BY CLAYTON PATTERSON | In 1998 when Captain Cooper of the Seventh Precinct was asked about the explosion of quality-of-life types of crime in my area of the Lower East Side, Houston to Delancey St., he stated we were now living in an Entertainment Zone.
Who thought up the Entertainment Zone idea? Who was behind this plan with a name? Surely it was not Captain Cooper. Was this a BID secret plan? Which politicians were in on this? I do not know, and was never able to find out the answer. I’m still asking the question.
We soon learned the meaning of Entertainment Zone. Translation: The focus will be on clearing out the old businesses and bringing in bars and restaurants. It worked. Now every weekend is like spring break, hordes of young people, mostly in their 20s, come to the L.E.S. to get washed in alcohol. The late Marcia Lemmon called it an Alcohol Theme Park.
At first we assumed that there were rules and regulations governing how many liquor licenses an area could have. This turned out not to be true. There were many ways around the law. Tell the community board you were opening a restaurant, which soon turned into a bar. The club on the end of my block is directly across the street from a school. It’s not a problem because the main entrance to the club is on Houston St., and the school’s entrance is on Essex St.
The amount of rent a landlord could charge a bar or restaurant was way beyond what a traditional neighborhood business could pay. Meanwhile, landlords used dirty tricks used to force out long-term, lower-rent residents.
I either had to adapt, go crazy and become a hater, or move. So before automatically being against I decided to check out the new. Here are some of my experiences:
At night walking down Orchard St. I spotted four young people working on opening a new store. I went in talked to the people to see what was up and it turned out to be Alife, a new-concept art and sneaker store. Soon I had a group of new friends. The hotel project at 180 Orchard St. wiped out that Alife location.
Then there was the Christodora, at Ninth St. and Avenue B. After the 1988 police riot, the Christodora and Red Square, at E. Houston St. and Avenue A, became two of the main symbols of the antigentrification movement. For a number of years, protests started or ended at the Christodora. The Christodra had had a long history public service as a former settlement house. Now it was expensive private property.
Just east of Christodora is 605 E Ninth St., the old P.S. 64. By the late 1970s, CHARAS, a socially minded Lower East Side Puerto Rican group, took over the old P.S. 64 and renamed it CHARAS/El Bohio (“The Hut”). CHARAS/El Bohio was led by Chino Garcia, Bimbo Rivas and Armando Perez. It was an active, multiethnic, age-diverse, community cultural center, filled with artists working in studios, poets giving readings, playwrights, actors, putting on plays, filmmakers screening movies, curators mounting art shows.
In 1998, the Giuliani administration put the building — which was still city-owned — up for auction. Scores of Lower East Siders, including me, turned out at 1 Police Plaza to try to disrupt the auction. Despite the release of live crickets during the bidding, Gregg Singer was able to buy the building and took ownership of it in 1999. Because of community resistance against his development plans, though, the building stayed empty. He started pushing the idea of building a 27-story student dorm, first reported by The Villager. Community activists were looking for ways to stop Singer’s skyscraper.
Word got out that people in Christodora were now also fighting to stop Singer’s project. And then I did something I never expected to do. I entered the Christodora. Went up to the penthouse. A man named Michael Rosen was leading this charge. In the end, Rosen and friends — working with former City Councilmember Margarita Lopez — were able to landmark the old P.S. 64, meaning it couldn’t be demolished, or even partially demolished, for Singer’s tower.
I later learned that Rosen and his wife had adopted two neighborhood boys from the projects who they met at a chance pickup baseball game in Tompkins Square Park. As time went on I came to respect Rosen and we became good friends. The Singer building is still empty, a dangerous, abandoned eyesore in the community.
CBGB, the infamous L.E.S. music venue, started in 1973 and lost its lease in 2006. In 2007, Hilly Kristal the visionary whose name was on the lease, died. I went to a few meetings to see if anything could be done to save the historic space. It became obvious that the family was split into different factions working against each other. Next question: What business was going to take over this landmark space? The next tenant was John Varvatos, the elitist fashion designer, selling expensive Varvatos product. At first glance, it was a tragic spit in the eye to everything CBGB stood for. People protested. My take on it was before I got too involved in being against the man — and Varvatos is a real person — I thought I should meet the guy. He was hard to reach. We exchanged e-mails. It became tense. He finally came down with his right-hand person. We talked and found common ground. Yes, he was a high-end clothing designer, but his other main love is music. Once a month he cleared the space and put on a free rock concert. To get on the guest list all you had to do was send an RSVP to the Web site. Some shows featured famous musicians; at others up-and-coming bands were competing for a recording contract.
CBGB was over. Better Varvatos with a sensitivity to the history than a Prada or some other expensive store, bar or restaurant with no connection to the community.
Now comes Soho House wanting to take over the old Nieberg Funeral Home, at 137-139 Ludlow St. I check around and find out the are a number of Soho Houses around the world. In New York City, there is a Soho House in the Meatpacking District. I visited this Soho House. It is a private, expensive-to-join art club. My first reaction was, Ughh. I have never fit comfortably into the mainstream art world.
The debate over Soho House coming to Ludlow is centered on its getting a liquor license. If they don’t get a liquor license they won’t take the space. LES Dwellers, a local advocacy group, formed to stop more liquor licenses in the area where Soho House wants to develop. The law is on LES Dwellers’ side because the block has maxed out on the number of licenses allowed.
At this point, my position is different from LES Dwellers. I appreciate not wanting anymore licenses because we are beyond saturated with alcohol drinking holes. But I’ve also come to realize that we are now an Entertainment Zone and that there are enough laws on the books to bring the nightlife under control. Using noise meters, the police now control how loud and long the bands can play in Tompkins Square Park: No conga playing after 10 p.m. Basically, there is no reason why our streets should be this noisy and with this many drunks. Greenwich Village and Times Square have their share of liquor licenses and they don’t have the drunken stupidity we are faced with.
I reached out to Rachel Smith, Soho House’s membership manager. She convinced me that, yes, Soho House is private and pricey, but if a creative person wants to join, he or she can trade work for a membership. There have always been members-only clubs in New York City. The YMCA is one. Private is not my problem. I see many of the L.E.S. commercial and residential establishments as private because of the cost of buying, eating, drinking or living there. If Soho House is going to bring some kind of interactive creative space to the community, I’m for this. If the neighbors fear the noise from its rooftop space will be similar to the hell the Allen St. Thompson rooftop creates, then bring that point up with Soho House.
This new space will become something. If not Soho House, then what? Tear down the building and give us a new glass building? Another expensive clothing boutique?
I have been offered an exhibit of my photos at the Soho House on the West Side, which would come with a free membership. I have not decided if I will join or not. At this moment, I do not see Soho House as a place for me to hang my cap. But, if creative people I know want to join and do not have the money, then I’ll help to see if I can negotiate something. The people at Soho House, including the company’s C.E.O., have said they will meet with people. There is no problem with meeting someone.
I did go to the meeting with the Barclays Capital representatives about the 180 Orchard St. hotel. All wore expensive clothing. There were at least five distinct foreign accents. I found them arrogant and completely out of touch with local residents. I don’t see ever setting foot in the place. And they will pull the old door trick, use the Orchard St. entrance instead of Ludlow, and they will get a liquor license. This license business has always been an insider’s game. Not much different from the wink-and-nod days when our area was an illegal drug supermarket.