seen begin-up close where we live — in two Brooklyn communities, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.
These Brooklyn neighborhoods are now bursting with what we call social hubs. Corners, sidewalks, and intersections have come to life, with some blocks becoming attractions in and of themselves. These two neighborhoods are now at a point where they can chart a future far better than anything in the past, transitioning from restraint in public spaces to a spirit of experimentation and social life.
Change has come to our own doorstep, and while the process has not been easy for Brooklyn, we have learned a great deal. We now know that we can build on the history of our neighborhoods to have our Main Streets, intersections, sidewalks, and other shared spaces as part of a future in which we all want to live. If the progress we've seen in Brooklyn is maintained, it can deliver a model community for urban neighborhoods around the world.
This is a story of extraordinary and organic transformation with no plan or top-down controls from city government. It is a story of people collaborating in ways where mutual respect is evident, but the underlying force has been something that can only be described as "improvisation" at its best.
It is an example of a phenomenon that we have witnessed many times: If people collaborate in informal and creative ways, they can achieve outcomes that no planning, design, or government agency can achieve. There is a need for some oversight and rules, but by deriving changes to our public spaces from collaborative efforts within a community, the results are strengthened by a sense of local ownership — which is true placemaking!
What Is a Social Hub?
Social hubs are multi-layered spaces which attract the types of social and economic activity that bring our communities closer. They are inclusive, and make people feel comfortable and welcomed. They are supported by, but distinct from social infrastructure, in that they cluster together multiple destinations and uses in one area – in other words, not everyone will be visiting for the same reasons (which is a good thing)! They prioritize their role as a place to connect, and they are the future of post-pandemic public spaces.
Below, we will describe how we saw our community come alive in ways we would have never been able to achieve, had COVID not forced us to chart a new path. It turns out, that path brought us outside to use our public spaces in ways never seen before:
Seven Hubs in Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill: Building Back Better
Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill consist of only eight blocks, sharing the same three streets (Court, Henry, and Smith). We have had the pleasure of living in these neighborhoods for more than 25 years, during which time everything seemed to change slowly, or not at all.
Until recently, we've observed a steady nibbling-away at a historic past. Unfortunately, this resulted in a decreasing sense of place. We lost precious stores: two book stores; multiple local pharmacies. Then, we got new buildings that had no sense of contribution to the historic street life. These replaced older ones that had helped our communities to be a place with a unique character, reaching back to the 1830s when these two communities were laid out.
Some of the things that have defined the transformation of these Brooklyn neighborhoods into places characterized by social hubs have been the attention to corners and intersections and the addition of many types of amenities. Together, these trends have created a new future for these neighborhoods.
Hub 1: The Foster Building
This building is the centerpiece of a long block. The Foster Building enlivens the street by acting as a social hub where folks gather to eat, get a haircut, and shop. It is a high-density yet human-scaled place, meeting the social and material needs of nearby residents.
The building is flanked by brownstones on one side and a church on the other side and provides a total of ten diverse small storefronts and an open space in front of the church on the other. All of this has collectively become a major year-round local destination.
The concept of a double-loaded sidewalk is crucial here. On one side, for example, activities from storefronts and restaurants spill over onto the sidewalk. Meanwhile, some seating, planters, or other amenities line the opposite edge. People make their way through the middle of these two flows of activity – and are all the more likely to meet someone or run into someone they know.
In this case, the key to its success came once dining was extended to its sidewalk, along with pop-up food stalls provided by the cafés and local bar. The result was an entire block face that is almost entirely a double-loaded sidewalk experience. It has become a major social gathering place for the neighborhood.
What is crucial to these sidewalks is the width: They have to provide enough space to accommodate all of this social life. That is why communities which allow people to reclaim parking spaces are well-positioned to see this phenomenon in action. The COVID-era trend toward outdoor dining, though complex, is just one of the many ways people have taken space back from cars.
Children being able to roam freely and safely is yet another indication of the Foster Building being at the center of a new social hub. Only when people of all ages are able to gather and enjoy themselves with a sense of welcome and security, can a place become a true destination. And that is certainly the case here.
Sidewalks along the building had begun to come to life even before COVID when local establishments like Darna Falafel broke the ice with outdoor seating. Additional friendly accents such as plants, fresh flowers, and playful knickknacks made it approachable.
Hub 2: A Restaurant Enlivens a Corner
Another hub in Carroll Gardens is characterized by restaurants, a liquor store, a plant store, a karate center, a French deli, and three small restaurants. The corner restaurant occupies the main intersection, where there is also a bus stop and has transformed this part of the block. It has done so with the help of dynamic seating and built-out dining niches, complete with planters and a painted mural, making this one of the most prominent corners on Court Street. Over time, the energy spread down the block, adding all the other retail and restaurants into a strong set of clustered activities, which together form a major neighborhood hub.
For any hub to emerge, there has to be some sort of nucleus – a center focal point around which social activity revolves. Whether it is a particularly beautiful and inviting storefront, a mural, a good place to sit, or a street vendor, having a focal point is central to the nature of a social hub. Sociale serves that role here.
Update: these cafes have been removed. We will find out why and report back.
Neighboring cafes followed suit, creating a unified outdoor experience, including children's classes that spilled onto the sidewalk with outdoor waiting spaces for parents and caregivers. What used to be private has become part of the pedestrian experience, welcoming onlookers to become part of the community.
And the piece de resistance: Le French Deli, which completes the block. Though tiny, It is unusual not to run into friends and neighbors at this busy corner spot, which primarily sells to-go baked goods. The energy draws passers-by even if it's just to catch up with a friend on the bench.
The deli is expanding to embrace the corner. We will be watching hopefully to see how it continues to transform this key corner, and the role it can play in creating a fully activated block....
Hub 3: A Tavern and an Old-timer
This block in Carroll Gardens has emerged as a leader in the neighborhood's resurgence. Two key corner taverns/restaurants are located on opposite intersections, making for a dynamic social block-long hub with distinct "anchors" at both ends.
At the North end of the hub, Court Street Tavern is a photogenic and popular spot for outdoor dining.
Life in between the two corners also makes this the most successful hub in Carroll Gardens, new and old mingle seamlessly, adding and preserving the unique flavor of this originally Italian neighborhood.
The South end of this Main Street hub now boasts an eclectic mix of mom-and-pop shops, vintage and independently owned shops, along with the on-street presence of old and new restaurants.
We call this Frank's corner for the two restaurateurs, both named Frank, that opened the famed Frankie Sputino's 18 years ago. Their move helped establish this side of Court Street as the go-to place for an old-style Italian meal. Since then, the Franks have invested in other similar establishments that have become favorite hangouts for locals and visitors.
Hub 4: A Three-block Hub
These three blocks are together a special core of old, Italian Brooklyn, mixed with newer establishments. An old corner "Farmacy," for one, has been converted into an old-style Soda fountain and become the go-to spot for the neighborhood. This corner along with the old-timer Mazzola Bakery, has transformed Henry Street into a popular street to walk, dine on, and most importantly people watch.
Two other destinations, one at the MozzLab across from the "Farmacy" and the other at Bar Bruno down the street toward the next intersection, both contribute to a food-centric hub that is intensely local with strong Italian roots.
Hub 5: The Neighborhood Bookstore
This bookstore is the heart of yet another social hub. What makes this bookstore successful is its owner, a local resident who is invested in the community.
When our beloved neighborhood bookstore closed, this bookstore filled that gap, bringing with it continued support for local writers and space to gather for book launches and readings. This strong bond to the community is reciprocated by residents, who make a point to shop local.
Hub 6: A Series of Corner Hubs
Gaining control of intersections as social gathering places goes directly up against a half a century of car-centric planning ...creating a battle between automobile culture and community life.
Nonetheless, features like benches have made many corners in these neighborhoods into social hubs.
The "Illegal" Corner Bench on Court Street
If you have read any of our other articles, you will know just how crucial we think seating is in creating a welcoming space. But any old chair or bench won't do; public seating must be ample, comfortable, and accessible. Some of our favorites are even designed to be moved around, allowing folks to customize their experience of a place and gather with friends.
To that end, this Court Street bench quickly became a major gathering place when it was first introduced. The folks who installed it did not go through an approval process, and it was technically illegal. But people have realized that when these benches are called "tree guards" with seating, they have been allowed — and now they are emerging around the neighborhood! They are a unique way to provide basic seating and enhance social life in many neighborhoods.
Then we lost this bench. We are not sure why the bench was removed, but the end results have proven disastrous.
When we met with the occupant of the corner building, we learned that they were eager to replace the bench, which led them to wonder if there were any funds to help make that happen. What we would propose is the establishment of an Amenity Fund to make sure these sorts of benches don't disappear!
This is especially important to us because we see that there is a special need for seating at intersections. Not only do these DIY-style benches enhance the comfort of a place, but they also establish a landmark that reflects ownership of that community by the community.
A Corner Café
East One, a café at the intersection of Court and President Streets, is an anchor and center point of Court Street, across from Carroll Gardens Park. After the pandemic hit, the café slowly started adding outdoor seating, eventually taking over street parking to become a strong social corner.
Between the corner café and the park, each space directly supports the other. The park hosts outdoor sports and exercise classes, children's activities, and a weekly farmers market.
Further along is another strong corner. An empty lot has become the informal picnic area for a corner pizza restaurant popular with families. Its open side window also makes it easier for on-the-go orders.
Smith Street, parallel to Court Street, was once infamously known as "restaurant row." Manhattanites were drawn to the local restaurants and nightlife spots. Though it was struggling to attract diners before the pandemic, a slow resurgence is being enjoyed as more outdoor seating takes over the main stretch of Smith Street.
Along Smith Street, long-time merchants like a family-owned butcher shop and restaurants have become the epicenter of growth. Could it be because these were the only restaurants with a substantial outdoor seating culture pre-pandemic?
This popular spot stands out for its porch-like open facade. Its open front door seating stretched further into the street over the course of the pandemic, encouraging neighboring restaurants to follow their lead. The street is now a maze of lively street dining.
Hub 7: Beyond Main Street
Parallel to Court Street is Clinton Street, a row of brownstone dwellings, but in the middle sits Cobble Hill Park. This park has become the neighborhood "town green," and also happens to boast two destination restaurants. During the pandemic, this corner has helped serve many families living in cramped apartments lacking outdoor spaces.
Cobble Hill Park had always been a center "green" for neighbors, hosting summer concerts, plant sales, and the renowned Halloween Parades. But during the pandemic, it has served as a safety net for distanced encounters.
Neighbors began advertising "Winter Social" events through Nextdoor, an app meant to connect neighbors. These social events have now become a weekly event advertised as: "Pandemic Friendly BYO-Happy Hour." Though these designated moments to gather are important, the main event is the ongoing ability to get out and see other people.
Though our lives are moving back to some semblance of normalcy, it says a lot that this group has continued to grow... bringing children, families, young singles, and seniors together even post-social distancing.
Nearby cafés along Clinton Street have taken note, adding additional seating and tables, as well as the building of "illegal benches".
Henry Street, the center of old Italian life in Brooklyn, has a Soda Fountain called the Farmacy (see above)
Paris Neighborhoods as a Model for Social Hubs
We now relish in the thinking that we can win the battle over the overwhelming control by car culture to get more social hubs in our neighborhoods. From there, we can move to have communities where the priorities are around people and places.
Paris, and its many social hubs, offer us examples of how this journey might further unfold, offering a longer-term view of what social hubs can become when given ample time and creative energy to keep evolving:
Most Parisienne neighborhoods feature streets that function as both main streets and neighborhood squares. We highlight three of the most compelling: Rue de Buci, Rue Mouffetard and Rue Montorgueil, each of which illustrates the qualities that make a good street in any community.
Rue de Buci on the Left Bank
This block (immediately below) on Rue de Buci provides ample space for people to spontaneously meet, socialize and enjoy a memorable experience. The curved design of the roadway allows access to both pedestrians and vehicles (although few motorists drive here because the number of people strolling slows them to a crawl). A healthy mix of shops, cafés, hotels, and other businesses make it a place people want to go.
Rue Mouffetard near Luxembourg Gardens
This bustling street running downhill from the Pantheon proffers a cornucopia of produce stands, gourmet shops, markets, and bistros—making it an appetizing destination.
Rue Montorgueil on the Right Bank
In what was once the Les Halles market district, this pedestrian-friendly street is still a favored spot for dining out or picking up provisions.
A social hub is by nature community-led. It is local, even hyper-local. It can ripple out from a single enterprise on a block, spread to others, and evolve organically with the help of a few simple principles:
The concept of a double-loaded sidewalk refers to the phenomenon in which a sidewalk carries two streams of activity. One stream of people might flow along a row of storefronts, and further toward the street, people sit at café tables — allowing passers-by to walk between the two. The double-loaded areas in Brooklyn, especially those that include many storefronts, have hosted some wonderful outcomes that we were delighted to see. The most prominent one is that children and pets can wander freely without worrying about traffic.
To build on that, another surefire sign of a place where people feel secure and comfortable is small children roaming free along the sidewalk. As strollers roll in, and are quickly vacated in order for kids to get out and about, one really sees the sidewalk come to life! The presence of different age groups, all of whom are able to enjoy themselves, is crucial in a social hub.
Focal points are also useful in creating a social hub. Whether it takes the form of public art, a community-favorite café or restaurant, or a great place to sit, a hub needs something around which it can form. Having a central feature that gives energy to a place makes gathering all the more likely.
Accessible seating for all can be the difference between a lifeless corner and a lively hangout spot. As we've said many times before, seating is one of the most important amenities a space can offer. Without it, many will feel less welcomed and comfortable, which then means that it is no longer a space for everyone.
Meanwhile, the role of cars has been supplanted by the activity along the sidewalk, fundamentally changing the role of the street to one you don't just drive through, but one you experience. These hubs become places where drivers slow down or avoid all together.
Improvisation is the driving force behind social hubs and it is a persistent, defining future for each place. There are no rules, yet, as each individual corner, store, restaurant, or section of sidewalk has created its own "space" using the laws of attraction that are endemic to their particular location or character. Furthermore, these improvements did not cost a lot; they were not planned as a community-wide effort, and no two places are alike. Each has its own dynamic.
And, finally, everyone is watching everyone else. A chance encounter and casual conversations are easily started. Friends are being made between all ages and cultures.
Clearly, neighborhoods are learning from one another as they create social hubs. At the same time, this pattern also exposes many blocks that are falling behind, and not participating in this collective transformation. In many places, new buildings with contemporary storefronts or chain stores have replaced individual, more traditional anchors. These new additions are defined by design that seems out of place and does not fit in or connect to other destinations or stores nearby — highlighting the importance of creating lasting destinations that plug into the social activity of a neighborhood.
This process of creating social hubs has led to a type of momentum that we have not seen before; one that continues to evolve. It is community building from the inside out.
The Foundation and Future of the Placemaking Movement
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