The golden era of the noble, ineffectual ‘respect our neighbors’ sign

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Heathers, on East 13th Street. (Sarah Laskow)
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Until the rules went up in pastel colors on the left-hand door of Heathers on East 13th Street, it was easy to pass by without realizing that, behind those black doors in that black front, there was a bar.

Heathers has been open for more than six years, and although its owner, Heather Millstone, says she has tried to keep crowds from gathering out front, the bar has never received the blessing of Community Board 3 to obtain or renew its liquor license. Heathers has an unobtrusive entrance and, for that matter, unobtrusive, almost bookish bouncers. But to noise-sensitive neighbors, those features matter less than the bar’s beating music and the chatter of patrons as they come, go, and linger outside to smoke.

One day, Millstone’s neighbors asked for, as a token of good faith, a sign—one that would ask Heathers patrons to “please respect our neighbors.”

The bar has since posted a series of such signs: The first one “was pretty great,” Millstone says. (It referenced "Voices Carry," the 1985 song by ‘Til Tuesday.) All of them have had the same message for patrons—please, please be quiet—and yet they did not keep Heathers’ neighbors from challenging Millstone’s most recent request for a liquor license renewal. It was in the wake of this dispute that the rules went up.

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Rule #1: Be very quiet.

Signs like the one Millstone’s neighbors requested spackle the East Village. These signs aren’t new. McSorley’s, open since 1854, has inscribed in a stone just beyond its front step a tongue-in-cheek version: “Please help us keep our neighborhood in order.”

But the signs have multiplied since New York banned smoking in bars, and can be found by the dozen in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, the West Village, and Park Slope. Williamsburg has at least one.

Neighbors worried about bar noise specifically ask for the signs, and lawyers advise bar owners to include them in their noise-mitigation plans. Like Millstone, some bar owners use the signs as a way to advertise their bar’s particular character. One bar owner said he put up his as part of a settlement with the city over violations for underage drinking.

Despite their ubiquity, bar owners find that these signs do not work. The majority of bar patrons are not aware that they are participants in New York’s noise wars, and that their chatter can have consequences for the owners of their favorite bar. Also, at precisely those times customers are most in need of sign-borne admonishment about the noise they are making, they are drunk. Keeping them quiet requires a more committed strategy than putting up printed warnings, even when the warnings are in all caps.

At Heathers, the "Voices Carry" sign, which was eventually stolen, was succeeded by a series of signs with the same message: Please be quiet. Still, when it came time to renew the bar’s liquor license in the fall of 2011, Millstone faced a history of noise complaints, and the community board voted not to renew. Although it takes the community-board vote into account, the State Liquor Authority has the ultimate say on liquor licenses, and while it was considering its verdict, a piece of paper on the door of Heathers made a more detailed plea to patrons:

“Hey! When you need to smoke/talk/wait for someone, please move to Ave A. Not the tree, or the next tree, go beyond the trash receptacles. Thank You. Anyone and everyone who wants to keep Heathers open for another 2 years!!!”

The liquor authority approved the license, and the rules appeared on the bar’s door.

Rule #2: If you go outside to smoke, please go all the way over to the corner of Avenue A.

Both sides of the noise wars—bar owners and sleep-deprived neighbors—trace the origins of their fight to 2003, when the city ban on smoking in bars brought patrons out onto the streets to linger and smoke and talk well into the night.

In the East Village, at least, the neighborhood was changing, as well. The area had played host to the city’s nightlife aficionados for years, but through the '80s and '90s its residents were paying rents low enough that they could overlook nighttime noise. As rents increased, so did complaints.

“When people start paying that sort of money, they expect more from the neighborhood,” says George Ruotolo, who with his brother owns and manages a trio of whiskey-focused bars. “Because of the way things have changed in the past 15 years, you have to be a better neighbor, if you want to coexist.”