Figure 1: Balthazar restaurant cooking steaks outside (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)
During the time of Manhattan’s power outage, business activities reserved for indoor settings made their way into the sidewalk. Some business owners, unable to keep their internal artificial lighting going, took to the streets to sell their products. Some of the owners of the grocery stores gave their perishable products away, realizing that it was of no value if it wasn’t consumable right away. Others sold it at low prices, still capitalizing on the brand of the business opportunity in order to make a buck.
By walking through he SoPo (South of Power) neighborhood, one could see products being cooked, sold or given away on the sidewalks themselves. The sight of perishable goods in a corner was—by itself– a sign that some kind of transaction—like bartering–was going on. Goods on the sidewalk became signals of local economic activity. There was no need for neon signs or flashing lights to advertize a business—cooking or selling outside was an attention-grabber in itself.
This simple shift in the everyday rituals of Manhattan struck me during the second day of the power outage. I was turning around a corner on Broadway when I found a group of people heating up barbeque grills in the middle of the sidewalk. The presence of open air cooking in the public realm was common in the old days of Manhattan. Today, it is a freak occurrence. Barbeque grills, on the sidewalk, a block away from Broadway! This sight of food being cooked on the streets reminded me of the informal street-food vendors of Mexico City—my hometown. The food these vendors cook on street corners is cheap and accessible to lower classes. The people who were about to cook next to Broadway were not cooking a cheap meal. Quite the contrary: they were preparing steaks from Balthazar, a high-end exclusive restaurant in Lower Manhattan.
Balthazar is one the most expensive, glamorous, and well- known restaurants in the city. On a regular day, having internal electric light helps Balthazar keeps their products fresh. It also allows them to keep appearances up and running. Light creates a setting within a restaurant—it helps frame the activities inside a building as apart from the ones on the street. In order to sell expensive food, Balthazar frames their food in a lively setting that confers distinction and exclusivity to its clients. Well-known restaurant guides like Zagat recognize the importance of setting for the restaurant business.
Balthazar was in a zone affected by the power outage. As a result of the outage they had to cancel operations. However, instead of letting their produce go bad–due to lack of refrigeration– they took it out on to the street. This simple action made their daily appearances crumble. The cooks and personnel of the kitchen–mostly Hispanics– set out into the streets to cook the meat. Because the meat was going to go bad—and there were no props to maintain the air of exclusivity– the meat was sold 5 dollars. Usually it ranges from 20 to 30 dollars.
The sight of cooking drew attention of the passing crowd. It turned a regular street corner into a hub of sociability. Some residents came by to stay by the warm fire—others, who were experiencing Soho without heat or gas, were grateful to have warm food (not to mention the fact that they were eating very serious steaks). This act of eating in the street resembled the practices of neighborhoods like Little Italy. In this case, however the atmosphere was that of a picnic—with all the roughness of an urban camp.
As the barbeque grills let out heaps of smoke, nearby residents, worried about a potential fire, called the police and fire department. A couple of minutes after the cooking had started an NYPD patrol car arrived. The officers had a scared look on their faces as they got off of the car; they were expecting to find a fire burning out of control. Instead, what they found was corner with people socializing in neighborly fashion. They immediately relaxed, allowing people to carry on with this cooking of raw food on public grounds. This would have never happened under normal circumstances cooking in public is strictly prohibited on the streets of Manhattan and is only reserved to certain grounds and parks were you are allowed to barbeque.
Figure 4: Cooking turns corners into social hubs (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)
The social theorist Ervin Goffman uses theatrical metaphors to explain how we relate to people on an everyday basis. According to him, we have front-stages and back-stages in everyday life. The front stage is the place where appearances are maintained—it is a setting full of props and actors playing their roles. The backstage, on the other hand, is a space that remains hidden. This backstage is a place where the actors can take a break– a zone where hidden labor helps keeps the appearances of the front stage running.
A restaurant relies on two front stages: the façade of the building and the dinning room itself. We first need to locate a restaurant place through the props displayed on its façade. After this we enter the setting of the dinning room —another front stage. In elegant and expensive restaurants, the food needs to be framed a certain way in order to have value. Waiters and managers help maintain these appearances. These actors rely on cooks and personnel that remain behind closed doors. In this sense, a restaurant’s kitchen is the backstage that helps maintain appearance and the value of the front stage.
During the crisis, the backstage workers of Balthazar became the front-stage actors. They performed all their cooking activities over the restaurants façade. In this sense, they were given all the publicity they could have. No waiters were needed for this tactical affair. The façade had, literally, gone off. Electrical light alters our daily activities—this is the case of activities performed streets and buildings adjacent to the streets.
Having internal electric light allows locales such as restaurants to differentiate their practices from what is going on in the street. The crisis brought covert activities into the sidewalk—the very front region of everyday life. In this abnormal situation, roles and social conventions were challenged. A pocket of intimacy was established with strangers. Bonds were created. Food was eaten. This only lasted a moment, creating a sense of comradely amongst the attendants that dissolved as soon as the light turned back on.