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.
Ackerman lives along the same stretch where Masco wants to open Sea on A—the three or four blocks of the avenue below 14th St and the neighboring side streets, an area that residents are calling upper Avenue A. Here, the tipping point came with the arrival of Superdive. When the frat-themed bar strung out its velvet rope in 2009, limousines starting pulling up to its door—an extravagance previously unheard of for a night at an East Village bar. Ever since, particularly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, crowds form on the sidewalk, patrons stumble out until early in the morning, and vomit shows up in neighboring doorways.
“What a bizarre experience that place is,” said Kurt Cavanaugh, 28, the managing director for the East Village Community Coalition, who ventured in once to check out the scene. “It's like college comes to Avenue A. It will never become your neighborhood have-a-pint spot.”
Superdive is not the only bar that neighbors complain about, though. The same week that Superdive tapped its first keg, Destination Bar & Grille opened up across the street.
While Superdive’s star already seems to have faded—it was not open this past Saturday—Destination Bar is still going, and its owners have continued to clash with neighbors over noise complaints. One partner, Mason Reese, says his business is “being demonized” and has been lumped into the same category as Superdive.
“They’re the bad boys, and we’re the bad boys, jr.,” he said.
Avenue A and the surrounding blocks do seem to be bearing a greater brunt of the East Village’s nightlife activity. In the 10009 zip code, of 25 newly active liquor licenses in 2009, 17 were on Avenue A or the surrounding blocks, according to S.L.A. data. And while the overall numbers of liquor licenses stayed steady, there's a clear increase around Avenue A. That area had 76 licenses in 2006, 77 in 2007, 82 in 2008, and 92 by 2009—a total increase of 16 licenses.
A recent survey of Avenue A businesses by Paulo Lellis, an urban planning fellow in the Manhattan borough president’s office, showed that 35 percent of the street’s businesses are bars, restaurants, and lounges. By contrast, on East 9th Street, 45 percent of the businesses are clothing stores, and nine percent are “food and drink establishments,” Lellis found.
And many of the new establishments were bars before: Superdive used to be a Clockwork Orange-themed spot called Korova Milk Bar; Destination Bar & Grille was a gay bar called Boysroom.
Clockwork Orange and alterna-gays versus the kinds of places people in white ballcaps congregate to order bottle service: Could it be that it’s not the level of the noise but the people making it?
N.Y.U. students, for example, are often held up by neighborhood activists as prime culprits of the “whoo-hoo,” vomit-on-the-doorstep monoculture they see springing up around them, where once drag bars and indie rock lounges and late-night vegetarian restaurants were the norm. (One recent graduate of N.Y.U. I talked to Saturday said that Superdive’s college-age customers, at least, were drawn primarily from places like Connecticut’s Trinity College.)
“We used to get complaints that our customers were B-and-T,” said Dan Maccarone, 33 a Destination partner who has lived in the East Village for 12 years. He bartends at Destination on weekends, and he said, “I know who our customers are. At least 50 percent of our customers are people who live between 10th and 14th St.”
The activist residents aren't buying it anymore, and believe that any new liquor licenses will lead to more noise and more outsiders running through the streets late at night. A restaurant could fail and transfer its license to a bar, or could promise to serve high-end food when they always intended to open a bar. That’s one of the complaints Destination’s owners have dealt with, for instance, and it’s one of the reasons that a seafood restaurant like Masco’s now faces such heavy opposition.
“At this point, no one takes anyone's word anymore," said Dolores Schaefer, 61, “[the] president…or the person who gets everything done” for the East 13th Street Residential Association. “If you really want to have a business that makes money at these exorbitant rents, you have to sell a lot of drinks.”
“When we applied for the space, we always described ourselves as a bar and grille,” said Maccarone. “We pride ourselves to have upscale bar food, better food than you'd get at your typical bar.”
But, he said, “You're going to make your money off liquor sales. You barely break even with food.”
Masco has said that if he does not ultimately get his liquor license, he’ll sue Coamey and S.L.A. committee chair Alexandra Militano over what he said were misrepresentations of his plans during board hearing.
“It’s unpleasant,” said Coamey when asked about this threat. “What’s bad about this whole thing is that it pits neighbors against neighbors. I know Keith’s lived here most of his adult life as well. This whole process is pitting the two of us against each other, and pitting my neighbors and I against other people.”
In the end, after all the bad blood, Masco’s restaurant will likely open with, at least, a beer and wine license that it can apply to upgrade to a full liquor license within a few months. He walked out of the community board meeting thinking that he could not wait to open his restaurant, so that his opponents would walk by every day and see that they had wasted their time fighting against him.
“Nothing would give me greater satisfaction to be sitting there and have them walking by and say, 'We got our liquor license—why don't you come by and bury the hatchet?'” he said.
And the noise?
“When is this mythical place in time when Avenue A was a quiet block?” he said. “It's not a quiet place to live. It's New York City.”