West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 8 | July 25 - 31, 2007

Brits retreat, plan new street-sign campaign

By Lucas Mann

On July 10, the Transportation and Traffic Committee of Community Board 2 did the unthinkable. They managed to say no to a group wielding the ultimate weapon of argument: a British accent.

Despite their polite ways, charm and delicious crumpets, Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett and Nicky Perry, the husband-and-wife proprietors of Tea & Sympathy and A Salt & Battery restaurants, and leaders of The Campaign for Little Britain, saw their proposal to co-name Greenwich Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts. “Little Britain” unanimously opposed.

“We understand that they’re wonderful business owners and neighbors, but our attitude is that street naming is only done when there’s a significant reason to want to give somebody a high honor,” said Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of the Traffic and Transportation Committee. “Essentially, what they’re asking for is a sign to increase business.”

According to Dutton, most of the reasons the group cited in their proposal for the sign went against C.B. 2’s guidelines for street co-naming.

One of the promotional posters for The Campaign for Little Britain.

“Like every small business, they’re facing a rent increase and that’s a terrible situation,” he said. “But we don’t feel that the city should get in the habit of granting street signs for businesses to make profit. There’s also nothing specifically British about that block; there’s no significant congregation of British people.”

After the committee meeting, The Campaign for Little Britain removed their proposal from the agenda of the July 19 C.B. 2 full-board meeting and it seemed that the issue was over. However, you cannot keep these Brits down for long.

“Oh no, we still plan to move forward with our proposal,” Kavanagh-Dowsett insisted. “We’ve just taken it away from C.B. 2 right now. Frankly, we were confused and perplexed by the reasons they gave [to oppose the renaming], so we’re taking some time to rework our argument.”

Kavanagh-Dowsett said his group walked into a situation where the tables were turned on them.

“At the beginning of the meeting, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve changed our guidelines,’ and we already had our proposal all ready,” he pointed out. “Now, we’re stepping back and saying, ‘O.K., you changed the guidelines, now we’re going to change our approach.’”

C.B. 2’s street co-naming guidelines did, in fact, get established very recently, only coming into existence in June, but Dutton said these guidelines came into being without any anti-redcoat bias.

“We’ve been getting a lot of requests for street namings this year and most other community boards have guidelines to govern these situations, so we felt it was time to create ours,” he said.

To Kavanagh-Dowsett, these surprise guidelines seemed pretty convoluted.

“Right, so on the one hand they’re saying there’s no relationship between Britain and New York and then on the other hand they’re saying there’s too much of a relationship,” he mused. “And they claimed that this was all a big marketing ploy by Virgin Atlantic [co-sponsors of the campaign], without letting us answer. And that’s not true — we approached V.A. And then someone from the audience, who is also a member of the community board, said that the street sign shouldn’t be there because businesses don’t last long on that block, anyways. Well, we’ve been there 17 years, Benny’s Burritos has been there for 20, Day-O has been there forever. To say there’s no history is just incorrect.”

The issue is a difficult one — trying to determine how much a person or business must do to merit a street sign. According to Dutton, C.B. 2 has granted new street signs recently, but only in the cases of slain police officers and Gilda Radner, who established Gilda’s Club on Houston St. before dying of cancer.

On the agenda at the very same meeting where the Brits were bounced was the proposal to co-name Eighth Ave. between Bleecker and W. 12th Sts. “Adrienne Shelley Way,” after the murdered screenwriter, director and actress who used an apartment on Abingdon Square as her office. That issue saw no resolution.

“Why not just change the name of Sullivan St. to “Joe’s Dairy St.”?” Dutton said. “That place is great and they’ve been there for a while.”

For his part, Kavanagh-Dowsett does not see how the “Little Britain” co-naming does anything but good.

“Look, we don’t want to upset anybody. We’re just a small business trying to survive,” he said. “They said it was distasteful for a business to try and promote itself, but in this day and age, with what’s happening to the Village, what’s wrong with a small business trying to stay afloat? Look at what’s happened to Bleecker St. And it’s not as if we’re asking to change the name of the street; just add a sign.”

He also pointed out the street co-naming sign that exists at Leroy and Washington Sts.

“Pat LaFrieda Way” is named for the late former owner of LaFrieda Meats, which is located at that corner.

“Now, far be it for me to speculate that the passing of that name had anything to do with LaFrieda’s daughter being on the community board at the time, but there is an example of a business getting the street name,” Kavanagh-Dowsett said.

The Campaign for Little Britain is also aware that the community board is not the final authority on the issue. The City Council will make the final decision, taking into account C.B. 2’s advisory ruling, but not being bound by it. And these British business owners don’t plan to quit until they see a little bit of “Little Britain” on New York’s streets.

The campaign has collected 6,000 petition signatures, most of them from local community members.

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic, sounded resolute in a statement from across the pond.

“We respect the city’s decision, but we have proven, with the over 6,000 people voting in favor of the campaign, that there is already a Little Britain community in New York City,” he said. “In true New York and British fashion, this community will continue to thrive and grow, with or without approval from the city. Little Britain is already an important part of the New York culture and we hope to work together with the city to officially recognize the neighborhood, but I’ve never been very big on formality anyway.”

Dutton remains highly skeptical that the co-naming has a chance of getting passed.

“Yes, it is up to the City Council, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t take the community board’s opinion into account,” he said, before adding hopefully, “I mean, if they want to put up a big sign, or a plaque or something instead, I’m sure that would be fine.”

The Campaign for Little Britain did not say when they plan to make their next move, but they assured stridently that they have not given up on the issue. Take heed, community opponents: The British are still coming.

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