TLD Interview: Sutra Owner and CB3 Member Ariel Palitz
Anyone who has witnessed Community Board 3’s monthly liquor license hearings knows how contentious the marathon sessions can become. Ariel Palitz, the owner of Sutra Lounge on First Avenue and a member of CB3, is often at the center of these battles. Recently, following the publication of a story in the Daily News in which she was quoted saying the East Village is “ripe for the picking” by high-end nightlife operators, Palitz was also the focus of a spirited online debate.
Numerous commenters on EV Grieve and Gothamist expressed outrage. Palitz chimed in online, explaining that the reporter had misrepresented her point of view. She also contacted us, and we offered a sit-down interview not only about the recent dust-up but about her dual roles as both nightlife advocate and community board member. Our conversation took place one afternoon a couple of weeks ago at Sutra, located at 16 First Avenue (just above East Houston Street).
Palitz, a New York native, began by explaining how and when she first came to the neighborhood:
My whole life, for some reason, I always wanted to live on First and First. I always thought it was the best address in the world. I was able to make that happen… for myself. I’ve been able to live on three of the four corners of First and First over the past 16 years… I’ve been in nightlife in New York since I was a teenager. I’ve worked at Mars, I’ve worked at Tunnel. I’ve worked at Limelight… SOB’s. I was always a promoter in nightlife even though I had other jobs in PR and stuff like that. I had an opportunity back in 2003, when a friend of mine from school, from like 2nd grade, was opening up a venue here (in the Sutra space) and he had actually asked me to consult on the neighborhood, since I had lived here for so long and I decided I would invest in that bar… so that I could have a piece of my own venue that I could throw my own events in.
One thing led to another and before long Palitz ended up taking a much more active role in the business. The place eventually morphed into Sutra. “I did see that there was this change in the neighborhood and I really wanted to preserve this nightlife experience that I had loved and to keep it going,” she said. “That was where my preservationist mission came into play, to save this bar, to save this kind of underground DJ driven party that was so authentic to New York.”
Palitz had never run her own establishment, so she learned on the job. In the early days of Sutra, she got her first taste of the clashes that frequently play out between neighbors and bar owners on the Lower East Side:
Within the first year of owning Sutra, we were actually nominated the number one noisiest bar in New York and we have been at the top of that list for the past 7 years on 311 calls. But it was not because we actually were the (noisiest bar). It was because we had the most relentless 311 caller, a single neighbor. I was a brand new operator and here I was being called the noisiest bar in New York… I had to fight to prove that 311 (complaints) were not a good way to define a good or bad operator. We had to really discover that this neighbor was abusing the 311 call system That’s what brought me into a more political realm of nightlife.
Palitz served on the board of the New York Nightlife Association and is a member of its successor organization, the New York Hospitality Alliance. Four years ago, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer appointed her to Community Board 3. She is one of four restaurant/bar owners on the board (three of them sit on the committee that evaluates liquor license applications).
It was through the encouragement of the (nightlife association) that I considered joining the community board, also through the encouragement of Scott Stringer. He felt it was important that the community board truly represent the community. Community Board 3 had a notorious reputation for being very anti-nightlife. I understood at that moment that I was walking into an unpopular position…
The membership of CB3’s “State Liquor Authority Committee” is constantly evolving. The advisory panel was reshaped by Dominic Berg, who just stepped down as community board chair, to reflect varying points of view regarding the proliferation of bars and clubs throughout the neighborhood. In the recent past, bar owner David McWater and Palitz have been cast in the roles of “nightlife defenders” against what industry insiders consider to be a largely “anti-bar” community board.
Other CB3 members and residents (many represented by well-organized block associations) have argued that bars, which have turned the neighborhood into a giant 24-hour frat party, must be prevented from further expansion in the East Village and Lower East Side. A lot of those residents have been sharply critical of Palitz, who they believe supports liquor license applications no matter what, ignoring what’s best for the community. Palitz said she’s prepared to take the heat but thinks people frequently misunderstand her point-of-view:
Because I’m so public and outspoken and because I’m a nightlife operator on the community board I am subject to hearing a lot of the adverse opinions about my placement on the board as well as my perspective and my decision-making on the board… My only hope is that (public opinions are) based upon the truth of what I am and what I feel — not the perception of that. I feel like the perception of what I stand for has really been misconstrued and that it is being used against me to, perhaps, not have a nightlife operator on the board at all.
As for the complaints that she never sides with residents over liquor license applicants, Palitz said:
People think that I just rubber stamp “yes” on everything. There have been several applications where I feel the applicant is too naive and doesn’t know what they’re getting into or I feel as though they need to… get more experience. There are many times when I oppose a license not because I don’t think it’s a good business idea but because I think they might not necessarily understand the responsibility of nightlife. I’ve owned a club… and I’ve been in nightlife for decades at this point and I know it’s a very complicated business to run. You can’t just go into it lightly…. I will say no because I don’t want to set them up for failure. I know the consequences of a bad operator. People can get hurt. Neighborhoods can be destroyed and I wouldn’t want to do that. I vote with my conscience and contrary to popular belief I actually have one.
Criticism of Palitz rose to a new level this month following the publication of the Daily News piece, which reported “the boozy border separating the East Village from the lower East Side is about to get a whole lot more chic.” The story suggested that the Meatpacking District’s big players were eying several venues near East Houston, including Sutra, which has been on the market for some time. Palitz reportedly told the News, “The East Village is ripe for the picking right now… There’s an opportunity to change the culture and the makeup of the neighborhood from the underground nightlife experience to a high-end clientele.”
Readers of EV Grieve and other blogs erupted, expressing outrage at the apparent cavalier attitude about a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Palitz, who said she rarely engages her critics online, responded almost immediately:
I know that many of my adversaries will find this impossible to believe but I was grossly misquoted and misinterpreted in the Daily News piece. Anyone who knows me and my mission knows that for over 15 years I have been devoted to New York preservation and have fought to keep the integrity of the Nightlife scene. I would NEVER say that East Village is ripe for the picking for an elite Meatpacking scene, even though that scenario it is plausible that it will happen, it is not my mission. What I DID say was that because of the wide-spread closing of venues in the East Village that it was time for a Renaissance, an end of an era for many venues that have been open for many years and that it would inevitably change the existing culture here. I don’t know how or why my words were twisted, and I do know that anything I say will always be used against me due to my pro nightlife stance. I usually don’t defend myself against such things but this is way out-of-bounds from my beliefs and from what I said and I felt clarification was in order. Believe it or not.
Some community members have also expressed dismay about seemingly provocative comments Palitz has made during community board meetings. In one instance, defending every applicant’s right to be taken seriously, Palitz quipped that even Hitler should be given a fair hearing before CB3. Palitz said these types of remarks should be considered in the context of the SLA Committee’s long, tense meetings:
The community board meetings are so long and so intense and filled with so much emotion… everyone has a very extreme stance… It’s my nature to add levity to those situations and I often try, just based on my personality, to try to interject humor into the meetings. Invariably half the people think it’s hilarious and half the people think it’s demonic. My intention is always just to add some humanity into this battle that we’re all engaged in. I wish that the intentions in my heart were more evident to those people.
In the past, former CB3 Chair Dominic Berg publicly admonished members to respect all points of view and to behave professionally during the SLA Committee’s heated meetings. Palitz is certainly not the only controversial member of the committee. David McWater, the panel’s only other bar owner, is well-known for his occasional tirades aimed at block association activists. In a recent interview, Berg acknowledged that community members have lodged formal complaints against Palitz and urged her removal from the liquor licensing committee. Berg said he believes bar owners should be represented on the SLA Committee, but at the same time, they’re obligated to do what’s best for the community as a whole. The bottom line, however, is this: Berg told us he wouldn’t have been justified in removing a member from a committee unless that member had violated the law or the community board’s ethical guidelines. None of the complaints received about Palitz, he said, fell into those categories.
During our Q&A, Palitz explained, “I have nothing but love and compassion for my neighborhood and the neighbors in it and the business operators and I’ve only tried to create some kind of balance regardless of how it’s perceived and my intentions are good.” Palitz pointed to her longtime involvement with the LES Girls Club as one indication that she is not a single-minded “nightlife zealot” intent on destroying the neighborhood. If she didn’t care about the community, Palitz asserted, Sutra could have been sold long ago for top dollar:
I have had offers that I felt were not right for the neighborhood, that I felt would bring potential viruses into the neighborhood… I have rejected very generous offers in order to protect the integrity of the neighborhood as well as my own integrity… I have been in this space for almost 9 years now. I am still a huge lover of nightlife, of Sutra, of the East Village and the Lower East Side and I have enjoyed every moment here. What I’m trying to do, really, is to pass the baton to a venue operator like myself who can respect and understand what we’ve built here.
Palitz said she may stay on as an adviser at Sutra after the club is sold. She has some other ideas for businesses on the Lower East Side. She also runs a consulting business (Venue Advisers) with Paul Seres, a fellow board member at the Nightlife Association and the managing partner at the “DL,” the large Ludlow Street venue that tangled with CB3 earlier this year. Whatever her future, Palitz said, she’ll continue to fight for what she thinks is right for nightlife and right for the neighborhood:
I love all nightlife, the underground of the East Village and even the big clubs of Meatpacking District. I think this city has room for it all. The bottom line is that nightlife is a huge part of New York’s cultural and economic power and it should be respected as well as kept in check. Neighborhoods change. Always have always and always will, and change is always hard for the people who live there. All we can do on the community board’s is do our best to maintain the integrity of each neighborhood as well as leave room for the inevitable growth and development that surely comes.
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