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Leni Schwendinger Makes a Lightscape of the Evening Streetery Scene Part 14 of 15 proposals to help

By Audrey Wachs Additional reporting by Sukjong Hong

Intro by Leni Schwendinger

I ❤️ the #NYC outdoor restaurants and worked on typologies with AIA New York | Center for Architecture.

Before that, the early post-pandemic nights were so intriguing that Curbed and New York Magazine invited me to contribute to their March 2021 tribute to the pandemic.

See my photo collage of the West Village sparkling streeteries (Graphic by #FatimaTerin)

Many thanks to Sukjong Hong and Audrey Wachs

Art: Photography by Leni Schwendinger/Graphic Design by Fatima Terin

A year after New York City went into lockdown, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 of its residents. The tragedy’s scale has made it difficult to comprehend the private griefs so many of us have experienced: the million heartbreaks of lost friends, lost livelihoods, lost neighborhood fixtures, lost senses of belonging. Instead of proposing a grand permanent memorial, we asked a wide range of New Yorkers about the moments from the pandemic that stood out to them and how they would want those experiences to be commemorated. In response, a selection of architects and artists translated those memories into proposals for temporary installations. We imposed no budget limit and no restrictions: The result could be a sculpture, a mural, a pavilion, a song — anything that could become part of the streetscape for a while. Presented here is one of 15 concepts submitted by architects, designers, artists, and composers; the rest will appear over the course of this week.

Client: Kalkin Narvilas

Restaurateur, Saggio and Uptown Garrison in Washington Heights, Cent’Anni in Crown Heights, and Midwood Flats in Flatbush.

Kalkin Narvilas: I have restaurants I like to think that have soul. I’m not shooting for a Michelin star. I’m not a chef. It’s just the overall kind of community and clubhouse and neighborhood place where people come to celebrate and to meet and to be social, which is why I was very scared when it hit the fan. And I was in disbelief in the beginning. I literally was like, ‘Ha! Come and close me. I’d like to see that.’ And then, before you know it, we were delivery-only starting March 16th. I was facing the loss of my entire life’s work, and I don’t have a degree or something that I can go look for a job. I would have to start from scratch again.

We closed March 28th and I reopened the Uptown Garrison for coffee the very end of April. And then, by the first week in May, I had all four places open. So the first round of pivots were at the end of June. They let us have that outdoor seating. So now we’re like a brick and mortar food truck. We’re selling branded Dram cans, canning our own cocktails, we have pomme frites in the wax cone things with dipping sauces, we have little sliders. We started doing a CSA box with one of our farms that we used to work with that we put out in the window…

Then winter came and we had to pivot again. And I was always afraid of it. But my wait staff, my bartenders, my baristas, everybody was a unicorn. People that were waiters now became baristas, and learned how to be bartenders. It was really incredible. I started looking into these igloos that I saw on the Upper West Side before it was even that cold. And we made them as nice as we could. And I was like, all right, let’s give people an experience. I came up with the idea of doing s’mores. I have a pastry chef on my team that was like, ‘Hey, I can make the marshmallows.’ So we had the s’mores with a raspberry and a vanilla and a maple tahini marshmallow.

It’s like the cream has risen to the top for me; the people that have been with me fighting this fight and adjusting with me and and trusting me and moving forward… All my places are like my children. I’ll be laughing when this pandemic’s over and I have my life, that’s my victory. And I have people now that I could focus on and I could give my love to; I’m not distracted anymore.

Lighting Designer: Leni Schwendinger

As an urban lighting and nighttime designer, Leni Schwendinger has a sharp eye for atmosphere. She came away from Kalkin Narvilas’s story with a sense of the difficulty he had adapting his business to fluctuating COVID positivity rates as well as the city’s game of red light, green light with outdoor dining. It made her think, she said, of her own relationship to streeteries, the provisional and often stylish partitioned patios that restaurateurs like Narvilas have built on sidewalks and reclaimed parking spaces.

She started photographing the streeteries in October. “I was fascinated by the workmen in the street pounding two-by-fours together with openings and doors, building right in the street,” Schwendinger said. “And then the lights appeared. I was tickled by what I saw.”

Schwendinger said she walked the blocks near her home in the West Village many nights just to see the outdoor setups, which ranged from ad hoc to sophisticated. “I was interested in how restaurant owners were draping the lights, and how they were using things like ambient heaters for light. I was observing what colors people were using or not using. The variety of applications, the inventiveness: Are we stretching the string [lights]? Are we draping it? Was it overhead? Is it on the window?” She brought these questions to bear on the lighting schemes she captured for Narvilas’s memorial, which features an illustrated cityscape overlaid onto a collage of photographs from her walks.

In the graphic, Schwendinger and her collaborator, urban designer Fatima Terin, drew parallels between Narvilas’s pivots to keep his restaurants viable and the role of improvised lighting schemes in defining the mood of DIY outdoor dining rooms. The graphic moves from darkness at the bottom to lightness at the top, a reflection of Narvalis’s move from doubt and financial uncertainty to solutions like his daring menu experiments that have kept his businesses afloat. If Narvilas is on board, she imagines linking the collage to a QR code on the menu. “Diners would get the image as a hors d’oeuvre,” Schwendinger said. “We felt passionate about creating an image that both mirrors the experience of this year and is a representation of his ingenuity.”


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