Demonstrators who picketed in front of Soho nightspot the Falls on March 10 tried to present a united stance on a singular issue: “Why are we here? For Imette! Why are we here? For Imette!” they chanted. The brightly colored placards they carried only expounded on the theme, blasting bar management in bold type for hiring ex-con Darryl Littlejohn—the man eventually indicted in the highly publicized murder of 24-year-old patron Imette St. Guillen—and for allegedly lying to investigators.
Yet as protesters broke away from the pack to speak individually with reporters, other issues bubbled to the surface.
Nearby resident Sean Sweeney, for instance, had some additional complaints about the Falls, telling WCBS-TV, “They’ve ignored the laws with underage drinking. They’ve ignored the sound laws. They’ve been ignoring laws for years. And this is the final straw.”
For Sweeney, though, the history of questionable business practices at that
location wasn’t even the underlying issue—it was the business’s very existence. “This bar should’ve never been allowed to open,” he told reporters. “It’s like Mardi Gras down here.”
Sweeney, 60, is an outspoken critic of the city’s sprawling nightlife industry. As director of the Soho Alliance, the self-described “semi-retired” Greene Street resident has devoted a lot of time—and money—to opposing what he calls the “oversaturation and concentration” of liquor-licensed venues in his neighborhood.
But don’t call him anti-bar. Or even anti-tavernization. “It sounds like we’re against parties; we’re not,” says Sweeney. “I’ve been partying all my life, I’m telling ya.”
“I’m more like anti-oversaturation of rowdy bars,” he adds.
Whatever you call it, the sentiment seems to be spreading, especially among residents below 14th Street. Earlier this month, a public forum addressing the bar-density issue at the Public Theater drew so much interest from area residents that organizer Zella Jones had to start taking reservations. “They said I couldn’t have more than 200 people in there. I definitely had more than 200, and I had to turn away another 75,” she says.
“We have a huge density, particularly in Lower Manhattan,” says Jones, chair of the Noho Neighborhood Association, who counts more than 760 liquor licenses in zip code 10012 alone. Bar advocates, naturally, dispute residents’ notion of industry saturation. “Contrary to what they constantly repeat, there is no proliferation in the number of liquor licenses in Manhattan,” says Robert Bookman, a lobbyist for the New York Nightlife Association. “Quite the contrary; there’s been very anemic growth in the number of licenses in the last five years.”
While the controversy may seem increasingly prominent, the issue is nothing new to Sweeney. Over the past 10 years, his Soho Alliance has spent “easily $100,000,” he says, battling the bar boom through the courts. With some notable successes: Most recently, this past November, New York Supreme Court judge Marilyn Shafer sided with Sweeney and co. in nullifying a license previously granted to a proposed pub on Watts Street—a location with at least 35 existing booze-serving businesses already, according to court records. That effort alone cost the bar challengers about $20,000, Sweeney says.
Though the Falls is one of the newer watering holes in the ‘hood, Sweeney admits that his organization never opposed its 2004 opening. It’s the State Liquor Authority’s legal obligation to deny liquor licenses to places where there are already three or more bars within a 500-foot radius, he argues. Sweeney blames Governor Pataki’s Republican administration for its liberal interpretation of the “public interest” exemption from that law—a common complaint among local bar critics.
But when presented with the opportunity to broadcast his anti-tavernization message, courtesy of myriad news crews that converged upon the rally-in-support- of-a-murder-victim, Sweeney took full advantage. “Once I got on camera, then I realized, ‘Hey, this is a chance you’re gonna be on TV. Get the word out that we’re faced with a serious problem down here,’ ” he explains.
Other similarly minded activists have applauded Sweeney’s act of opportunism. “God bless ‘im, Sean got the Soho Alliance together and joined the demonstration and sent out some press releases. Good for him,” says Jones, who quickly pounced on the issue herself. “Not to take advantage of someone’s death, but I will use it as an example. That location is like 80 percent of the bars that are around here. . . . That poor woman walks into that bar after three o’clock having more than enough to drink all night long. They continue to serve her alcohol. They serve her alcohol until they have the doorman escort her out. Now she’s out on the street. I’ll leave it there.”
But all the bar-sprawl talk didn’t go over so well with the rally’s lead organizer, who called it “distractful.” “Bringing up proliferation, that’s not our business whatsoever,” says Upper West Side resident Jeff Ragsdale of the group Justice for Imette.
“We have one focus,” says Ragsdale. “We want the Falls license to be revoked. And we want to change legislation so bouncers need background checks . . . so we can limit this from happening again.”
He adds, “We don’t want this distraction of these people who are anti-everything out there because they have nothing better to do.”
Sweeney argues that the two issues are intrinsically linked. “Now that it’s known as a mecca for drunkenness down here, all the kids who wanna get drunk come down here, and eventually, some young girl got raped and murdered,” he says. “It’s a culmination of events.”
Without the anti-proliferation voices that showed up, Sweeney adds, Ragsdale wouldn’t have had much of a rally. “Most of those people who were there were from the Soho Alliance,” Sweeney says of the turnout (which varied from “about 15” to “about two dozen,” depending upon your preferred media report). “I don’t know what happened to Imette’s friends.”
Ragsdale disputes Sweeney’s activist count. “There was one guy on a tirade that first night,” he says, meaning Sweeney. “Our group is just mothers and fathers and concerned citizens.” Ragsdale expects “more of Imette’s friends” to show up for future rallies, tentatively scheduled for every Friday night until the Falls’ license is revoked.
Sweeney, meanwhile, isn’t sure how his grandstanding played out to the larger audience. “I don’t think Imette’s death is really gonna have that much of an effect on oversaturation,” he says. Then again, he adds, “maybe the State Liquor Authority will realize that we’re not crazy and that there is a problem down here.”