As friends and I salivate over the reopening of restaurants, we’ve been exchanging memories of our best meal out.
Mine was in the little Italian town of Vernazza, one of a string of ancient villages knitted into the ravines along the Mediterranean coast. The restaurant was the Trattoria del Capitanao, which sprawls out of its many doors onto the lively plaza right on the harbor. That plaza is encircled by a natural amphitheater of terraced hills which are honeycombed with brightly colored old homes, like a Technicolor Mesa Verde. Oh, and an ancient ruined castle watches over it all for good measure.
At 6 p.m., the town of 500 stops working and heads en masse to that piazza to welcome in the fishing boats. The boats are dragged right up onto the plaza, the fish are taken off the boats and into the cooks and soon served over beds of homespun pasta to diners in restaurants. I had fresh octopus, because why not, and I remember it being the tastiest thing I’d ever eaten.
Of course, it wasn’t just the food (and wine) I remember so fondly. It was the festival atmosphere and happy camaraderie of that nightly dinner party the entire town joined in. Every day at dusk the townsfolk came together to eat, drink, play music, sing, and reweave the ties that had bound them for hundreds and hundreds of years. Their cups of happiness spilled over, and they gladly shared them with us few tourists there to join in.
So, as we bring back our own restaurants, here’s a proposal: Let’s turn Tejon Street into our own piazza.
Let’s close down a stretch of Tejon to cars, fill it with socially distanced tables and let our own restaurants spill out of doors onto the street this summer. If we like it, maybe we close portions of Tejon permanently.
C’mon, we’ve always had European pretensions here in the Springs. We’ve already got a resort built in the Italian Renaissance style of grand hotels on the coast of the Mediterranean. Why not create our own café society in the heart of the city to boot?
Crazy? Not so much.
The city is indeed having conversations with the Downtown Partnership about potentially closing certain stretches of Tejon to allow for expanded outdoor dining, while keeping key cross streets (Colorado, Platte, etc.) open for vehicles.
“It’s still very dependent on the expected public health order forthcoming from the governor, but we have begun to think creatively about what we can do to help our restaurants reopen in a way that is both safe and economically feasible,” said Jamie Fabos, chief spokeswoman for the mayor.
Downtown Partnerships’s CEO Susan Edmondson confirmed: “Yes we’ve been working on that for a few weeks already.”
Because people are significantly safer if they're six feet apart outside than they are in a smaller area with limited airflow, and because restaurants will have to operate at a reduced dining capacity inside their buildings, Gov. Jared Polis said this week the only way the state will have a thriving restaurant scene in the coming months is through expanded outdoor dining.
"With a reduced dining capacity in the actual facility because of the way the airflow works and how contagious (the coronavirus) is … the way that restaurants can get to 100% capacity, even 150%, is by spreading out in their parking lot, their streets, the sidewalk," Polis said.
The state will waive every rule and regulation it can — including the prohibition of serving beer and wine on the streets — to set restaurants up for success during the pandemic, he said.
"If cities value having restaurants, and keeping them in business as part of their quality of life, it's really important that they open their sidewalks, parking lots and or streets in the next few weeks to have that capacity," he added. "Because restaurants simply can't stay in business at a quarter or half capacity."
Some cities already have taken over their streets. Breckenridge Town Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday to begin planning an outdoor restaurant setting on Main Street that would close the street to cars and allow more room for pedestrians.
Boulder city officials blessed a plan Tuesday for restaurants and bars to open outdoor dining areas, and create pedestrian-only thoroughfares on certain roadways in the downtown and University Hill neighborhoods. Denver’s already closed some streets as well.
“Cities around the country and around the world do this. We’re not inventing anything new here,” Boulder Councilman Bob Yates said, according to BizWest. “I would encourage us to be bold downtown where we have a high density of restaurants.”
A gradual, open-air reopening gives us the perfect opportunity to try out a street mall here like Boulder’s Pearl Street, Denver’s 16th Street Mall, San Antonio’s Riverwalk, or the wonderful Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Experts recommend just such an experimental closure before trying such a thing permanently.
I’ve always been surprised that Colorado Springs never tried a downtown pedestrian zone since so many other cities have, especially tourist towns like ours. With more people living downtown all the time, and the soccer stadium and Olympic Museum on their way, now is the perfect time to reinvent our downtown, to generate a little buzz and excitement, create a social center for eating and walking and enjoying our city more fully. With plans for a permanent ice rink in Acacia Park and a refurbished band shell, the timing for a grand pedestrian zone along Tejon couldn’t be better.
Need one more reason to do it? Next year is the city’s 150th birthday. What a great birthday present — give downtown back to the pedestrians it was originally designed for.
In “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” author Jane Jacobs argued that pedestrian traffic is what gives a city vitality: "Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contracts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow."
There’s something elegant and right about this period of “social distancing” becoming an opportunity to create a city that brings us closer together socially, gets us out of our cars more and into the streets.
The Italians, of course, have a word for this kind of interaction, for strolling lazily together around the square in the evening, with no real aim but the strolling itself and the happy interaction with other aimless strollers.
It’s called: The passeggiata.
Not sure it has an exact translation into English, but from what I remember in Vernazza, it’s the exact opposite of “social distance.”