There Goes the Neighborhood, Or, Six Hours Sequestered With Community Board 3

Last night I went to the alternately fascinating and maddening Community Board meeting for the entire Lower East Side of Manhattan. On the docket, among 6000 other items, was The Situation. You know. The intolerable, brain-rattling severe badtime outside the window.

cooper square hotel

Argh. So the demolition/construction nightmare that nervily calls itself the Cooper Square Hotel was applying for a liquor license. Which, it would appear, the community opposes. Which was made manifest by the large group of concerned citizens that sat for ten years in an unairconditioned room (the room where we vote, actually, which was a bit of a thrill for me, I must admit, but it wore off pretty quick) awaiting the appearance of the hotel developer (young! inarticulate! mumbling! unprepared! L.A.?) and his straight-out-of-central-casting, not-fast-enough-talking, oily lawyer and their frighteningly young PR flack.

It wasn't the deliberations about whether or not the hotel will get its liquor license (the one that would permit it to serve liquor, play music and endorse revelry on a terrace precisely 101 inches from my window, according to an irate neighbor) that interested me (I think they'll get the license; what kind of deal they'll strike with the neighbors seems to be the real question), but rather the sort of small-town feeling a Community Board meeting in NYC has, the Waiting for Guffman-esque quality of local government, and also the fact that, for six sweaty hours, I got a taste of what it might be like to live in a small town. Which, I have to admit, I sort of loved.

People stood up and argued passionately for their causes. The Board was full of articulate, stalwart Protectors of the Last Bit of Sanity Left in the neighborhood. I had no idea that every single restaurant serving liquor, wine or beer had to stand before this panel of had-it-up-to-here elected (?) officials, the majority of whom seemed to know the location of every bar in the area, its noise violation history, its owners, etc.

The Board was also by turns arbitrary (strange punishments were inflicted on the fly as "stipulations" by which a bar could obtain/reinstate its license -- this person was clearly at the same meeting I was, but the DBGB liquor license proposal came up after midnight, after I'd unfortunately had to surrender and go to sleep); condescending (more than once, anyone who dared disagree or endorse a liquor license was treated to an elder's finger-wagging: "Let me give you a piece of Bowery history..."); and ohdeargod intimidating.

This last, is, I think, a byproduct of crowds. The Crowd has got to be one of the scariest, most terrifying mechanisms of intimidation on earth. The Crowd is going to eat you for lunch with hollandaise. I found myself magically transformed from a quietly angry-at-the-noise neighbor to a wolf, a wolf in a giant pack of wolves, ready to pounce on and tear limb from limb one quavering Matthew Moss, hotel developer to the stars (One of my favorite moments of the night came when a woman on my block raised her hand and told Moss that if he dared call his hotel "upscale" one more time in our presence, we'd quite possibly brain him for this insult). I had been sitting in the back for hours, but when the developers got up, I stood up. I joined in the chuckling and clucking and muttering under my breath with the crowd, all of us united in our crusade to Take Down the Man.

I clapped when 45-year residents of East 7th Street gave impassioned soliloquies about the decline of the neighborhood. I became insta-emotional when a resident of the senior citizens home across the street asked if there would be taxis idling outside her window for hotel patrons because she was worried about the "diesel fumes" and the ability of ambulettes to get by. I chucked garbage at the three people who dared stand up and speak on behalf of the hotel (well, I did smirk and boo a little and maybe agree that these crowd-defiers had to be hired shills for the hotel, their rationale that this hotel would finally make the neighborhood "safe" and give their parents a place to stay when they come to town did seem ridiculous compared to the fact that I'm overpaying to live in a shoebox in the middle of what's becoming some east coast proxy for Las Vegas.)

Needless to say, the Board gave the Cooper Square Hotel boys a sound beating, replete with screaming and gnashing of teeth. As I said, I couldn't stay until the bitter end, but there was something about it that felt very small; it felt like a community, gathered to make decisions for the benefit of the community. It also felt surreally futile: Community Board 3 has got to be the most put-upon CB in the city, containing as it does both the East Village and the Lower East Side, which cancel out the Meatpacking District in sheer number of bars and history, history, history. As if there was any way anyone, any "board" was going to shut down the wheels and cogs of "progress" (a word invoked by one hotel crusader, only to be screamed down by the angry mob), or, realistically, the machine that is NYC nightlife and the obscene amounts of money that fuels it.

Some highlights of my time as an extra in Waiting for Cooper (the Cooper Square Hotel didn't come up on the agenda until 11pm -- the meeting started at 6:30):

  • The Hotel on Rivington's application for a sidewalk cafe was basically laughed out of the room.
  • The new owners of Dok Suni, who thought they were going to breeze through obtaining a transfer of liquor license from the old Dok Suni were outed by a recently fired employee as 1. operating without a license at all, and actually sending staff out to buy liquor at the store to sell to patrons and 2. According to this former staffer, firing everyone on staff who wasn't Korean.
  • That grody sports bar, Bounce Deuce, was revealed to have more police violations than Paris Hilton.
  • Several people nearly had nervous breakdowns in pleading their cases about why people should/should not get licensed. I liked how the Board would get in a shouting match with a proprietor, then someone would make a motion to deny the license, and it would seem logical not necessarily because the license wasn't deserved, but because in the course of the altercation, things would escalate so quickly that the bar owners would immediately seem to be crazy and out of control and obviously not deserving of walking the streets after dusk, much less a cabaret license.

    Today I went to see Meany McHatesMePants on the LES, wandered around down there and listened to the new Gogol Bordello (transcendent) and picked up my organic vegetables from the CSA, stopping in various community gardens along the way. I'm reinhabiting my neighborhood, perhaps. I'm getting reacquainted and feeling a little more okay about things. This doesn't mean I'm not going to, as a recent email from Seattle Liz exhorted: "i have an idea...MOVE TO SEATTLE AND WE'LL START A BOOK GROUP," but it's something.

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