Is Sidewalk Dining to Blame for Dyckman Street’s Traffic Nightmare?

mamajuana_TSWWL.jpgMamajuana Cafe. Photo: The Streets Where We Live

Last week I took my first cab ride in recent memory, from Midtown home to Inwood. It was Thursday night, and pretty early — around 10:00 — when we exited the West Side Highway onto Riverside Drive and made the left to Dyckman/200th Street. As we passed the bustling Mamajuana Cafe, near the corner of Seaman Avenue, its outdoor tables packed as usual, and the cab driver inched among revving motorcycles, honking livery cabs and boom-car drivers who seemed to have no purpose there other than to cruise the block, I muttered something to the effect of "I’m glad we don’t live down here."

Right now, Mamajuana is at the center of a long-standing dispute over the proliferation of restaurants and bars — those with outdoor space in particular — on Dyckman and the immediate vicinity west of Broadway. Residents who live nearby say the crowds drawn by these establishments have commandeered the area, clogging sidewalks and streets and generating excessive noise at all hours, and are calling on Community Board 12 and area officials to encourage a more balanced mix of "daytime" and "nighttime" businesses.

Mamajuana’s owners, who operate several other restaurants along the Dyckman corridor, counter that they are providing jobs and bringing much-needed street life to the neighborhood. The restaurateurs have repeatedly claimed that most of the noise comes from vehicle traffic, which they have no control over.

The issue could be coming to a head soon. In the last few weeks, CB 12 committees have passed a resolution against an expansion of Mamajuana’s sidewalk cafe and tabled a vote on the renewal of its liquor license, pending a succession of upcoming neighborhood meetings.

CB 12 has expressed its discontent with the Dyckman scene before, but DNAinfo reports that the 34th Precinct and Assembly Member Denny Farrell have also come out against renewing Mamajuana’s liquor license, a decision that ultimately rests with the State Liquor Authority. Outcry over Mamajuana has prompted to the SLA to conduct an examination of the Dyckman corridor. At the same time, residents are opposing the issuance of new sidewalk cafe permits, claiming that current outdoor dining space already constitutes an "attractive nuisance."

No one at this point seems to dispute that noise and traffic on Dyckman are out of control (see lede paragraph), and Mamajuana’s owners have a history of hostility toward neighborhood concerns. But take a look at the above video shot by Maggie Clarke, a member of local advocacy group Inwood and Washington Heights Livable Streets and a leader in the effort to curb nighttime noise on Dyckman.

How many of the horn-honking, crosswalk-hogging, box-blocking
drivers, and motorcyclists with illegal mufflers driving and parking on
the sidewalk, are these businesses responsible for? And if you take them away or get them under control, how much "nuisance" would there be?

  • Paul

    Holy hell that’s a lot of traffic noise. Yeah, it’s gotta be the businesses. Unnecessary muffler noise should be subject to hefty fines until we can phase out the internal combustion engine.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is so New York. Thankfully, our liberal political class doesn’t generally go after “people like them” personally. But it does go after the businesses they patronize, hoping to accomplish the same goal.

    In my travels through restrictive declarations, regulations and codes, I’ve come upon objections to Irish step dancing in dancing schools and African Hair Braiding establishments. And then there was the practice of having enforcement officers walk right past people who where throwing their trash on the sidewalk and ticket the business in front of which the garbage fell.

  • In practice, sometimes sidewalk cafes enhance the street, and sometimes they detract from it. This sounds like the latter. But the worst ones are the restaurants that have built permanent structures on the sidewalks. The city council should grow a pair and order these eyesores demolished.

  • Bill

    Yeah, let’s not make neighborhoods attractive because they might not attract the right kind of people…

  • Peter

    Watching that video, I can understand the frustrations of the neighborhood.

    But with that, how is any of this the fault of Mamajuana? I mean, if they had patrons making a nuisance on the sidewalk, or were actively blasting music, sure. But how are they responsible for drivers?

    CB12 should be raising hell with the local precinct.

  • Matt

    It looks very much, as my friend Yogi would put, “So busy no one goes there anymore.”

  • Matt

    And actually, to add to my snarky comment, I live down on 181 and frequently go up to this area. I wish our street had the same kind of out door cafe type stuff. The building I’m in has been manic with the restaurant here, and Jesse’s (now a Thai place) is the only spot on the block with outdoor seating. Just a cafe is ok, but it really is the traffic noise up here that i awful. One of the biggest problems is that the locals want the traffic noise to go away, but also don’t want the addition constructs (larger sidwalks, bumpouts, bike lanes, etc) to do it, because it would reduce their parking. Neighbors, you cannot have your cake, eat it, and force people to watch you do it too.

  • nobody

    Watching this video, I lost count of how many traffic violations I saw, but I’m certain they add up to thousands of dollars. As a start, NYPD needs to grow a pair, and start ticketing big time.

  • iSkyscraper

    The public always has a way of ruining public space…

    There is an elephant in the room here regarding who is causing the problems, and it’s not something that will go away anytime soon. You can chase this loud and proud motorcycle/boom car culture from neighborhood to neighborhood but it will continue to exist so long as there is a huge population in Inwood, the Bronx and Yonkers to support it. The other day I was driving on I-87 northbound in Yonkers and six motorcyclists (who could have easily been in the above video) managed to block all lanes while moving together in a line at 45 mph. After they had held back enough traffic to create a clear highway, they rocketed forward in a mini-drag race at 90 mph, on an active highway, in the daytime! It’s a sick look-at-my-vehicle culture that is certainly not interested in noise, pedestrian or resident issues. They’ll go wherever there is ample road space and few cops to bother them.

    I had a conversation with the Manhattan Borough DOT Commissioner about the Dyckman traffic problem, i.e. whether something could be done on Seaman to make the road less attractive to drive on and thereby deter motorcycles and other joyriding traffic. But Seaman is already a pretty rough, nearly undrivable, potholed mess, and it hasn’t deterred the above crowds. DOT feels very much that this is an NYPD issue that requires more enforcement.

    And it really is, isn’t it? I think that the cafes do act as a positive for the area in providing street life and dining options and something that is on anyone’s checklist for “nice neighborhood”. The problem is that the NYPD does not have a precinct house in Inwood, downplays most quality-of-life issues here and figures it will all go away if they ignore it. After all, it’s a Hispanic problem in a Hispanic neighborhood, so why should 1 Police Plaza care? Out of sight, out of mind. In the age of Youtube though, that’s going to be tough to pull off — people are mad and you can’t argue with videos like the above.

    There is a lovely old industrial building on Dyckman and Staff, the Kelly Building, that does not seem to have much current use. Would make a perfect precinct house for a new police command centered on Inwood. With the law laid down, the noise thugs would at least go elsewhere and leave Inwood in peace.

  • EC

    Thank goodness for streetsblog!

  • Create a total ban on non-superlocally-registered vehicles for a month, then see what happens, but during the pilot and especially if results are positive let other neighbourhoods know that they could do this, too.

  • iSkyscraper

    Two other thoughts after sleeping on the above. I more and more feel that the restaurants should not be constrained — there is nothing wrong and in fact much desirable about creating “restaurant rows” with a critical mass that can maintain that dining function over years of openings and closings. Would you ban Smith St in Brooklyn? No, of course not. You just need to crack down on any illegal activities so that you get crowds that clink glasses rather than rev engines.

    There is also a zoning issue here — look at a zoning map of Inwood and you will see something very odd — the south side of Dyckman and Broadway north of 215th are zoned C8-3. This is a zoning that specifically encourages and mandates “Automotive Service Establishments” like repair shops, showrooms, gas stations, etc. and bans residential development. As long as you have all these garages around motorbikes are going to be drawn to them. If the south side of Dyckman were six-story apartment buildings I doubt there would be any motorbike issue at all because there would be nothing to attract the bikes, nowhere for them to gather off the street, and lots of residents to complain.

    So in addition to NYPD enforcement in the short term, perhaps pressure should be applied to City Planning to get rid of these ridiculous C8s. They maybe made sense in 1968 but have no place on Manhattan Island in 2010. They are being removed elsewhere where they appear, like Washington Heights, but the current thinking at the borough President’s office is that the auto zones work very well in Inwood for the auto trade and should be left alone. Email Scott Stringer’s office if you think otherwise…http://www.mbpo.org

  • I recently moved to Riverside Dr right around here. While obviously everyone has a right to speak out against what they perceive as noise ruining their neighborhood, IMO this is short sighted and NIMBYism at its worst.

    Without these restaurants and bars Riverside Dr and Dyckman would be a single row of apartment buildings near a few blocks of Desolate industry and a few desolate parks. No reason to go there. I’d rather walk down a noisy street with motorcycles late at night than that sort of desolation. I actually ended up meeting the developer of the marina concessions this past weekend. That last stretch of Dyckman St near Staff St will face pressure to develop as well.

    @iSkyscraper: I actually thought I disagreed with you until I saw your last comment. I can’t agree more! This is developing into a restaurant row, and will soon be on par with something like Smith St. I moved from Seaman Ave to Riverside in February and in my time there two wine bars opened up. That’s the sign of an extremely healthy and previously underutilized neighborhood! The zoning is what made it look industrial and dreary before these restaurants opened up, and I definitely think the changes you mentioned would be a step in the right direction!

    I’m not sure about the zoning, but on Payson and Henshaw there seem to be a lot of lonely storefronts. I could see these becoming the more low key businesses that will both exist as a result of the noisy restaurants and help counter their negative side effects.

  • Rob B.

    This neighborhood is ripe for non-car livability, so let’s see JSK do her stuff.

    In the meantime, there is still an auto culture that needs places to get serviced. Bloomberg and the Mets are about to take down the repair shops in Flushing, so where are these shops going to relocate? Yonkers’ Neperhan Valley, adjacent to I-87 and the Saw Mill Parkway seems a natural location. Government needs to affirmatively open up zones for these shops to set up.

    There is also the question of jobs. Fewer blue collar jobs in historically (but not exclusively) male industries are disappearing in New York. “Auto mechanic” is one such job, and we need to make sure we don’t eliminate these opportunities. Otherwise, we’re going to see working-class families, and the neighborhoods they live in, disappear.

  • Where will the depot be for the future East side bus lines? Can there be some kind of formal re-training for the transition from private mobility to collective mobility jobs?

    If the garages etc. are a bit out of town along the highway, it would make sense to have a special area with its own highway egress. This keeps private vehicles off the local roads BUT still preserves or creates jobs in the immediate areas — the only thing cooler than riding your bike to pick up your car is when car mechanics ride their bikes to work.

  • JamesR

    I’m all for vibrant street life, but this is not healthy urbanity. Neither is it Point A to Point B travel. This is out of control adults playing in the street with loud, dangerous, motorized toys. I live right across the river in the Bronx and feel like I’m taking my life in my hands when biking anywhere near Dyckman St and Seaman Ave on weekends or weekday evenings.

    This is going to sound un-PC, but there is a strong cultural component to this. This is a predominantly Latino area, and among many under-30 Latino males, to own and prominently display your motor vehicle is to signify having made it in life and of being a badass. You can’t change the culture from the outside and you can’t traffic calm/engineer your way out of it (the vehicles in the video were all stopped or moving at less than 5mph!) so all you can do is enforce the hell out of existing laws. NYPD, where are you?

  • Steve

    I lived a block away, on Seaman Ave, in ’95-97. Dyckman had some good Dominican chicken places, a diner, and a no frills bar where Mamajuana stands today. You had the sidewalk to yourself when you walked home after 8 pm.

  • Woody

    Simple problem, simple solution.

    The Number One Complaint to 311 is NOISE. Bloomberg Administration admits that. Of course, most noise is “traffic” noise, as seen and heard in this excellent video. So nothing can be done about it, right?

    European cities function perfectly well without car horns blowing. So a simple step would be to outlaw use of horns in the city.

    Don’t worry. Most horn blowing has no relation to safety at all whatsoever. Drivers blow their horns to say, “Get out of my way” or “I don’t like what you are doing” or “I’m in a hurry.” We should tell them all to SHUT UP. Just shut up. Or pay the large fine.

    If the Legislature doesn’t want to approve the right of New York City to stop drivers from blowing their horns and annoying everyone else, we could offer to let the State get all the money from the fines. That should be enough funds to close the State deficit, for a true win-win.

  • iSkyscraper

    Woody, a fantasy I’ve had many times, but unfortunately completely unrealistic for a number of practical reasons. I’d be more interested in tightening and enforcing muffler noise limits than the untouchable horn issue — you can pull over a bike, rev its engine and confirm the number of DB. It’s actually quite workable to set the noise limit for any vehicle quite low (something not much above a typical car) and then have cops enforce it when called to a problem area.

  • Ian Turner

    You’ll never successfully enforce an outright horn prohibition, and when used properly horns do have a useful safety purpose.

    However, there is one thing you can do that will ensure horns are only used when absolutely necessary:

    Make the horn sound as loud inside the car as it does outside the car.

  • 99% of horn honking in the city is completely unnecessary under Section 1146 of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, but Ian’s right that the residual safety value of the horn means they will always be with us:

    “Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary, every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary.”

    This ought to be amended, with the following proviso, tacked on at the end: “provided, however, that drivers shall not use a horn to give warning if a collision can be avoided by other lawful means.”

  • Tongue planted firmly in cheek, I think car horns should have a service fee of $20 per use. You’d think twice about honking when you don’t need to, (gasp, slowing down for jaywalking pedestrians?! The light is green now?) … but it would sure be worth $20 to avoid a genuine crisis. Sure, honking will become the purveyance of the Land Rover bourgeois, but I think we can all live with that.

  • Horns are b.s. I used to drive an old car with no horn. Horns don’t magically move anything from your trajectory of entitlement, and probably cause more collisions than they prevent. Some clever reader ought to seek out funding for a study about that, which might as one of its conclusions state that at the very least horn use must be recorded, either with some short-term add on (maybe it would be used to assess a fee, maybe not) and medium-term any new “black box” equipment required in all cars…. or do they already have that? For example if you have “On Star” and whilst driving through a busy street fair full of the flesh covered boneys you notice that they are not scattering with a touch of your gloved hand on the console, will On Star know this and send a helicopter or jet pack team to your location with a soldering iron?

  • For a start, how about horn disabled if car not in motion? Persons in stationary cars about to be hit by another car will in most cases be able to just get out of the car …

  • Ian Turner

    BO, works for me.

  • Sean

    Dominicans just don’t respect public space. They honk, shout, litter, don’t pick up after their dogs, etc. In Inwood / WH, they’re left to their own devices and do what they like.

  • iSkyscraper

    Horns are simple to control but it requires some government regulation and a little bit of expense (couple hundred dollars).

    1) All cabs licensed in NYC must be equipped with a second “communication” horn. Like a streetcar bell on a modern LRT that also has a loud horn, this would be used for communication and not safety. Its tone would be quieter and less annoying.

    2) All cabs licensed in NYC must be equipped with a horn black box. Black box monitors use of regular horn and automatically issues fines when a reasonable weekly quota is exceeded. This allows for use for safety but will make cabbies wary of touching the main horn for other purposes. No fines for using communication horn.

    3) Legalize street hails for livery cabs north of 125th St and in the outer boroughs. This simply reflects the reality that has existed for decade. Once street hails are legal, indicators can be added for empty/occupied. This eliminates much of the need for honking, since right now the drivers must advertise their availability with their horn as there is no other way to know.

    Once the cabs are under control regular auto horn behavior should improve, since noise begets noise.

  • Ian Turner

    iSkyScraper, I’d add to that:

    – Make the horn (or both horns) sound as loud on the inside of the car as they do on the outside of the car.

    Unfortunately, all this is regulated at the federal level, so I’m fairly hopeless that any such rules could come to pass.

    –Ian

  • Miriam

    Driving and honking is a male thing. I am so sick and tired of male drivers who HONK their cars horn LOUDLY if anyone takes more than a second to move when the green light comes on.

    Ban all male drivers!!

  • Ian Turner

    Miriam,

    Are you serious?

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