Sheltering the City: the Stealth Public Service of Commercial Awnings

The fabric, vinyl, and metal structures that sit above most of the storefronts in commercial districts are primarily implemented as advertising space for the businesses below, but they are most commonly utilized by pedestrians for a number of public service-oriented functions; namely, as public places of congregation, as landmarks, and most importantly, as shelter. These stealth public services are hugely important in the maintenance of safe sidewalks, and trump the advertising function as the most useful and popular facet of the highly functional commercial awning.

In New York City, commercial awnings tend to take one of two forms. The first will be familiar to anyone who has wandered the streets of the city’s residential, ungentrified neighborhoods, hereafter referred to as “hoods” (this excludes public housing projects, since they do not grow organically and are very rarely subject to the ravages of gentrification): that of the bodega. Brightly colored and plastered text advertising that the store sells, as every passerby already knows, groceries, beer, lotto, candy, and cigarettes. It’s virtually impossible to imagine the streets of New York without picturing those bodega awnings, ubiquitous as they are, but in the past ten or so years, commercial awnings have begun to fall out of fashion. Those that are implemented have tended towards minimalism, such as that of one East Village café and neighborhood hang-out, whose two-color awning features only one word of text and vanity-style light bulbs along the bottom. The awning and the bare plate-glass window it shelters are something of an attractor in and of themselves, providing relief from the visual clutter and bright colors of the surrounding neighborhood and alluding to the café’s calm, airy interior. Additionally, the café sometimes puts out a bench or stools under the awnings, making the plain storefront seem inviting and friendly, which also acts as a sort of pseudo-advertising.

For businesses that wish to formally advertise themselves, awnings are a natural choice, providing more surface area to print on than a flat sign and offering multiple angles by which the advertising can be forced into pedestrians’ views; but for those businesses who choose the more minimalist approach, the choice is less clear. Why choose a commercial awning if not for its advertising purpose? Why not implement a flat sign instead, which is easier to clean and maintain, and which would not be subject to the obscure and unevenly enforced permit requirements and content regulations (which allow commercial awnings to carry only the business’s name and address in letters printed twelve inches high or smaller[1])?

The answer, of course, is community. The aforementioned “stealth public service” function of the awning cannot be overstated both as a factor in the maintenance of safe streets and as a way for businesses to garner the goodwill of pedestrians and community members. Awnings provide valuable public shelter, free of charge: shade from the sun, cover from rain and snow, transition spaces in inclement weather where one might put up an umbrella before stepping out, or button one’s coat without crowding the doorway. The effects of the stealth public service, though, are further reaching and longer lasting than the simple transience of a place to stand in the rain. An awning, in the appropriate setting, can become a microcosm of what noted urbanist Jane Jacobs deemed the three requirements of a healthy city street: first, a clear demarcation of public and private space; second, surveillance or “eyes [on] the street”; and third, continuous use.

The humble structure of the commercial awning cannot be solely responsible for the presence of these qualities on a given street, but the awning, when utilized with intent to promote community rather than commercialism, can provide a space for all three of these qualities to occur and be practiced simultaneously. People-watching, for example, what Jacobs refers to as “eyes upon the street”[2], is commonly practiced in front windows and stoops, and in the spaces under the awnings of corner stores and bodegas. Growing up even in a small hood of fairly ill-repute, a young child can hardly bounce a ball on the sidewalk without old women and men from around the neighborhood calling to her to say hello to her parents, asking how the new baby is doing, warning her off chasing the stray ball into the road.

For businesses such as bodegas and corner stores that wish to become and remain a part of the community, an awning can be an extension of the communal space in the business’s interior, a place to share community news and gossip, or to leave one’s keys for a visiting relative, as Jacobs notes. The sorts of congregations that form in and around a bodega are the result of trust formed because of Jacobs’ first requirement, that of the delineation of public and private space. With this delineation, members of a community can meet and communicate with one another in truly public forums, and have no need to risk opening their homes to people who might be total strangers but for proximity. This, in turn, allows for the slow and organic growth of trust and comfort within a community, which tends to raise said community’s willingness to participate in activities that promote neighborhood accountability and stability.

Now, a bodega is obviously a public space, but the space under a bodega’s awning is even more so, not simply because it is outside but because there is no requirement that the user/pedestrian spend any money in the store itself in order to use the awning for shelter. Business owners might complain about loiterers who are not community members, but those who congregate beneath an awning on a regular basis are by definition community members. What’s more, they are an integral element of Jacob’s “continuous use” requirement, as people who are present and visible on a given street for long periods of time. Making a street seem safe tends to make it safe: populated neighborhood sidewalks seem and are almost always safe.

The continuous use quality is two-fold, in a sense: safe streets require the continual presence of pedestrians, certainly, but they also require local businesses to exist continuously. Streets with high commercial turnover rates can be safe but not by virtue of the shops themselves, since, again, it takes time for a business owner to build trust with the community and vice versa. A neighborhood’s residents must be able to trust a given shop’s owner with both her business, i.e. the shop’s purpose, and with their own, such as the aforementioned holding of keys, and the surveillance of the streets. For this reason, the advertising function of awnings cannot be all bad, since advertising tends to attract customers, enabling the business to remain long enough to forge that necessary trust.

Though advertising-oriented awnings are useful in the maintenance of low commercial turnover, and thus in maintaining the sense of trust in the community itself, the ubiquitous nature of advertising on commercial awnings is a reminder of the ever-presence of capitalism in daily life, and promotes what Guy Debord, philosopher and founding member of the Situationist International, refers to as “…the false choice offered by spectacular abundance based on the juxtaposition…of competing yet mutually-reinforcing spectacles…that are once exclusive and interconnected, [which] evolves into a contest among phantom qualities meant to elicit devotion to quantitative triviality.”[3] It may seem tautological, but the mere presence of advertising in the landscape of the city means that the question in any given pedestrian’s mind is no longer whether or not to buy something, but which thing they should buy, whether to spend twelve dollars on a book or twenty on a meal.

This encroachment of capitalism and commercialism into daily life was of special concern to Debord and his Situationist cohorts, who proposed the derivé, or “drift”, a practice by which one relieves oneself of daily working life by allowing the city to pull one whichever way it might, disregarding time and appointments in order to commit oneself fully to this temporary, purposeful waywardness. A derivé might last a day, or a few hours, or a week, but whatever the length, the practice is intended as a respite from the everyday demands of capitalism, something that the ubiquity of advertising in cities now makes virtually impossible. How can one forget the demands of capitalism when every sign and awning in sight demands that one spends money? How can one take comfort from the city when every corner of the city itself seems to promote the very thing from which one seeks respite?

The presence of advertising-oriented awnings all but negates the purpose and practice of the derivé, but the presence of the awnings themselves is not at all at odds with Debord’s concepts. Awnings, devoid of their advertising function, might in fact be conducive to the derive in the same way that they are conducive to healthy, safe streets, allowing the drift to continue in bad weather by providing shelter gratis, providing spaces for conversation and congregation, and providing landmarks of a sort by which one might find their way home or, alternatively, choose the direction in which one would like to get lost.

The commercial awning is a necessary and vital part of street life in the city. The advertising for which they are so often used is not. The question, then, is this: would businesses continue to use commercial awnings if not for their advertising function? The current trend of minimalist, less advertising-oriented awnings indicates that they would, but what, in that case, would become of bodega culture? Would the elderly citizens of the city’s hoods hang out in the same way under a blank awning, if the business it sheltered remained the same? The commercial awning’s two main functions do not seem irrevocably intertwined, nor should they: large-scale urban capitalism is proving to be unsustainable, as gentrification and the rising cost of living force more and more urban dwellers to the outer boroughs and suburbs. The safety of the city’s streets cannot depend on the presence of capitalism, and public shelter cannot be a secondary function of advertising.

[1] Jennifer Gerend, “THE OUTRAGE OVER NEW YORK CITY’S STOREFRONT AWNING TICKET BLITZ IS JUSTIFIED—BUT SO ARE THE LIMITS”, Center for an Urban Future (August 2003). Accessed May 3, 2014.

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: The Modern Library, 1961), 45.

[3] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 40.



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