PASADENA – Along bustling Colorado Boulevard, friends clanged wine glasses in the glow of twinkling lights. A few blocks away, another group of diners ate next to huge potted plants as a crooner serenaded them from the podium.
It was a typical Southern California summer night, except the diners were in what was a busy lane just a few months ago.
Pasadena, a city of about 141,000 in Los Angeles County, narrowed its roads last summer to allow for more outdoor seating, a move popular with customers and businesses alike.
“Okay, so people sit in the middle of the street?” Jack Huang, a local restaurant owner, recalls wondering when the idea was first proposed. “I think they are.”
The success of the outdoor dining expansions, as well as slow-street programs that made roads safer for pedestrians, have helped to break down a long-standing principle of LA life: reverence for cars.
“There’s a lot of mindset to use spaces differently than we had in the past,” Madeline Brozen, an urban planner at UCLA, told me. “I think there is interest in trying to reclaim some of the spaces that were reserved for cars only.”
In the past 18 months, initiatives have sprung up across the country to prioritize pedestrians. San Francisco banned cars on the boulevard that runs through Golden Gate Park so that cyclists and walkers could roam freely. New York closed 83 miles of streets to cars for more walking, biking, and alfresco dining.
But there are few places where cars are as prevalent as in Southern California.
Broze told me that before the pandemic, LA restaurant owners with limited outdoor space would generally reserve it for customer parking spaces.
But that calculus changed when dining outdoors was deemed safer than indoors to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And the resulting expansion of outdoor seating revealed pent-up demand, she said.
“LA has historically done a very poor job of dining al fresco,” Brozen told me. “But people like to be outside. That’s a big reason people live in Los Angeles – the great weather.”
The outdoor dining programs aren’t perfect, she noted. For example, placing tables outside can block parts of the sidewalk and make it more difficult for people to walk.
But these programs showed Angelenos what they might need to believe, Brozen said: that when you took some space away from cars, “the world didn’t end.”
Brigham Yen, a real estate agent and pedestrian attorney in LA, said he believed outdoor dining programs also made the streets more inviting so people could be more motivated to get around on foot.
As Yen and I strolled through Old Town Pasadena, the city’s commercial hub, he pointed to diners drinking pints of beer on patios and others chatting over plates of pasta.
“People see people outside and it activates the street,” Yen told me. “When you see a lot of people outside, people get excited: ‘Wow, what’s going on? This is a lively place.’”
Indeed, when we turned into a block without eating outside, the street felt sterile by comparison – no music or buzz. There were people, but they were behind tinted glass windows.
Lisa Derderian, spokeswoman for the City of Pasadena, told me that the outdoor dining program, which has been vital in helping restaurants survive the pandemic, had been extended through the first quarter of 2022.
She said the reduction in the number of autobahns had affected traffic, but she thought there would have been more backlash if it had happened at a different time than the pandemic.
“People are getting used to that now and working around it,” she told me. “We get good reviews.”
If you read one story, make it this
In a big win for tech companies, Californians last year passed Proposition 22, which classifies gig workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, as independent contractors, rather than full-time workers eligible for health care, unemployment insurance and other benefits.
But on Friday, a California Superior Court judge ruled the law unconstitutional and unenforceable, reports my colleague Kate Conger.
While the decision is unlikely to immediately affect the new law, it has reopened debate over whether such workers deserve full benefits.
what we eat
This chocolate banana pudding is best the day it’s made, but can last up to 24 hours – if you can wait that long to eat it.
Where we are traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Peggie Morgan, a retired librarian in Cal State Fresno.
Peggie recommends Fresno’s Forestiere Underground Gardens, an open-air museum that is a historic landmark. The gardens, a network of several hectares, were built over 40 years by a Sicilian immigrant.
And before you go, good news
It’s never too late to record your first album. Or at least that was the case for Russ Ellis, a celebrated architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who released his first record at the age of 86.