Igloos and iceless curling: How New York hopes to fight off a grim winter

The pandemic has brought plenty of new and expanded outdoor options across the city. PHOTO: NYTIMES
(From left) Boxing instructor Ralph Gilmore trains Dwayne Thomas and Greg Elysée near Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A large screen at Hudson Yards is showing movies and sporting events for free. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - As New York City braces for a pandemic winter, many parks, plazas and open spaces that are so vital to its public life in warmer months have been transformed into cold-weather playgrounds.

Outdoor space has become essential for a crowded city with the virus surging and new restrictions imposed on indoor gatherings.

As a result, the menu of outdoor offerings has gone beyond the usual ice rinks and winter festivities to make way for a far more robust outdoor culture.

There is a new iceless curling cafe in Bryant Park in Manhattan, where players slide stones across five slippery synthetic lanes. Outdoor movies play in a nearby plaza in Hudson Yards. An "outdoor living room" with timber benches beckons in the Prospect Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn. And an empty lot in Astoria, Queens, has turned into a drive-in theatre.

Heated igloos and cabins dot the cityscape, and at the base of a skyscraper on Madison Avenue, a glass canopy being built over part of a public garden will eventually shield visitors from rain and snow.

Just as the pandemic has transformed New York's car-dominated streets with outdoor dining and shopping, the threat of the virus has spurred a broad re-imagining of public spaces that normally sit empty during cold-weather months.

"New York is not a city that universally celebrates outdoorness during the winter," said Dr Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University. "It's not a place that traditionally breaks out the chain saws for ice sculpting competitions."

Still, Prof Kayden said, that could change if the city's public spaces were weatherproofed with heaters, heat-absorbing materials, designs that maximise natural sunlight, and other measures to "position the outdoors of New York City in ways that are friendly in the cold".

Even before the virus, there have been efforts to create more year-round outdoor public spaces. The design for a glass-and-steel canopy at 550 Madison Avenue - a city landmark that was once the home of AT&T and Sony - was unveiled in 2019.

But the pandemic has brought plenty of new and expanded outdoor options across the city, although many are in well-off neighbourhoods and priced beyond the reach of many New Yorkers.

"They serve people who can afford it," said Ms Claudia Coger, 85, a retired city transit worker who has been treated to shows at the Astoria drive-in theatre and would like to see more outdoor options around the city for everyone. "The rest of the people get left out. They need to go back to the drawing board at a time like this."

Still, some groups have organised free and low-cost outdoor activities. There is a new audio guide to Belvedere Castle, a fairy-tale lookout point in Central Park. During the holidays, there was a pop-up market with Caribbean and Black artists in Prospect Park.

Later this month, 25 giant prisms will cover a block of Broadway like a rainbow-hued forest. The Garment District Alliance, which runs the business improvement district, is installing the show, titled Prismatica, to lift spirits in a hard-hit neighbourhood where foot traffic is down by more than half during the pandemic, said Ms Barbara Blair, the alliance's president.

In lower Manhattan, Ziggy, a whimsical art installation that resembles a glowing neon jungle gym, doubles as outdoor seating on Water Street.

The Brooklyn Public Library, which is open only for grab-and-go book service, set up a free outdoor living room with internet access outside its central branch in Grand Army Plaza, which will remain through the winter - but without heaters.

Private cabins are set up on the roof of Pier 17 at South Street Seaport in Manhattan, offering a warm place for groups to rent as temperatures drop. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The library is also planning so-called story walks, in which pages from children's books will be displayed in an outdoor trail.

"If we can't bring people into our buildings, we've been thinking about bringing our services out," said library spokesman Fritzi Bodenheimer.

Yet, many of the coolest outdoor experiences are not for those on tight budgets.

In Bryant Park, iceless curling games start at US$200 (S$263) for a 90-minute session for up to four people playing on a dedicated lane. The price includes drinks and snacks served in heated tents.

For those who prefer the feel of pandemic glamping, there are also five cosy igloos with electric heaters, lounge chairs, and treats like mulled wine, salted caramel apple cider, artisanal cheese plates and charcuterie boards. The igloos start at US$200 for 90 minutes for up to four people, and are aired out and sanitised after each use.

Mr Shaival Patel, 37, a director at Mizuho Securities, recently proposed to his girlfriend Aditi Desai, 30, a marketing manager, inside an igloo. Their first date was in the park in 2019, sipping hot chocolate together. This time, he spent US$250 for an igloo where he got down on one knee. She said yes. Afterwards, they toasted with mulled wine.

"I thought it was absolutely worth it for something you remember the rest of your life," Mr Patel said.

There is even an outdoor gym to get in shape. Equinox, which has an upscale hotel and fitness club in Hudson Yards, took over a vacant lot nearby to build an outdoor fitness club offering state-of-the-art fitness equipment, personal training and group classes under a sprawling heated tent with sides that open for ventilation.

The outdoor club opened to Equinox members in October - memberships start at US$270 a month - and has been visited more than 10,000 times.

Just steps away, an outdoor plaza behind a luxury shopping mall in Hudson Yards has been turned into a communal backyard. It has hosted free screenings of classic movies, including "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street", and displayed murals by local artists that before the pandemic were placed inside the mall.

Ms Faith Salie and Mr John Semel, both 49, have brought their two children to six outdoor movies. Ms Salie, a writer and performer, said that before the pandemic they used to go out in the cold only to get somewhere else indoors, but now they are looking for reasons to stay outside.

"It's the only safe way to enjoy the city and people we know at a distance," she said. "It's a new experience, and sometimes I feel like I'm a better mum sending my kids out and seeing them come home with rosy cheeks."

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