The Community Board 3 committee that evaluates liquor license applications is certainly accustomed to confrontation. As residents grow increasingly agitated about the proliferation of restaurants and bars in the neighborhood, these meetings have become pretty tense. Last night's session was especially contentious. Eater and EV Grieve have the play by play. We're going to take a closer look at the most dramatic debate of the night, the saga over Le Souk. It was a revealing snapshot of the nightlife tug of war (pitting bars and residents against each other) that has been raging downtown for the better part of a decade.
Le Souk, at the corner of Avenue B and 4th Street, was shut down by the State Liquor Authority (SLA) earlier this year. Incessant noise complaints from neighbors, as well as numerous overcrowding citations were the reasons given. But then a judge overturned the SLA's ruling. So Le Souk was allowed to reopen in August, temporarily, while the appeals process plays out. When a final court opinion is at hand, the SLA is not required to come back to the community board. Last night was CB3's last chance to weigh in on a renewal.
Residents who live near Le Souk came out in force last night, both to condemn and praise the restaurant.
One woman told the owners, "unfortunately since you reopened there have been fist fights and screaming on the block. All sorts of mayhem. You can't even walk on the street in the evening because your bouncers have people lined up in the street."
Another resident, expressing a frustration often voiced at these meetings, lamented the fact that restaurants seem to get their way, in spite of community board opposition: "I wear ear plugs, close the windows, turn on the air conditioning and it's still loud… We win a battle and he pays lawyers and they overturn it somehow. I want to know what the technicalities are, why do things keep getting overturned?.."
It was at this point that the meeting turned ugly. As a Le Souk supporter stood up, there was an inaudible skirmish, between the speaker (David) and the chair of the committee, Alexandra Militano:
David: Can you make no comments while I'm speaking. Is that a polite thing to do?
CB Member Herman Hewitt: She's the chair.
Militano- I'm the chair of the committee. You made a comment…
David- I don't want any obnoxious comments…
Hewitt: She is the chair. She can tell you whether you can speak or whether you leave the room.
Militano: You made a comment when Frank (another speaker) said it and I'm telling you, you can have equal opportunity to have people stand up in support
David: I apologize to Frank…
Militano: I can interrupt you if I choose. Please continue.
While the debate resumed, the conflict with this particular resident was not over. Sitting in the front row, while other speakers had the floor, he apparently continued to offer unsolicited comments. Eventually the board members had reached their limit:
Militano: Sir I'm going to have you ejected if you continue to speak like this.
Militano: Would you please leave.
Militano then got up, walked over to the man and began admonishing him, in a low tone. But he stayed in his chair. A few moments later, there was another flare up:
CB 3 Member: Do we have security here?
CB3 Member: Where are they?
Militano: She's outside.
CB3 Member: (Addressing another Le Souk supporter sitting next to David) You've already had your say. It's like tweedledee and dum.
David: Excuse me. Don't be obnoxious. He's asking a question.
CB3 Member: Sir you're out of order and you've been asked to stop your disruptive behavior. If you're going to continue we'll stop this meeting until you leave, so please. Have respect for the rest of the meeting, thank you!
Aside from the war of words between the residents and the community board members, there were some interesting comments about the state of the neighborhood. David, the guy who engaged in the back and forth with the committee, had this to say about Le Souk:
David: I just wanted to say I think the community was in shambles while Le Souk was closed. I know many of the local business owners and they were hurting very badly. We are in a deep recession. Most of the people here probably have jobs… Now is not the time, when people have unemployment rates in their neighborhoods of 20-percent, to take a bite out of business and shut it down. It's cruel and it's inhumane. If you have a problem with the noise, I understand that. I think they have done a magnificent job relative to the horrendous job they had done in the past… It's a successful business. You can't blame them for being a successful business… Because you don't like it, it's too much noise and you'd rather live in Staten Island, that's fine but it is a neighborhood, and it's a mixed use neighborhood. And when they were here in 1999 and there was heroin up and down the block no one minded when they came with the big 6 foot bouncers. Now that the community has many bars, all of a sudden everyone's coming back and saying 'leave, leave, leave.' I don't think that's fair.
These remarks did not sit well with some of David's neighbors:
It seems like the two gentlemen who have just spoken are asking us to put up with the loud, thumping dance music noise, the noise that emanates from the crowds and the traffic. We're also being asked to put up with this because there might be job losses and because the specter of some illegitimate business moving into where Le Souk is currently, when the fact is there's just as much of a chance if not a better chance a more responsible business will move into that space… The idea that just because Le Souk is closed the entire block is going to become a drug and crime pen just makes no sense…
Another man, the leader of his block association, was offended at the notion that the neighborhood only rebounded in 1999 or 2000, when the bar boom hit Avenue B:
Everybody says before that it was like wild west territory. I've been there 30 years. Since Operation Pressure Point in 1982 to 1999 there was very little drug activity. To say there was heroin up and down the streets – there's heroin everywhere in New York. These businesses supposedly saved our bacon by coming in and providing normality and bringing upscale people in, and we weren't there before, like our community hasn't been there for hundreds of years?… Don't tell us it was a wild drug scene before these guys arrived to save our asses.
Le Souk's owner, Sam Jacob, got a chance to defend his restaurant. He told the committee it was unfair to blame him for traffic in the neighborhood:
Sam Jacob: I am not the only place in the East Village. You go down Avenue A, 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, Bowery, to Broadway, Houston, 14th Street – traffic is a nightmare everywhere. There's construction everywhere, there's bike lanes, there's cars and congestion every single block, on the weekends. I'm not going to be blamed for traffic situations. This is an area where the community board has to work wit the DOT, the Police Department, put more cops on the street…"
At least one community board member said she was far more concerned about the loud music inside the restaurant then the traffic in the street. Militano scolded Jacob for failing to organize, as he promised to do, a meeting with residents. In the end, the committee voted against Le Souk's renewal. It remains how much weight their opinion will carry with the Liquor Authority. But it's certain that it's not the last time the committee will be called on to keep the peace, in the epic battle between exasperated residents and determined bar owners.