Is the East Village getting noisier or just grumpier?
Earlier this month, the community board representing the East Village voted not to recommend granting a liquor license to Frank Prisinzano, owner of local mainstays Frank, Lil’ Frankie’s and Supper, for another Italian restaurant in the neighborhood.
They also turned down Keith Masco, who wants to open up a seafood restaurant tentatively called Sea on A, on Avenue A between 10th and 11th Street.
“You think I don’t know what’s going to happen?” said Masco, a veteran of the music industry, an hour before the vote came down, 23 to 17, against him.
A group of his neighbors-to-be had organized a drive against his restaurant, and by 9:00 p.m. last Monday, it was clear they had won over the community board.
Masco said afterward the vote was short-sighted, since his restaurant would not only serve food and liquor at night but sell fresh fish to his neighbors to cook at home.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “The whole area is dying for a great seafood place. Almost everybody I talk to loves the idea.”
This is what it has come to. A critical mass of civically active East Village residents have come to believe that the neighborhood's restaurants are taking on the character of nightlife destinations, and now organize as a matter of course to block applications for new liquor licences. They don't believe that a restaurant won’t bring in a DJ and pound its bass speakers till closing time, no matter how refined the food, or that a "family-friendly" restaurant that fails to cut it won't wind up as another bar.
They don't believe their neighborhood is theirs anymore.
“If you talk to local residents, they say,'I don’t go out on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night,'” says Andrew Coamey, 43, who helped organize the drive against Masco’s application.
The stand by residents against new places to go out raises some interesting questions, though.
Like, for example, the question of whether the East Village wasn't always noisy.
The area is indisputably loud. Since the beginning of 2010, the 10009 zip code has racked up more of the types of noise complaints linked to nightlife than any other area in the city, according to the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which collects data from 311 calls. (A second East Village zip code, which extends west from 1st Ave to 5th Ave, ranks fourth in that category.)
But as loud as it is these days, complaints about noise in the area have actually decreased over the past few years. Since 2005, the number of nightlife-related noise complaints to 311 in East Village zip codes has done down by as much as 32 percent—in 10009, from 1,803 in 2005 to 1,224 in 2009. Citywide, nightlife-related noise complaints decreased by only eight percent in that same time period. In 10009, the decrease in noise complaints far outpaced a decrease in total 311 calls, too: complaints filed in that zip code dropped from 16,237 in 2005 to 15,342 in 2009—a decrease of just 5.5 percent.
It's also not clear that the East Village is much boozier than it used to be, in terms of the numbers of venues licensed to serve drinks. Data from the State Liquor Authority (S.L.A.)show that the number of active liquor licenses in the area has stayed relatively stable. In 2006, in the zip code 10009, an area stretching east from 1st Ave between Houston and 20th St., the S.L.A. documented 222 active liquor licenses for on-premise consumption—the types of licenses that restaurants, bars, and clubs use. Over the next two years, that number dipped to 216, but by 2009, there were 231 active liquor licenses in that area. The aggregate increase was nine licenses.
But there has been plenty of turnover. Of the 231 licenses in 2009, only 153 have been consistently active since 2006. That means that about a third of the licensed establishments in the East Village have opened in their current incarnation only within the past four years.
But what the numbers can’t capture, and what may really be driving the neighborhood crazy, is the way the character of the nightlife in the neighborhood has changed. Coamey admits as much.
“The neighborhood used to be a bastion for the counterculture, and you feel now like you’re living in Times Square,” Coamey said.
Of course, that's the part that's not possible to quantify.
Jill Ackerman, 46, has lived in the neighborhood since 1992 when Drop Off Service, an ironically named bar just north of 13th Street on Avenue A, was still an actual laundromat.
“The hookah bar used to be a photo processing store,” she added. And Vampire Freaks, a gothic culture store, was an electrician’s shop.
Now, within a half-block radius of Avenue A and E. 13th St, you can play board games at Common Ground, order keg service at Superdive, or down a blueberry pancake shot, which tastes mostly like maple syrup, at Destination Bar and Grill.