Sidewalks of New York: Turning It Inside Out

Retailers offer a breath of fresh air in the midst of a tumultuous year
Posted December 21, 2020

To see or learn more about the Bloomingdale's windows (shown) designed by Marco Santini, click here.

There is a famous Mark Twain misquote: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Some would say the same sentiment applies to New York. Whether it was the devastation of September 11, 2001, or the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, New York has always surmounted its challenges.

Commerce and retail, much like the city itself, always respond to change. Historically, the engines of change have been new technologies and current events. We are now at the confluence of advanced technology and challenging economic, social and public health issues. And while New York is built on commercialism, e-commerce is now the backbone of its retail infrastructure. However, New York retail doesn’t only exist in cyberspace, it’s also alive and well on the streets.

As the city has adapted to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, fresh air has become a sought-after commodity and a liberating product offering. Throughout the summer, sidewalk cafés sprouted like wildflowers on main streets and avenues. 

As the leaves began to turn, Bergdorf Goodman created the model for street-side dining. The upscale Fifth Avenue retailer brought the luxurious culinary delights of its in-store restaurant onto the street in the form of BG on Fifth. Adjacent to Central Park and positioned alongside its legendary show windows, the 36-seat outdoor café, embellished with live foliage, provides a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic days of home confinement. Similarly, Ralph Lauren brought its in-store coffee shop outside under the eaves of its Beaux-Arts-style Madison Avenue flagship. Also positioned next to the store’s impeccable show windows, Ralph’s Coffee offers an open-air respite for city dwellers yearning to breathe free.

The bustling Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue also brought the indoors out, positioning booths with socially distanced tables in the no-standing zones on 15th and 16th Streets. The city’s outdoor dining initiative is so popular that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Open Restaurants program will be permanent, much to the delight of the 10,000-plus participating establishments. With the thermometer dropping, the city approved the use of heaters in the outdoor eateries.

As New Yorkers embrace the outdoors, show windows engage sidewalk strollers with positive, upbeat messages. Many feature graphics and electronics to liven up the cityscape, while others display fine art. Murals have appeared on many of the city’s boarded up storefronts as well as in store windows. On Lexington Avenue, Bloomingdales continued its tradition of grand window presentation with a colorful celebration of autumn’s fresh air in windows labelled “Fall Essentials.” At Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship, the show windows featured a fall promotion titled “Saks Loves NYC,” a tribute to the city’s noble spirit as it bounces back from the effects of the pandemic.

Don’t count New York out just yet. Although empty storefronts can be seen on most major retail corridors, more stores are open, with protocols in place, than are not. Customers are welcomed into stores across the city, from Bergdorf’s to Bloomingdales. There’s a renewed confidence and verve in the Big Apple as retailers cautiously welcome customers indoors while enthusiastically celebrating the outdoors.

This column originally appeared in VMSD's November/December 2020 issue.