As she described the gourmet menu drafted for her new bar on DeKalb Avenue, Bob’s Standard co-founder Hilary Krishnan faced a tough crowd. “Gourmet pickle plates, curry sandwiches, chorizo dogs,” she said cheerfully. “Are you getting hungry yet?”
The attendees at the February 9 meeting of Bed-Stuy’s Community Board 3, whom Krishnan was asking for support, stared back in silence. Leaning back in her chair, 55-year-old Brooklynite Juanita Lewis had a one-word answer to Krishnan’s question.
As Bed-Stuy has become an increasingly popular residential neighborhood for creative-class twentysomethings, bars and restaurants have begun to follow. And members of the local community have become increasingly testy. It’s not that they mind an increase in business, exactly. But at stake, they say, is the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s chance to maintain its family character.
“I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy since 1973,” said Lewis, who kept a golden-colored shawl wrapped around her shoulders as she watched the bar proprietors suspiciously. “And I like some of the restaurants coming in to the neighborhood; it offers a nice flavor.”
It’s the rise in pulsing meat markets for drunken hipsters that she and her neighbors are pushing against. The influx of bars, they argue, offers little tangible benefit to the neighborhood’s many parents and children.
“I have teen girls who would like to go to some of these places. But they can’t,” Lewis said. “Because they’re all built to serve alcohol.”
Krishnan says that she understands those concerns — but that the restaurants Lewis enjoys will be more likely to move in because of bars like hers.
“People go in and open the nice sit-down restaurant when there’s already a bar there. We definitely see that pattern,” she says. “When you walk past a bustling bar full of people at happy hour, it’s a sign: ‘Oh, maybe I should open my bakery here.’ ”
Lewis and others at the community board meeting said they fear the groundswell of businesses catering to their newer neighbors in the historically close-knit, mostly black community — one filled with longtime residents who battled a crack epidemic and years of police indifference. According to a February 2 report in Crain’s New York, the number of liquor licenses held by businesses in Bed-Stuy has risen by 25 percent over the past year. Currently, 90 restaurants and bars are licensed to serve alcohol and another 29 are under consideration, according to the Crain’s article.
Many residents have begun asking owners to close their bars earlier than the 4 a.m. legal closing hour in New York State.
“I’m a former club kid,” community board member Nelson Stoute said during the meeting. He was addressing Shane Feirstein, who intends to open a cocktail bar, Lover’s Rock, in the neighborhood. “When I went to clubs they were all in industrial neighborhoods. But this is a residential neighborhood. If you’re really about this community, you need to adjust.”
Stoute said he didn’t want to see bar-hoppers “perambulating about at four or five in the morning” and that he worried the neighborhood would eventually become “a bar crawl.”
But Feirstein said he wasn’t interested in curbing his hours. “That’s a reality that’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said. “We want to maximize sales, and I think there’s important sales to be had at that time.”
When it comes to shaping the neighborhood, bar owners and neighborhood boards do a very awkward dance. Ultimately, the arbiter of liquor licenses is the New York State Licensing Authority. But before the state offers licenses to local establishments, it takes the input of community boards into account — particularly if the bars are fewer than 500 feet away from three other restaurants, bars, or clubs that serve alcohol. In their role as gatekeepers, community boards often demand concessions from bars, like earlier closing times or a rigorous soundproofing plan. Sometimes, the boards turn down the requests for support entirely.
“If you get an OK from the community board, [the license] is probably approved in as little as two months,” says Robert Bookman, the attorney for the New York Nightlife Association. When community boards don’t approve an establishment’s request, though, license applicants can expect to wait four to five months for the state liquor authority’s decision.
“In the real world, businesses can’t wait that long to learn whether they’re going to open or not,” Bookman says. “So if you don’t come to an agreement with the community board … the deal is dead.”
Krishnan, who lives in Bed-Stuy herself, is already applying for a state liquor license, regardless of the community board’s pending endorsement. A license for her bar could be easier to come by since its location isn’t affected by the 500-foot rule, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t interested in community support.
“We want people to want us there,” she says. “I’m going in and putting in every last dollar I have. It’s a huge risk. We’re definitely not making any decisions without considering what [residents] want, but if we can’t stay open until 4 a.m. we may have to close our doors.”
In a city where property values have surged and condominiums have begun popping up like dandelions, residents’ informal liquor license veto is one of the last bastions of neighborhood power. And so Bed-Stuy residents will wield it — in an attempt to shape not whether, but how, their community will change.