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Sidewalk Cafe Interim Report: Some Progress

My suggestion that a few more sidewalk cafes, like those in Paris, would add to the joy of life in Los Angeles, has inspired in my former colleague David Soibelman a poignant memory of his time as a young reporter in Buffalo.

Soibelman retired from newspaper work when the downtown Daily News folded, in 1955, and thereafter worked for years in public relations for City Hall, a post that he distinguished by his biblically rhapsodic handouts during Christmas season, when the tower was lighted with a cross.

We flash back now to a time just after that misguided experiment, Prohibition, had been lifted from the land, and beer had once more begun to flow through Buffalo like a river.

Like most well-bred young men of that era, Soibelman had just made the obligatory trip to France, where, in Paris, he had been exposed to that city’s famed entertainments, including sidewalk cafes.

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Noticing that barrels of beer once again rolled openly through Buffalo’s streets, Soibelman wrote a story for the Buffalo News asking why the drinking of it had to be confined to taverns “beamed in true medieval style, decorated with copper flagons, coats of arms with strange animals couchant and rampant, fleurs-de-lis and maces, bronze candlesticks from which real candles shed their eerie glow so that gentlemen and their admirers may drink in an atmosphere redolent of the times when drinking beer in taprooms and taverns was the pastime of stalwarts. . . .”

Why, Soibelman asked, must beer be drunk in dreary medieval caverns, when fresh air and sunlight beckoned just outside the door? “A breath of La Belle Paris in the midst of the moil and commerce that is Buffalo--and Buffalo will be culturally enhanced. . . . It is Buffalo’s boast that she has more miles of paved streets, gayer windows and greener parks than any other city you may name, but what of Buffalo’s sidewalks? Gentlemen we give you the sidewalk cafe!”

Soibelman says, alas, that he doesn’t know whether Buffalo ever followed his advice. He is reminded of the last line of an O. Henry story: “I wonder what is happening in Buffalo today.”

Meanwhile, I’m told that Los Angeles is not as desolate as I painted it. Helen H. Hickish reminds me that there are eight sidewalk cafes in the Sunset Plaza area of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood--Chin Chin, Pasta, Etc., Cravings, Tutto Italia, Le Petit Four, Champions, Le Croissant and Mrs. Fields.

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She also notes that Larchmont Boulevard, between Windsor Square and Hancock Park, has several.

Betty A. Wesley concedes that these cafes exist, but notes, from experience, that not all are permitted to serve wine and beer outside. I must check it out.

Robert G. Dawson argues that the sidewalk cafes of Europe are not truly on sidewalks, because pedestrians must walk on the sidewalk; so the cafe is beside the sidewalk. I say the sidewalks are simply broader, because Paris was made for walking. As Dawson suggests, we will have to set our buildings farther back or chop off their fronts.

Esther Wachtell, president of the Music Center, promises that my dream of seeing “chairs and tables and bookstalls and wine-and-sandwich bars on the Music Center Plaza” will soon be realized.

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This month, she says, the Music Center is restoring its noontime Friday free concerts, with chairs and tables and “the shop on the Plaza.”

“As the city grows toward the Music Center,” she says, “and there are potentially more and more people ‘to linger at any time of day or night,’ we want to encourage them to do just that. As the new Walt Disney Concert Hall develops, the top of Bunker Hill could become a real ‘pedestrians delight,’ with wonderful shops, bookstores and restaurants. We are all dreaming and working to make that happen.”

Estela Lopez, executive director of Miracle on Broadway, writes that her group is working with architects, urban planners, property owners, shop proprietors and customers to make Broadway pleasant, exciting and magnetic.

“You mentioned that Broadway is the city’s top pedestrian thoroughfare. It is, in fact, the street with the most foot traffic west of Chicago. It is a singular blessing in this car-crazed city of ours.”

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