Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

Actress’s murder sends chill through a hipster playground

By Amanda Kludt

Although Monday’s arrest of a suspect in the murder of actress Nicole DuFresne, 28, may provide some small relief for those living on the Lower East Side, one wonders what the crime says about the neighborhood and whether or not the popular bar scene will change. While most Lower East Side workers, patrons and residents agree that people will continue to frequent the area, they seem divided over whether or not the murder signals an unnoticed undercurrent of tension in the popular neighborhood.

The most common reaction seems to be surprise that this violent crime would occur in such a crowded, up-and-coming neighborhood. Surely enough, last Friday and Saturday nights, following DuFresne’s shooting, hipsters packed into the dozens of bars lining the streets of the Lower East Side and loudly poured out onto the streets. Some had not even heard of the shooting.

Mark Thorsby, a worker at Lotus, a coffee shop in the morning and bar at night located on Clinton and Stanton Sts., said the neighborhood gives people a false sense of security. “You know things like that can happen, but you don’t expect it here,” he said. Still, Thorsby said he doubted the murder would change the habits of bar-hoppers or diminish the popularity of the Lower East Side.

Christian Halac, the doorman at Welcome to the Johnsons’, a popular bar on Rivington St., also said the shooting wouldn’t scare people away from the neighborhood. However, having grown up in New York and having spent a lot of time in the Lower East Side, he did mention the neighborhood does have dangerous elements. “That [stuff] happens all the time,” he said. Halac was on the sidewalk smoking outside the apartment he was housesitting at 80 Rivington St., just a few blocks away, when the murder occurred. He saw the police cars respond to the scene.

Yet, unlike Halac and other seasoned Lower East Siders, many of the bargoers on the Lower East Side are completely unaware of the dangers of the neighborhood. Phil Hartman, owner of the Two Boots pizza restaurants and Pioneer movie theater on Avenue A, said, “We’ve been through some hellish times. We have a consciousness that a lot of the newcomers just don’t have.” Hartman, who is also executive director of the Federation of East Village Artists and annual HOWL! arts festival, has lived in the area for 25 years and always lectures his three kids on the potential dangers of the neighborhood and New York in general. “Even though the neighborhood is beginning to resemble a hipster Disneyland, it has a long history of being dangerous,” he said.

Veterans of the area note that even as the neighborhood grows in popularity and more and more twentysomethings crowd into the bars, people forget that the neighborhood used to be completely different. “There’s so much more to this neighborhood than you see...these people that were born and raised here are still here,” said Fred Jones, who was hanging out at Max Fish bar on Ludlow St. the other night. Jones, who works at the Unis design shop in Nolita, frequents bars on the Lower East Side four to five nights a week. He said that, even though the bars and clubs are making a lot of money, lower-income residents don’t benefit. Jones noted that a lot of young kids in the area join gangs and feel they have something to prove.

“There’s a lot of young traffic, a lot of hip kids, a lot of thugs, a lot of guns. All it takes is alcohol to bring it all together,” said Jones. He and others point out that bargoers are naïve, making them easy targets for muggings. “The prowlers are always out. That’s how they make their money,” said Jones.

Hartman echoed similar concerns, saying the advent of a club scene south of Houston St. causes potential conflict by bringing a whole new element into the neighborhood. “Geographically, people don’t pass through the Lower East Side. You have to go out of your way to get here.” Now people are coming from all over the city to get to the Lower East Side, but not all of them know the neighborhood well, he said.

But not all Lower East Side residents think the neighborhood is dangerous. David McWater, a resident, bar owner and chairperson of Community Board 3, said he was surprised at the shooting. “I lived here in the ’80s and I would have been surprised even then,” he said. “That particular area is more of a family area.” McWater said the crime could have happened anywhere and it was unfortunate that it had to happen in this neighborhood, but that it doesn’t signal any kind of class struggle.

Roberto Caballero, born and raised in Baruch Houses, a public housing complex at the east end of Houston St., said the neighborhood is safer than people think, and said that the crime just happened to occur on the corner of Rivington and Clinton Sts. “I’m bothered that the individual who allegedly committed the crime was hiding out in Baruch” he said. “Public housing residents get a bad rap anyway without this.” Rudy Fleming, the suspected killer, was staying in Baruch Houses with his godfather prior to the incident. Caballero said the crime shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of the neighborhood or of residents of Baruch.

McWater said no one would think the crime is indicative of problems in the Baruch Houses or the neighborhood in general. “He didn’t live down here, he just got out of prison, he pointed a gun at someone before,” McWater said. “It was just bad luck, it’s like Russian roulette, and we ended up on the wrong end of it.”

Whether the crime reflects dangers in the neighborhood or was a freak occurrence, it’s unlikely the bar scene will diminish anytime soon, and bargoers say they will try to be more careful. “I don’t think that much has changed. But it does make me think about the fact that I do live in an urban area,” said Megan Zanke, an East Villager. However, she said the specifics of the case make it hard to know how to be careful. “They were in a group, so that means that there’s absolutely no way to protect yourself or to be extra cautious.”

Pablo Lopez, a musician whose rehearsal space is on Ludlow St., also said he will continue to go out but will be more conscious of danger. “It’s true with New Yorkers that everyone has put their guard down,” he said. “We’re not aware of the things that could happen.

“It’s kind of scary but at the same time it’s not the end of the world,” he added. “People get shot in their own homes. I’ll be more careful, because I think they were drunk, and it was pretty late for a Wednesday night.”

However, Jones said he would think twice about coming to the neighborhood so often, not only because of the danger but because he is so upset about what happened. “I feel like it was a family member almost,” he said. “She was just out having a good time with her friends not knowing she would walk out of there to confront thugs…. It breaks my heart to know it was all taken away in a few seconds.”

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