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Landmark Approval Comes for Historic Greenwich Village None Too Soon

Rockin' in an increasingly unaffordable world.
Jeff Tuohy

Slane Public House, on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker streets, recently closed. The landlord wants to replace it with a bank or retail outlet, despite Slane's financial and social success.

As a native of County Meath, Ireland, Glenda Sansone grew up a stone's throw from Slane Castle, home to an epic day-long music festival. She instilled its spirit into her own family-run establishment, hosting free, live performances by NYC's finest musical talent, many coming from various corners of the globe.

"I opened Slane because the Village was the most welcoming place for live music," says Sansone. "Unfortunately, these days, being a good tenant just isn't enough."

Historic Greenwich Village has, of course, long been internationally recognized as a beacon of bohemia, the birthplace of the East Coast beat and Off-Off-Broadway movements. Dozens of icons got their start in the scene: Jimi Hendrix, Dave Van Ronk, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Simon and Garfunkel, Liza Minelli, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, The Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone. Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollock frequented San Remo Café. Bob Dylan played his first New York City gig at Café Wha? The Godfather Part II filmed at Café Reggio, where the Italian cappuccino was introduced to America.

The public house's closing represents an issue concerning citizens and frequenters of the neighborhood: the decay of New York as a cultural mecca in exchange for commercialization. The sacred Village is losing its ethos. It's not just Slane.

Sergei Skylarenko, Ukrainian DJ and producer of electronic duo Grass is Greener, co-opened the Sullivan Room on September 12, 2001. The discrete basement club was a pioneer in the then underground techno world, featuring international DJs every weekend, earning them a slot on DJ magazine's top 100 clubs in the world.

"We were getting better and better with business in our 12 years," says Skylarenko. "We didn't go out of business; we were kicked out."

A November 13 post on the venue's Facebook about the room's abrupt shutdown has over 700 likes and 300 comments, and more than 300 patrons gathered for a candlelight vigil to say goodbye on November 22. "It was like a family," Skylarenko laments. "Authentic, organic, intimate; a place where people felt comfortable."

Why the venue was forced to close its doors remains a mystery.

"We invested a lot of money in renovation and soundproofing a few years ago," says Skylarenko. "We were in talks about renewing the lease and hoping to get at least another five years."

At the beginning of the year, the landlord stopped returning calls.

"We kept asking, 'What is going on with the lease?'" Skylarenko continues. "He began ignoring us. Then, a few weeks later, he said, 'I need you out in a month with broom-clean conditions, thank you very much.'"

After a summer and fall of leasing month-to-month, a failed renewal appeal in November left them with less than 24 hours to vacate.

"The landlord wouldn't even talk to us," Skylarenko says. "The marshal put a padlock and notice on the door. It was devastating. We only had a chance to remove 50 percent of the equipment and are not allowed to retrieve anything else. I later heard he was influenced, and I assume was paid a lot of money, by developers at 215 Sullivan Street who don't want a nightclub across the street from their high-end condos."

At 215 Sullivan Street once stood the Children's Aid Society's Philip Coltoff Center, housing a nursery school, day care, children's art classes, after-school programs, and a performance center where the New Acting Company presented shows for children and teens. The space was sold in 2012, citing the average income of a Greenwich Village family, which is double that of families in other communities that need the organization's resources.

The closing generated outcry from students' parents and locals alike who mourned the loss of an institution that enriched the social, cultural, intellectual, and creative lives of children, their families, and the community.

A representative of the site's new developer reassured the community that whatever went on the lot would be in keeping with the "neighborhood's character and style." That something turned out to be four townhomes, 16 lofts, and five penthouses.

"[The city] just wants to make things easier for the upper class, the 1 percent. That's not what this neighborhood's about. That's not what it has ever been about," says Stephen Hammond, a local hairstylist at Salon G at 229 Sullivan Street, who has worked in the area for 25 years. "Back in the day, you could have nothing, come to the Village, and still enjoy yourself. . . . The people who pay millions for a penthouse don't want the bars and clubs on their block. The little family businesses are being phased out."

A similar sentiment was shared in a Guardian editorial by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. "Many of the wealthy don't even live here. . . . Apparently, rich folks buy the apartments, but might only stay in them a few weeks out of a year. So why should they have an incentive to maintain or improve the general health of the city? They're never here."

"It's really the city's fault," says Skylarenko. "It started with Giuliani and continued with Bloomberg. They want New York City to be conservative. That's why nightlife is moving out to Williamsburg and elsewhere."

"It's impossible to defend yourself," says AK Smith-Ford, former doorman at Sullivan Hall — a live music venue that's hosted performances by Alice in Chains, Ben Folds Five, Phil Lesh, and ?uestlove over the years. "311 accepts anonymous complaints where anyone can call and accuse you of a violation. You don't even see it coming."

A two-block walk down Bleecker Street presents a now all-too-common Greenwich landscape: a construction-covered Kenny's Castaways, a "For Lease" sign in Hamlet's Vintage store, and a plywood-covered corner at Thompson Street where the 68-year-old Back Fence once stood. The proprietors were unable to renew their lease this autumn due to a rent increase that property management won't discuss.

"It's the independent businesses that suffer. Sooner or later, the lawyer money runs out," says Smith-Ford. "You don't see anyone shutting down the West 3rd McDonald's."

Efforts spearheaded by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation have made strides in attempting to curb drastic changes to the area's character. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission voted on December 17 to grant landmark status to the South Village Historic District, a 240-building, 13-block section of Greenwich Village south of Washington Square Park. GVSHP first proposed landmark designation of the south Village 10 years ago, and submitted a formal landmarking proposal with boundaries to the city in 2006. GVSHP felt such action was necessary because "in recent years, NYU and private developers have made several large incursions into the neighborhood, including a series of over-sized, out-of-character buildings on Washington Square South."

"Landmark designation protects the exterior of the buildings," says Andrew Berman, GVSHP's executive director. "Unfortunately, there are limitations about what you can preserve through the mechanism. Saving the building doesn't save what's inside, but it gives the entity and its people a fighting chance. The philosophical underpinning says there's an important public benefit within.

"If we had our druthers," Berman continues, "we would be able to preserve some of the businesses as well. We are working on seeing how other cities have protected longstanding independent operations."

One can hope.


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