I was at a company Christmas party (not mine, by the way) last night and after about half an hour I ran out of my extremely limited supply of social skills. I ducked out into the city and started taking photos in the misty drizzle – a serious gift after a three year drought. The rain was washing the city clean. I headed straight for Belden Place here and the Cafe Bastille here. It’s the kind of cozy restaurant that serves beautifully prepared meals without being pretentious or stuffy. It isn’t cheap, but it isn’t crazy expensive either. But the main draw for me is the funky location in a tiny back alley. Belden Place is only one short block long and twenty feet wide, but packed with lots of great places to eat in an intimate and charming setting. I chatted with Olivier, one of the co-owners of the Bastille, and got the backstory. But first here are a couple of photos of typical downtown alleys.
Okay, keep those imagines in your mind. Dumpsters. Loading docks. Nothing good. So… twenty-four years ago Eric Klein and Olivier Azancot found a little hole-in-the-wall location in the middle of a dead back alley and opened a restaurant when there was nothing else around. They set out tables and chairs in the middle of the alley each night and slowly built up a clientele one delicious meal at a time. It took the city three years to catch on and start with the usual code enforcement routine, but by then the business was solvent and financially able to comply. There were also other small restaurants and bars that sprung up on the alley and collectively Belken Place become a destination. The restaurants and bars weren’t so much competing with each other as forming an ecosystem where they each supported each other. After all, a dark alley wouldn’t be nearly as inviting if there was only one place sitting there all by itself. Some places are more expensive and offer fine dining and spendy wines while others serve pizza and beer. Even on a rainy night the place was packed with middle aged business people, college kids, and tourists. Some of the establishments set out large umbrellas and portable heaters while others had entire canvas and vinyl enclosures. Add strings of overhead lights and viola!
Obviously this particular set of eateries in this specific location requires a certain amount of money. But some version of this can thrive at a much lower price point in a less dense less prosperous town. I thought about that as I walked home and passed a Salvadoran pushcart vendor a couple of blocks from my apartment in the Mission. I was also reminded that my great-grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, was a pushcart vendor in Brooklyn a century ago. Any alley can be transformed into a small business incubator with almost no money with modest street vendors, cheap lawn furniture, and some Christmas lights. A neighborhood just needs to be willing to experiment along the way. There are an awful lot of neighborhoods in steep decline with high unemployment and real economic needs to be filled. There will never be enough government money to burn up subsidizing boondoggles to fix these structural problems. So why not lighten up on the onerous regulations and let people start providing for themselves by clearing a space for micro-entrepreneurs? It’s just paperwork. It’s cheap. Give it a try.