Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Villager photo by Gary He

Residents say Pianos, which has been the target of noise complaints, pitched itself as a restaurant before opening but has always been mainly a music club.

Ludlow nightclub is not music to neighbors’ ears

By Ellen Keohane

At 11 on Friday night, about 30 people lingered outside Pianos, a three-story bar/club/restaurant in the Lower East Side. On the sidewalk, smokers exhaled into the cool fall air. Others talked loudly into their cell phones. One clearly intoxicated young woman let out a high-pitched squeal before running into the arms of a friend she had been waiting for. Drivers, lined up along Ludlow and Stanton Streets, honked their horns as people jumped in and out of waiting taxis.

“It sounds like a football stadium,” said Patrick Walsh, who lives at 101 Stanton Street with his wife and 10-month-old baby. Their building, which includes 15 apartments, is directly across the street from Pianos at 158 Ludlow Street. The only way Walsh, a 46-year-old high school English teacher, can fall sleep is by keeping his windows shut and the air conditioner on all night. Even then, the noise still wakes him up.

When talking about Pianos, Walsh’s voice rises in anger. “I loathe them so much,” he said. “I have walked over and threatened to kill them. I was crazed.”

Walsh said the reason he lost his cool was because his wife was pregnant and she could feel the club’s bass vibrations throbbing in her womb, causing her to fear for their baby’s health. He doesn’t regret his outburst.

Walsh has called 311 and the Seventh Precinct and complained to Community Board 3, but nothing has helped, he said. He is also on the steering committee of L.O.C.O. (Ludlow-Orchard Community Organization), a local community group fighting bar proliferation in the East Village and Lower East Side. The group co-hosted a town hall forum and speak-out to discuss the growing bar problem at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center on Norfolk Street on Nov. 1.

In August, 16 people, including 12 residents from Walsh’s building, signed a letter asking for an investigation into the approval process that resulted in granting a liquor license to Pianos, which opened in 2002, and for the removal of David McWater from C.B. 3. McWater, chairperson of C.B. 3, owns several bars in the East Village and is former vice president of the New York Nightlife Association.

However, McWater said he agrees there needs to be a limit to the number of bars in the area, and that he has been trying to intelligently deal with the problem.

C.B.3 recently won what McWater hailed as a major victory against bar proliferation in the area when the State Liquor Authority disapproved an application for a new liquor license for a proposed establishment at 26 First Avenue. It was the first time the S.L.A. rejected a liquor license application in the district without extensive public protest or all the local government officials getting involved, McWater said.

The Lower East Side residents’ letter was sent to Borough President C. Virginia Fields, with copies to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as well as Councilmembers Alan Jay Gerson and Margarita Lopez, among others.

In the letter, the residents charge that Pianos’ owners misrepresented their business by indicating on their liquor license application that it would be a bar/restaurant with live music and a jukebox. In reality, Pianos has been a full-fledged nightclub from day one, Walsh said.

“A lot of places say they’re going to be something, and then they become something else,” said Alexandra Militano, chairperson of the C.B. 3 State Liquor Authority Committee. A business could start out as a restaurant with live music and/or a D.J. and then metamorphose into a club — or some businesses simply lie on their applications, she noted. “We’re not an investigative body. I can’t do a background check on everything,” Militano said.

Even if C.B. 3 had recommended to reject Pianos’ application or — if a license were issued — later recommended to revoke it, there is no guarantee that the State Liquor Authority in Albany would follow the board’s request. “The community board cannot revoke a license. All we can do is suggest to the liquor authority to revoke it,” McWater said.

Either way, the documents that may or may not shed some light on the decision of C.B. 3 to approve Pianos’ liquor license application have been lost. McWater said he thinks Susan Howard, a Lower East Side activist, who also signed the letter sent to Fields, took the Pianos file.

“I have no idea what McWater is talking about,” Howard said, in response.

According to McWater, because files were being removed from the board office and not returned, the board has since tightened its protocol, requiring a written Freedom of Information Law request to obtain copies of documents.

Not all local residents have a problem with noise. David Berman, 34, a cinematographer who lives next door to Pianos, visits the bar two to three times a week and is now friends with most of the staff and managers. “It’s actually easier to get a cab outside my building since people are being dropped off in this area,” he said.

Inside Pianos on a recent Friday night, people squeezed up against the bar to order drinks. A band played in the back room. In the upstairs lounge, a D.J. played Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” A couple of people danced, while others sipped their drinks and attempted to have a conversation over the music. A wooden sign in the hallway leading to the basement stated “Our Kitchen Open ’Till 1 a.m.,” but no one in Pianos was eating.

Downstairs, on the first floor, Amy Appleson, a 27-year-old museum curator, hung out with a couple of friends. Appleson, who lives two blocks away on Orchard Street, feels that the crowds outside of Pianos — as well as other bars — make the neighborhood safer. “I feel safe coming home late at night, there’s always a lot of people around,” she said.

Pianos, which, in fact, used to be a piano shop, has never had a noise violation, said Greg Durham, a spokesperson for the business. Because Pianos is the largest business on the block, it’s an easy target, he said. “Patrick Walsh and a handful of residents at 101 Stanton Street wouldn’t be satisfied with anything short of Pianos closing down,” he said.

Pianos hired security guards to monitor the sidewalk outside, but the bar can’t stop people from standing there, Durham said. Pianos’ general manager and business owners have also tried to address residents’ concerns at various C.B. 3 meetings last year, he said.

Regardless, some Lower East Side residents are still not getting enough sleep and have contemplated moving. “I’m getting driven out of my home,” said David Mecionis, a 38-year-old business consultant, who has lived at 101 Stanton Street with his wife for the past five years.

Pianos is not the only bar on the block, but it’s the worst offender, Mecionis said. “There’s no end of noise outside,” he said. “Somehow Pianos attracts and promotes this element — people who are vastly inconsiderate. They really must think no one lives here.” In contrast, Mecionis said he has never had a problem with nearby Arlene’s Grocery at 95 Stanton Street, which also hosts live bands. “Their clientele has it in mind to behave better,” he said.

“It’s like spring break every night. It’s crazy. Drunk people, lots of vomit, piss, cop cars, honking horns, traffic jams, cigarettes. My doorway’s a bathroom. I don’t sleep,” said Tim Haring, 37, an engineer who also lives at 101 Stanton Street. When Haring first moved to the Lower East Side 15 years ago, the neighborhood was a little dingy, but nice and calm, he said. Now, it’s insane, he said.

The smoking laws have made the situation worse, said Ursula, a 38-year-old yoga instructor who did not give her last name, and lives in the same building with her husband and 6-year-old son. At times, Ursula has counted as many as 50 people on the sidewalk outside of Pianos. “I’m happy when it’s a rainy night. Then they’re not out there,” she said.

“It’s become an unlivable situation,” Walsh said. “If we were animals, the ASPCA would have closed this place down.”

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