LES Bar Manager Talks About Nightlife Crackdown

The 7th Precinct blocked off Ludlow Street May 6 while shuttering Max Fish.
The 7th Precinct blocked off Ludlow Street May 6 while shuttering Max Fish.

For the past eight months, we’ve been following the 7th Precinct’s nightlife crackdown closely. As bar after bar is shut down temporarily for alleged underage drinking and other violations, tensions between the Police Department and nightlife operators  rise sharply. But for the most part, neither side has been willing to talk publicly.

There are exceptions.  In explaining why he’d had it with the Lower East Side, Mason Dixon owner Rob Shamlian told the New York Press yesterday, “the community is very hostile and the cops are a nightmare.”

As for the precinct, Captain David Miller (who’s overseeing the crackdown) is not permitted to speak with reporters and the NYPD press office has ignored all interview requests from news organizations citywide, including New York Magazine and the New Yorker.  Miller did, however, talk extensively about the situation at April’s Community Council meeting.

In spite of our best efforts, on-the-record, sit-down interviews have been elusive, in large part, because bar owners fear they’ll be the next venue targeted by the cops if they speak out.  But recently, a manager of a well-known LES bar contacted us, saying the time had come to get some issues out in the open. This person asked for anonymity, and in the interest of balanced coverage, we reluctantly agreed.

This Lower East Side bar insider (who we’ll call LBI in this story) has a long history in the neighborhood.  The bar LBI manages is not a new establishment; it’s a place frequented by both locals and the bridge-and-tunnel/uptown crowd.   As we all know, the clientele in virtually all of the neighborhood’s nightlife destinations has changed dramatically  in recent years. While the “teeming masses” have generated a lot of new business, LBI said, many bar owners share the view (expressed so frequently by residents) that there are too many people overwhelming narrow streets in one of the city’s oldest communities. “One need only have eyes to walk down Ludlow Street on a Friday or Saturday night and  see that there’s a problem… When I’m walking down the street I don’t like to be blocked by 20 girls in kitten heels who have never been in the neighborhood and who are screaming,” LBI told me.

7th Precinct Deputy Inspector Nancy Barry, Captain David Miller, Community Council President Don West during awards ceremony earlier this year.

But many nightlife operators feel the 7th Precinct’s crackdown is not addressing overcrowding, unruly behavior and deafening street noise. Instead, LBI said, Captain Miller has fabricated an issue – underage drinking – in a ruse to come after bars who are making every effort to be good neighbors. “There isn’t a problem, LBI argued. “The bars have been carding for years. There’s not a big upsurge of minors being served.”  Referring to the big flashing sign on the corner of Houston and Ludlow reading, “underage drinking will not be tolerated,” LBI said:

It’s easy to rally people around thinking this is really serious… Guess what. It has never been tolerated down here. If an underage person is drinking in a bar, they had a really good fake ID. It was an accident. The doorman went to the bathroom for two seconds or the bartender was super slammed and missed (checking an ID), or someone else ordered a drink for that person… The real issue is whether a bar tolerates it and it’s understood and minors come there… I’ve worked in this industry for… years. There are plenty of bars that serve minors. Those bars are located in areas where there is no marketplace. There is such a teeming marketplace on (the Lower East Side), why would a bar owner jeopardize their financial stability in order to serve five people? It’s a ruse. They can claim underage drinking is out of control to justify the crackdown.

LBI called Miller’s contention that some Lower East Side doormen are being paid off by underage drinkers to look the other way “ludicrous.” It may happen on occasion but the problem is clearly not widespread, LBI said.

In civil lawsuits filed against shuttered establishments – including Mason Dixon, Gallery Bar and Max Fish – city attorneys have detailed undercover operations to catch bartenders serving minors.  According to court documents,  underage auxiliary officers have gone into bars, ordered drinks and have been served alcohol. An owner only becomes aware that operations have been going on inside his/her business when the NYPD shows up with a court order to close the bar. Several owners have complained about the practice, saying they should be alerted to the incidents on the spot. LBI agreed, saying, “they obviously don’t care about underage drinking because if they cared, they’d notify a bar owner so they could put a stop to it.”

Miller has said the NYPD only pursues legal action in extreme cases, making every effort to work with bar owners to resolve problems before considering more aggressive measures. During that April community meeting, he said, “We’re looking to help improve these businesses by talking to them and starting a dialogue.”

But LBI said Miller has not reached out and does not seem very interested in having a conversation about nightlife issues. “When he’s writing me a ticket he ignores me,” LBI explained. “He doesn’t come over to me and say, hey, this needs to be changed, so you can work better in this community. He has not opened up a dialogue.”

The NYPD has stationed portable flood lights near certain bars on Ludlow Street.

Lower East Side bars and clubs formed an informal organization several months ago to deal with the effects of the crackdown. They’ve held meetings and stay in contact, especially on weekend evenings when the precinct is out in force. There’s a lot of speculation about the motivation for the nightlife enforcement sweep.  Some bar owners wonder whether the NYPD is feeling pressure from property owners and developers to drive them out of the neighborhood. Whatever the reason for the crackdown, LBI suggested it’s endangering all kinds of neighborhood businesses:

They are making it intentionally inhospitable for people to come down to the neighborhood. Do they want to destroy all businesses on the Lower East Side? The community is so intricately connected. You close a bar, the bodega next door suffers. It used to be that the cops had my back. I did not feel that, if I called them to help break up a fight, they would hold it against me. What really bothers me is that I actually do want to work together, with the police.

Max Fish, the Ludlow Street institution, was shuttered last month.

Instead, LBI said, the Lower East Side has become a battleground – cops pitted against the bars – everyone on edge:

Right now I can’t focus on my employees and I can’t focus on my customers. All of the customers know about the cops, so that’s the topic of conversation. In the current environment, I can’t do my job, which is hospitality and placating customers and making them feel good. I go to my job now, because I need to do a ‘meet and greet’ with the cops every Friday or Saturday night.  Basically the cops are the one thing I must focus on. It sucks. I go to work now just to wait for them to show up.

Like many Lower East Side residents, LBI is concerned about gentrification, about the loss of authenticity in the neighborhood and wants a real solution; “please police the streets. I want the streets policed. The flood lights? The huge electronic sign on Houston? Mounted cops? They are towing cars at the stroke of midnight.”  This bar manager asks, “how is that helping?,” and worries about the future:” If my license gets revoked, I lose my business. My whole staff loses their jobs.”