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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Soho and Noho residents have had their complaints about Fashion’s Night Out in recent years, saying the annual event floods their neighborhood with noisy, tipsy revelers who leave trash- and urine-strewn sidewalks in their wake.
But things reached a new low last Thursday evening, after a massive street party at Broadway and Bleecker St. spilled into the road around 11 p.m. and a local resident — a brain surgeon driving home from work — endured a harrowing ordeal.
Partiers surrounded the man on Broadway in his white Audi, and some of them started jumping up and down on the vehicle while the driver was still inside, with one eventually kicking in the front and rear windows before police finally arrived to quell things.
An unidentified cyclist helped escalate the incident. It was unclear if the driver and cyclist had had an altercation before the cyclist decided to block the man’s car and then start taunting him derisively. The incident was captured on a video posted on Gothamist. Police are seeking the cyclist to charge him with criminal mischief and inciting to riot.
The driver was identified by Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, as Mitchell Levine.
Levine agreed to give this newspaper his account of what happened, providing that details about his personal life or where he lives were not printed. He said he fears for his safety after last Thursday night’s incident.
Levine said his drive home that night had taken him through the Meatpacking District — where he had seen many Fashion’s Night Out revelers — and across 14th St., then down Broadway on his usual route home. He stopped at the light at Broadway and Bleecker. The huge street party had taken up most of Broadway and only the far right lane was open.
Police estimated the crowd at several hundred to 1,000 people.
The cyclist, who was sporting a pink shirt, eyeglasses with red frames and a beard, was partially blocking the only available lane and, according to Levine, wouldn’t move. It wasn’t clear if the cyclist was possibly trying to “cork” the street, something cycling activists sometimes do to “take back the streets,” albeit briefly, from automobiles.
Levine said he just sat there for a minute and didn’t make any hostile movements toward the cyclist. But then Levine waved his hand to the left, indicating the biker should move that way to let him through.
At that point, according to Levine, the cyclist gave him the finger, then put his bike up against the front of the car, and started yelling at him, “This is not Virginia! This is not Alabama, motherf—–!”
Levine said he kept his windows up with the A/C on, and never said a word to the cyclist.
The cyclist’s intent may have been to paint Levine as some sort of Southern redneck, when in fact, he’s a native New Yorker. His Audi has New York license plates. But the cyclist’s taunts may have been intended to incite the crowd, which was heavily African-American. Levine said it’s possible the cyclist may have been trying to paint him as “the other.”
The crowd quickly engulfed his car and individuals started pounding and jumping on it.
Fearing for his life, Levine called 911. Eventually, one man standing on his hood kicked toward Levine’s face and crumpled the car’s front window. Then, with a back kick of his heel, he completely knocked out Levine’s back window.
Levine said he just stayed in the car and made eye contact with no one.
People were pounding on his side windows with their fists but were unable to break them.
As things spiraled out of control, he contemplated “the worst-case scenario,” as he put it, a step he didn’t want to take — “I just floor it and get out of there and people die.”
Luckily, Levine said, a woman, “a good samaritan” in the crowd, started to help clear a path in front of his vehicle, helping him inch his car forward. He was able to get his car down to the corner of Houston St. when he heard the sirens of police cars responding to the scene.
Levine felt the police response was slow, but admitted it’s hard to gauge time in the middle of a riot.
He said his car — a four-year-old, used midlevel model — suffered about $10,000 worth of damage, and he’ll have to replace the hood, roof and basically the whole car body. Luckily, his insurance will cover most of it. He didn’t suffer any injuries himself.
Jika Gonzalez, a Columbia Journalism School student, happened to be passing by on her way from an assignment, and got photos of Levine’s car under assault. She said she didn’t arrive early enough to witness if there had been an altercation with the cyclist.
“I didn’t know what started it,” Gonzalez said. “At first, they were running on the car and dancing on it. Then they started pounding on it, and a lot of people were cheering. Some were videoing it.”
She said that when Levine finally got out of the car, “he seemed even more mad at the police at that point” for not arriving faster.
Gonzalez figured it took police about 10 minutes to arrive on the scene after the revelers started hopping on the car, but like Levine, she said it’s hard to judge time in the midst of a chaotic situation.
Deputy Inspector Brando del Pozo, Sixth Precinct commanding officer, said police arrived three minutes after Levine’s call and five minutes after someone in the crowd called 911. The scene was brought under control within 20 minutes, and it took about another 20 minutes for everything to completely calm down, he said. There were two arrests of individuals who impeded police from getting people back onto the sidewalk.
Police have issued a “Wanted” poster for the bicyclist and the individual who broke the car windows, he said.
Soho residents charge this year’s Fashion’s Night Out was undermanned by police.
However, del Pozo said, “The events of Fashion’s Night Out span over four police precincts and are not particularly associated with disorder.”
As for what sparked the incident between the cyclist and driver, del Pozo said, “The whole matter is under investigation.” But he added, “Dr. Levine was an innocent person driving down the street, minding his own business. If we can be certain of one thing, he was not at fault. We’re looking for anybody who was responsible for starting the incident or damaging property.”
As for how police will handle Fashion’s Night Out in the future, del Pozo said, “We’ll evaluate the shifting of the character of the crowd and that will be taken into account in our staffing estimates next year,” he said.
Del Pozo is an avid cyclist himself, logging 100 miles per week on his bike. Asked his thoughts on the cyclist’s actions in the incident with the car, del Pozo said, “I have no idea what was going on in that bicyclist’s head,” adding, “He obviously brings a lot of baggage to his bicycling.”
The street party had started at the southeast corner of Bleecker St. and Broadway. A white stretch limo was parked there, with music blaring as a youthful crowd danced around it. As the crowd grew, they eventually spread onto Broadway, taking over more and more lanes of traffic.
A Swatch store is located on that corner, but employees there said it had closed, as usual, at 9 p.m. on Fashion’s Night Out.
Speaking this week, Zainah S., 30, who works at the store, said she actually was out on the street at the time of the incident, but was farther down, near Houston St.
“I think it was just that a lot of these shops were open and serving alcohol and people got crazy and generally intoxicated,” she said. As for the attack on the car, she said, “It seemed like a miscommunication and then people started dancing and getting crazy.”
She said she didn’t know anyone in the crowd, but that some of them might have been “Soho kids” who visit the neighborhood from other parts of the city.
Teddy Jam, 25, another Swatch employee, said there hadn’t been any celebrities at the location that night to draw people there.
Sweeney, the Soho Alliance director, said local residents have had it with Fashion’s Night Out. He hopes to organize a multiagency meeting to implement measures to keep the event from getting out of hand again in the future. Fashion’s Night Out started four years ago fairly innocuously, but already many Soho residents are wearying of it.
“What we’re calling for is that they ban the booze,” Sweeney said. “Anyone giving out free booze should be checking for ID.” The boutiques also need security for the evening, he and other residents say.
The excitement of Fashion’s Night Out just seems to drive people crazy. Two years ago, Sweeney was walking to Fanelli’s for a beer during the event when dozens of people came racing around the corner.
“It was like being in a buffalo stampede,” he recalled. “Someone said, ‘Kanye West is around the corner — maybe not.’
“It’s become not fashion, it’s become party central,” the Soho activist said. “It’s like Bourbon Street.”
Sweeney points the finger at Anna Wintour, one of the movers behind the annual fashion-themed event, who lives in the Village but was attending a Midtown event last Thursday night.
“Anna Wintour, she goes Uptown and escapes this mess that she creates,” he said. “Vogue had some big Midtown event and she escapes the havoc that she creates down here — and we’re stuck with this mess.”
Councilmember Margaret Chin said Fashion’s Night Out has gotten out of control and needs better policing.
“We will not stand idly by while our access to our homes is blocked and mobs take over our streets,” Chin said in a statement. “There has to be a better way to make Fashion’s Night Out a safe and profitable event for New York City and the Soho community.” Chin reportedly raised the issue in a conversation with the mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn on Tuesday.