Culturefix in the Crosshairs

Phone camera photo from Culturefix customer.

You’re looking at a grainy cell phone photo taken inside Clinton Street bar/performance space Culturefix this past weekend. As Grub Street and the Village Voice reported earlier in the week, the NYPD and several other city/state agencies paid the nightlife establishment a visit Saturday night. Culturefix co-owner Cole Schaeffer, who has been tangling with the 7th Precinct for several months now,  made a round of calls to several media organizations to detail what he called a “raid” on his business.  In the past few days, we’ve been looking into what happened Saturday.  Here’s what we found.

Last weekend’s “visit” from authorities was part of a program called “MARCH,” or Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots.” These operations (which usually take place in each neighborhood three or four times a year) involve representatives from the NYPD, the Fire Department, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the NYC Buildings Department, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and (sometimes) other agencies. The liquor authority describes the program in a fact sheet available online:

The SLA… participates in the MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) program in New York City…  These multi-agency operations have been an extremely successful partnership in an effort to ensure the safety of NYC residents. The SLA will continue to participate in MARCH operations to ensure our limited resources are being utilized efficiently. Community complaints help the SLA to target the establishments that have become a nuisance to the neighborhoods.

Phone camera photo from Culturefix customer.

On Saturday, the multi-agency team apparently visited several other LES nightlife spots, including Pianos, The Delancey and Tammany Hall. According to Schaeffer and several Culturefix patrons, the task force burst into the bar around 10 p.m., as a couple dozen people were taking part in a birthday celebration.  They said an officer announced, “turn off the music and stop serving alcohol.”

(Later on, Schaeffer indicated, a liquor marshal asked, “who told you to stop serving… only I have the right to tell you that.”)

The Culturefix team is well acquainted with the 7th Precinct.  Earlier in the summer, the NYPD sued Schaeffer and partner Ari Stern in civil court for serving alcohol to underage auxillary officers. A judge found the bar guilty, but declined to impose fines, which the city had been seeking.  During the weekend operation, officers inspected everyone’s ID’s, agents looked over the bar’s liquor license, fire marshals inspected floor plans and officials poured through Culturefix’s financial records. At the end of the evening, Schaeffer was issued two citations — one for noise and another for employing “unlicensed security” guards (not a crime, Schaeffer asserts).

In Schaeffer’s view, his one year old bar has become a victim of NYPD harassment. He balks at the notion that Culturefix is a “nuisance to the neighborhood.”  He believes it’s hardly in the same category of the other establishments targeted Saturday (they re all large venues which attract hundreds of customers).   The narrow subterranean space, at 9 Clinron Street, hosts art shows and avant-garde performances. There’s even a chamber music series beginning in the fall, Schaeffer noted.

So what’s going on?  That’s tough to say, exactly.  In the past year, bar owners have grumbled (but usually not for attribution) about the 7th Precinct’s nightlife crackdown.  But Schaeffer and Stern have taken a different approach — challenging the NYPD in court, speaking out in the news media and openly challenging Captain David Miller, who is overseeing the precinct’s enforcement operations.

Following the judge’s ruling, Miller invited the Culturefix owners to attend several precinct meetings (an invitation from former Deputy Inspector Nancy Barry to neighborhood bar owners is posted below).  Saturday evening, Schaeffer said Miller told him many of the bar’s problems could have been avoided if he and Stern had not refused to attend those meetings.  Schaeffer explained that he did not “refuse,” the invitations, but told community affairs officers that the meetings were scheduled at inconvenient times.

Click image for a larger version.

As the inspections were progressing the other night, Schaeffer urged customers to snap photos on their camera phones. Sherif Shalaby, who was manning the door, said many friends of Culturefix were prepared to “make a stand” to “protect a special place in the neighborhood.” Shalaby, a Lower East Side resident,  said the precinct’s “witch hunt” is “killing small businesses.”

So what’s next for Culturefix?  Weeks after the judge’s oral order,  he still has not come out with a written ruling. Until that happens, Schaeffer and Stern will not know exactly what they must pay in attorney fees (they’re also responsible for compensating the city for its expenses in prosecuting the underage drinking case).  They also must write a $10,000 check to the State Liquor Authority for related fines. And now, Cuturefix has a new October court date to deal with this past weekend’s summonses.

We’ll keep you posted.