Neighborhoods

City’s ‘Nightlife Mayor’ Faces a Tough Crowd on Her Home Turf

The former Sutra Lounge owner is trying to assure Lower East Side residents and bar operators she can ease red tape without allowing rowdy behavior

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Last September, when New York City established its Office of Nightlife — a new entity meant to serve as an intermediary between club owners, residents, and city agencies — it came at the tail end of roughly a year of lobbying from advocates for struggling DIY spaces. The hope was that the new office, along with a director informally dubbed the “Nightlife Mayor,” would smooth the path for the operation of startup clubs and bars, revitalizing an industry many venue owners felt was perilously tangled in red tape.

Yet since her appointment was announced March 7, new Nightlife Mayor Ariel Palitz has drawn criticism on her home turf in the East Village. A resident of the neighborhood for two decades, she operated the nightclub Sutra Lounge, on First Avenue near 2nd Street, for half of that time — something some community leaders are charging will make her decidedly pro-bar, in a neighborhood famously more alive at night than during the day.

“People are cleaning vomit off their stoops Saturday morning,” says Laura Sewell of the East Village’s North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, which covers the stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 10th streets. “That’s an unfair burden to put on residents.”

Palitz, whose press office declined Voice requests for an interview, has worn many hats during her time in the East Village. From 2004 to 2014, she ran Sutra Lounge, which drew a hefty number of noise complaints, topping all bars in the city for 311 complaints between January 2010 and October 2011. (A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, representing Palitz, said this was largely due to the persistence of one unhappy neighbor.) From 2007  to 2014, she served on the State Liquor Authority subcommittee of Community Board 3, which gives recommendations to the state authority on matters of licensing.

Yet while this experience makes Palitz intimately familiar both with the challenges facing entrepreneurial business owners vying for a shot at success and with the gripes of residents who have had their fill of liquor-slinging outposts, East Village and Lower East Side locals vehemently disagree over whether Palitz has been willing to give both parties equal treatment.

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The Lower East Side and East Village’s reputation as a party hub is now so entrenched in the city’s collective consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine it being any other way — but longtime locals say unchecked hell-raising is a relatively new phenomenon on their blocks. Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers Neighborhood Association, which covers the now notoriously booze-soaked cluster of blocks bordered by Houston, Delancey, Allen, and Essex streets that has been dubbed “Hell Square,” says she noticed the chaos start to ramp up between 2003 and 2005 — during that time, the Hotel on Rivington opened between Ludlow and Essex streets, concert venue Fat Baby popped up on the same block, and unfailingly popular drinking destination Pianos opened on Ludlow Street.

By 2006, the subdistrict had earned its ominous moniker. (The first documented use of the term “Hell Square” was reportedly in a post on Eater, though the original article seems to have been taken down.) In the years since, the DL opened at 95 Delancey Street (a bar that has butted heads with neighbors ever since, and last year was raided by police after spawning two violent brawls within two months), rancorous sports bar Hair of the Dog opened at 168 Orchard Street, and the ironically named No Fun (whose owners would sue the Dwellers in 2016 for trying to prevent their liquor license renewal) opened at 161 Ludlow Street. By 2013, the hellish nature of Hell Square was only escalating, and the Lower East Side Dwellers convened to combat the proliferation of liquor licenses they deemed responsible.

Meanwhile, the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association was formed in 2009 as a direct response to an explosion of rowdy nightlife establishments on a once reasonably peaceful stretch of Avenue A. That was the summer, notes association member Dale Goodson, that the block between 12th and 13th streets saw the opening of the notorious Superdive — a bar known for its frat-house atmosphere, keg stands, and champagne nights, for which a dwarf would lop off a champagne cork with a small sword. Upon its closing in the fall of 2010, a breathless obituary in Politico claimed the bar had signified a “tipping point” for the East Village into party central.

“It was the fuse that ignited everything,” confirms Goodson, noting another rowdy bar called Diablo Royale Este started giving neighbors near 10th Street grief in 2010. “Up and down Avenue A, things were starting to really go crazy.”

Locals ever since have lined up at community board meetings to air their grievances about thumping, sleep-disrupting basslines and shouting (and sometimes vomiting) partygoers. And those gripes are backed by statistics. An audit by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the area encompassing the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown in 2015 was the site of more noise complaints stemming from nightlife establishments than anywhere else in the city.

Beyond chipping away at residents’ quality of life, longtime locals complain, the explosion of nightlife has left establishments that don’t serve liquor unable to keep up with climbing rents, driving out daytime attractions and less-moneyed residents alike. The result, at least within pockets of the neighborhood, is more of a boozy Disneyland flush with sloshed tourists than a community.

“The Lower East Side and the East Village have been decimated by this,” says Boyd. “We’ve lost so many mom-and-pop shops, rents have skyrocketed — it’s a transient community in a lot of ways.”

The Dwellers, known for their antagonistic tactics in combating liquor saturation, years ago declared war on Palitz and her Sutra Lounge, calling for her removal from the community board due to the lounge’s “rap sheet” of violations. The group fretted the launch of an office they feared would favor the nightlife industry over beleaguered residents, tweeting last year that a nightlife mayor was “not the answer for communities suffering quality-of-life nightlife blight and crime.”

When they found the appointed nightlife mayor was one of their own, that anxiety only intensified.

Members of the Dwellers, North Avenue A, and the Orchard Street Block Associations all say that during her time on the community board, Palitz voted overwhelmingly in favor of new liquor license applications and brushed aside residents’ concerns in public meetings. (Community Board 3 declined to comment for this article and was unable to provide Palitz’s voting record.)

“They really couldn’t have made a worse choice, in my opinion,” says Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association, which covers a swath of blocks below Delancey Street and between Allen and Clinton streets. “She voted in favor of just about passing every [liquor license] application that came through the SLA committee.”

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Those who served on Community Board 3 with Palitz, however, recall a reasoned and evenhanded presence who was always willing to hear both sides. These former colleagues insist the harsh criticism from bar-weary neighborhood groups is unfair, especially considering the newness of the position.

“I am extremely happy that she got appointed — I think she is the perfect person for this job,” enthuses former board chair Anne Johnson, who says Palitz’s experience as a bar owner should allow her to effectively tackle the issues facing the Lower East Side and East Village. “I always found her to be reasonable and willing to listen to all sides and not just blanketly support one side or the other.”

Former community board member Chad Marlow, who has been a staunch supporter of limiting liquor licenses in the community, recalls Palitz as a voice of reason, attempting to bring “uniformity and clarity” to the process of supporting or denying liquor license applicants on the subcommittee. “I think [for] Ariel, her challenge is going to be to try and find a way to promote the interests of the industry while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, and I have no doubt she’s going to labor very hard to strike that balance,” he says.

Essential to that balance, as far as bar owners are concerned, is an understanding of the hurdles faced by incoming entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business, particularly in such skeptical and often combative communities as the Lower East Side. Rents for retail space in the neighborhood are so high, a liquor license is often the only way to stay afloat — yet the tenor of the neighborhood has become warily anti-bar, creating a snag for anyone hoping to make a living out of a rented storefront.

Longtime local and nightlife veteran Nick Bodor, owner of beloved First Avenue dive the Library and shuttered rock music staple the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, says the process of garnering approval from the community board can be laborious. And all the hoops one must jump through to justify the business model in the meantime — negotiating a lease, hiring a lawyer, hiring an architect to draw up renderings, even beginning to build out the space before the promise of a license is secured — can be prohibitively expensive.  

The result, says Bodor, can be a stifling of creativity and a depressing homogeneity in the bar scene.

“Cake Shop couldn’t make it up to twelve years,” says Bodor. “When you have these $25,000-a-month rents, it’s causing people to do lowest common denominator shit like pubs. It’s taking away any kind of interesting vibe–type places.”

Upon securing a lease, those looking to open a bar will often pay exorbitantly high rents for months while wading through the community board process, which often asks that the operator prove its establishment will be a boon to the community. Sometimes, bar operators will try to go around the community board and appeal directly to the SLA — something Bodor is hopeful will no longer be necessary. “All of that should be ironed out [by] the nightlife mayor,” he says. 

And Palitz is the perfect person to do so, says Bodor, recalling her as a sympathetic and reasonable voice on the SLA subcommittee when he was vying for a liquor license for the Cake Shop’s top floor as a means of staying afloat, even as anti-bar sentiment in the neighborhood was mounting.

“She was like a voice of reason during that time period when she was there, and it was really crazy with really long meetings and lots of opposition — she really understood both sides,” he says.

To assuage fears, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin, who oversees the Nightlife Office, quickly arranged the first of several planned meetings with Lower East Side groups on March 14. Goodson says Menin “seemed genuinely engaged with resident issues with licensing, the SLA, and oversaturation.” Palitz recently made her first public appearance in Bushwick at the invitation of the NYC Artist Coalition, where she addressed the concerns of local business owners. A representative for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment says town halls will eventually be held in every borough so that Palitz can get a feel for issues affecting each community.

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The bulk of the inherent distrust in Palitz and her office may stem from the fact that Lower East Side residents have long felt neglected by authorities tasked with overseeing the flow of liquor in their streets. Some, including Marlow, have argued that the community board’s SLA subcommittee has a history of passing wishy-washy resolutions that greenlight new liquor licenses in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule, which prohibits issuing a new liquor license within 500 feet of three or more other licensed establishments. The results of this are evident on a map of the Lower East Side: The stretch of Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton Street, which is roughly 500 feet long, contains six full liquor licenses according to SLA data; the full nine blocks of Hell Square contain over fifty full liquor licenses — and that’s not including beer and wine licenses.  

In early 2016, residents railed against a taqueria seeking a full liquor license that was set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery at 162 East Broadway — the spot was within 200 feet of a church (placing it in violation of another SLA regulation) and within 500 feet of a handful of other liquor-serving establishments. The business owners ultimately moved their entrance to skirt the 200-foot rule, and the community board issued a list of stipulations for them to observe. (The spot is now vegan eatery Jajaja.)

The resulting controversy led to a board resolution solidifying its commitment to the 500-foot rule; since then it has been more unwavering in its rejection of violators. (SLA Subcommittee chair Alex Militano has also pointed out that the board is merely advisory, and it is often in the best interest of the community to recommend stipulations rather than push for an outright rejection from the authority.)

In any case, once a new license has been issued, it is notoriously difficult to have it removed — community members have in the past found themselves saddled with bars that seemingly get slapped on the wrist for violations. Hookah bar Mazaar Lounge at 137 Essex Street earned a renewal despite accruing $20,000 worth of liquor law violations and a violent incident in which a drunk patron attacked a police officer. While the SLA has the authority to revoke, cancel, or suspend licenses for such violations, it often opts for less-damaging penalties — in the case of Mazaar, the lounge was hit with a steep fine as part of a plea deal — a tactic Boyd’s group has slammed as overly lenient. An SLA spokesman noted the authority does have a disciplinary process, pointing out that the DL was hit with a $40,000 fine last November, and could ultimately have its liquor license revoked. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said there was no set interagency strategy in place for tackling nightlife issues, but that the office would work with the SLA and other agencies with a hand in nightlife. And in a written statement to the Voice, Palitz herself reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing nightlife parity: “I have tremendous faith that after we conduct a very thorough listening tour of all five boroughs and listen to all stakeholders in nightlife, we will be able to present a very comprehensive and realistic plan that will address the overall concerns of the residents and business owners alike.”

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Palitz and her cohorts no doubt have a difficult road ahead of them in her home neighborhood alone if they are to truly balance the interests of business owners grappling for the right to serve booze just to stay afloat, and a rattled community that lives in fear of more drunks pouring into the street below their windows.

But hopes and fears aside, nightlife is an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with — it provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars, both from New Yorkers and from out-of-towners flocking to the party hubs its residents hate so much. And so, the city’s logic goes, why should it not be maintained like any other part of the city’s economy?

There needs to be a balance between nightlife activity and residents, and this office can help to mediate situations that occur, and also focus on planning and managing nightlife, instead of letting it organically get out of control and then having to police it,” says Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who now serves on the advisory board of the Office of Nightlife.

“We focus on city planning, and there’s no reason nightlife shouldn’t be part of the planning. It’s vital to our economy and our culture. And after all, we have been called the city that never sleeps.”

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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