Volume 75, Number 29 | December 7 - 13, 2005

Villager photos by Bob Arihood

A police command post van was parked outside Le Souk club on Friday night.

Avenue B dragnet targets clubs, cabs, rowdy drinkers

By Lincoln Anderson

Inundated by complaints about noise from raucous bargoers and taxi horn honking, police blitzed Avenue B with a full-scale “shock-and-awe” operation last Friday night.

Blanketing the avenue with 25 to 30 officers on foot, in patrol cars and vans — as well as on horseback to provide visual presence — police targeted quality-of-life and moving-vehicle violations from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., issuing a total of 99 summonses, making two arrests and towing seven cars.

In addition to the Ninth Precinct, officers assigned to last Friday night’s Avenue B operation were from the Manhattan South Vice Squad, Manhattan South Task Force and the Mounted Unit. There were plainclothes as well as uniformed officers. Tow trucks from the Traffic Control unit also participated in the operation.

As if the message needed to be made any clearer, a police command post van was parked on the sidewalk in front of Le Souk, a North African-themed bar and restaurant between Third and Fourth Sts. that has drawn neighbors’ ire.

“The primary focus was the addressing of quality-of-life issues raised by the community,” said Deputy Inspector Dennis De Quatro, Ninth Precinct commanding officer. De Quatro has been at the precinct three months and said the extent of the problem on Avenue B became clear to him at a Nov. 8 precinct community council meeting at which two dozen frustrated residents turned out to voice their concerns. A deluge of 311 complaints and letters and residents’ comments at community board meetings also bolstered the case that the situation needed to be confronted head on, he added.

“After a short time of evaluating it, I felt we weren’t giving it the energy that was needed,” De Quatro said of his subsequent decision to ramp up patrolling of the avenue.

Of the 99 summonses issued on Avenue B last Friday night, about one-third were for quality-of-life offenses, such as open alcohol containers, urination and unreasonable noise, including shouting; a third were for parking violations; and one-third were for moving-vehicle violations, including horn honking and taxis blocking traffic by stopping to pick up fares in the middle of the street, instead of by the curb. In the two misdemeanor arrests, someone was busted using a paint pen to mark a roll-down gate on Fourth St., while a marijuana collar might have been along the lines of someone smoking a joint, De Quatro said.

Police also went inside the clubs to check alcohol permits and for compliance with cabaret regulations. (Patron dancing isn’t allowed without a cabaret permit.) B-Side bar at 204 Avenue B at the north end of the avenue, was issued a violation for overcrowding.

Police also performed sobriety checks on drivers at the Houston and 14th Sts. ends of the avenue.

De Quatro said police will do this kind of enforcement regularly.

“I’d love to do it every day of the week,” he said, noting, however, that “manpower issues” limit his ability to mount such a large joint effort.

The police crackdown comes as Community Board 3 is considering possibly making a recommendation to the city’s Department of Transportation to change Avenue B from two-way to one-way northbound, as a way to lessen the problem of late-night traffic and honking. The issue will be on the agenda at the board’s Transportation Committee meeting on Wed. Dec. 7, at Casa Victoria, 308 E. Eighth St. (between Avenues B and C), starting at 6:30 p.m.

Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, said the board will listen to what the community has to say and that the one-way plan is not a done deal.

“I would not take it for granted that we would vote to do this,” she noted. “It is very important for us to get community input and community buy-in. If the community doesn’t want it, it’s not something we’re going to support.”

If the consensus is to make the avenue one-way, the board would not ask D.O.T. to make the change, but would ask the agency to do a study first on how the change might impact neighborhood traffic patterns, and then report back to the board.

Stetzer said there are concerns about what the effect might be, for example, on E. Fourth St., the first eastbound street north of Houston St. that runs all the way through to Avenue D, and which is heavily used by emergency vehicles. Although the general opinion among one-way advocates is that Avenue B should be northbound, since that’s the direction Clinton St. runs, some also worry that Avenue B might turn into a speedway for traffic coming off the Williamsburg Bridge — as Clinton St. is now — Stetzer said.

Police back one-way

Stetzer noted that it was Deputy Inspector James McCarthy, the Ninth Precinct’s former commanding officer, who first suggested making Avenue B one-way, and that now De Quatro has independently also recommended the change.

“Avenue B, unfortunately, is the narrowest of all the letter avenues,” De Quatro said. “Avenue C is sufficiently wide — plus, it’s not as populated with vehicle traffic. Making B one-way makes sense, because the neighborhood has changed.”

Residents are painfully aware of that change. Ellyce Di Paolo, who has lived on E. Fourth St. off Avenue B since 1996, said it was in July 2004 when she first noticed her formerly quiet neighborhood had become deafeningly loud at night.

“I was listening to music in my apartment,” she recalled. “I was brought to my knees by the sounds of loud shouting and honking.”

The disturbances would become a regular occurrence and di Paola has since become one of the voices speaking out about bar proliferation. She’s become a designated flier poster, plastering the neighborhood with 80 of them for this Wednesday’s meeting.

“This is a residential community — it’s not the Meatpacking District or the warehouse district,” di Paola said. “We’re being forced out of our homes because it’s unbearable. A lot of families have left. Across the street, I know two families who have left.

“Everyone was appreciative of the police presence on Avenue B on Friday night,” di Paola said. “Clearly, it was a large effort and it made a large impact. It was a shot across the bow to the businesses that the new commander means business.”

Di Paola isn’t certain yet if she supports the one-way option, and wants to hear all the information about potential side-effects. Similarly, Liz Glass, another Avenue B antibar activist, said the loss of half of the Avenue B bus service would be an inconvenience for people who take the bus down to Wall St., as well as seniors and parents with small children.

Some businesses do seem to be getting the message. Climax, a bar at Second St. and Avenue B, has signs posted by its door warning patrons to keep quiet on the sidewalk in front and that they will call police if there are fights or disturbances.

On Saturday, when no police van was parked in front of Le Souk, as usual, a long line of clubgoers waited outside to get into the hotspot.

‘We’re an easy target’

Last Saturday night, with the police van that had been parked the previous night in front of Le Souk gone, Marcus and Sam Jacob — the brothers who own the five-year-old club — talked about how they also want to be “part of the solution.”

Both in their early 30s, from Alexandria, Egypt, the sons of a pita-bakery owner, they said they’ve been doing their best to control noise in front of their premises. They now have four or five employees working the sidewalk in front to keep down patrons’ noise.

Yet, Le Souk ranked among the top-10 bars with the most 311 noise complaints from July 2004 to May 2005, as highlighted in a report issued by Eva Moskowitz earlier this year when she was she was running for borough president.

“We came number 9,” Marcus admitted. “We’re an easy target. They see the popularity of the place.” However, they say their 311 complaints have dropped significantly since Jan. 1 of this year.

They point to circumstances outside their control that have contributed to the noise problem. For example, two large dumpsters that were on the northwest corner of Third St. and Avenue B for about a year and a half caused a bottleneck, they noted. These dumpsters — used by workers gutting a fire-damaged building — were only recently moved. (Deputy Inspector De Quatro agreed that these dumpsters were broad, 8 feet wide, and said he has spoken to D.O.T. about the dumpster-placement problem.)

Even though parking on the west side of Avenue B between Fourth and Houston Sts. and at corners part of the way up the avenue was eliminated about six months ago, Avenue B still narrows between Third and Fourth Sts., exacerbating the bottleneck, the Jacobs note. And a lack of parking lots means drivers have to circle around and around to find parking spots, they add.

They both support changing Avenue B to one-way going Uptown.

Marcus said he backs extending the parking ban on Avenue B to its east side as well. He said they are trying to get all the clubs in the immediate area to use one garbage carter so there will be less disturbance during pickups.

‘Get better windows’

But the brothers said there is more landlords and neighbors could be doing on their end. For example, Marcus said, looking up at the windows in the renovated formerly fire-damaged building, many apartments on Avenue B have cheap windows, when what are really needed are double-paned windows to block sound.

They both live nearby on the avenue, so they are concerned about noise too, Marcus said, adding he has a 2-month-old baby, as he flashed a photo of the child on his cell phone.

“We live in the community. We go to the community board meetings,” he said. “I’d love to be part of the solution.”

Yet, neighbors are worried that the Jacobs plan to open a new place right across the avenue from Le Souk. Marcus said this 1,800-square-foot space will be a Brazilian steakhouse, not a club/restaurant like the 5,000-square-foot Le Souk.

“The food will be the star,” he assured. Neighbors are skeptical, though.

A taxi swerves over the double yellow line on Avenue B to avoid a standing stretch S.U.V.-type limousine and cab.

Taxi insanity

De Quatro agreed that cabs are major offenders. Many of the drivers seem unaware of the No Honking signs recently posted along the avenue warning of a $350 fine.

“One individual who we pointed the sign out to, he was driving on the wrong side of the road and blaring on his horn,” the deputy inspector said, regarding the Friday night quality-of-life crackdown.

Allan Fromberg, a Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesperson, said the drivers learn in taxi school that they are only supposed to honk in emergency situations and make pickups by the curb. However, he added, “People are out there hailing cabs in the street. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Yet, Fromberg said the commission is on top of the situation.

“The T.L.C. did go out and recently gathered quite a lot of intelligence on it and is plugged into it,” he said of the Avenue B conditions. “We’re very much willing to work on it.” He said the T.L.C. will be attending community meetings to help work on the issue.

De Quatro said there was no specific reason why the police van was parked on the sidewalk in front of Le Souk. There was just electricity to tap into at that spot, and the van had to be off the street, so as not to contribute to blocking traffic, he said.

“There was a light pole that was available [to get electricity from],” he explained.

Yet, when the van was there, there were a lot fewer people lining up outside the club to get in compared with the following night. Long lines on the street outside the club, though legal, and accompanying noise has been another gripe of residents.

De Quatro did note that Le Souk was hit earlier this year with a nuisance abatement proceeding for underage drinking and other violations; the club was hauled into court to stop these violations on threat of being padlocked.

Hooked on hookahs

For the moment, however, Le Souk and other Avenue B nightspots continue to be big draws. Inside Le Souk last Saturday night, the place was packed, as two belly dancers somehow managed to gyrate in a narrow space between tables, as world music played and young clubgoers puffed away on herbal tobacco hookahs. Across the avenue, #1 Chinese, a one-year-old restaurant/club with a cavernous basement space, was also jammed.

People are coming from far and wide to patronize the Avenue B scene. Last Friday night, as the nightspots were starting to empty around 3 a.m., a group of barhopping young women rounding the corner of Avenue B and Houston St., stopped to yell for their friends to catch up.

“Haaaay yewwww guys!” one of them brayed a la Lou Costello’s “Haaayy Abbaaaaat!” She flung her coat off her shoulders and thrust out her chest vampishly as an incentive to whoever wasn’t hurrying to hurry up.

One who wasn’t too drunk tried to shush her friend, saying, “Hey, people live around here.”

The shusher gave her name as Danielle, and age as 22. She said she was from New Jersey. They’d wanted to go to Le Souk, but there was a private party there, so they went to #1 Chinese. Asked why her posse of roughly 20 wanted to go to Le Souk, she said excitedly, “It’s different. It’s Moroccan. They’ve got hookahs.” Told that it was a source of community complaints, she said, “I know. I Googled it before we came here. It had like three violations.”

Flashing their ID’s, they ambled into another club, Stay, on E. Houston St., the thumping bass fading to a muffled thud as the doors closed behind them.

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