My First Community Board Deathmatch

by BILLY GRAY · April 20, 2010

As if sitting through jury duty yesterday weren’t enough of a crash course in civics, I went to my first community board meeting last night. Conclusion: jury duty might be more pleasant, though not nearly as entertaining. And another lesson: never, ever enter the nightlife or restaurant business.

The meeting for the East Village and Lower East Side’s CB3 took place in the common room of a housing complex for the elderly. The hulking “futuristic” monstrosity that is the Cooper Square Hotel sat right across the street--just the sort of glossy incursion that quickly got the crowd inside hollering.

Things kicked off at 6:30pm. I left four hours later, at which point the board had only made it halfway through its 38-item agenda (which included several no-shows). And as angry and curt and plodding as the crowd was, participants did confirm the passionate if cantankerous rainbow that even a famously gentrified neighborhood like the East Village is to this day.

You had the stiff lawyers in suits, the ethnic restaurateurs and the tattooed bar owners. Then there was the world-weary and (with some exceptions) ornery board of seven who voted to approve or deny applications and a crowd of vocal locals who might just plan entire months around these occasions.

Here’s a snapshot of the most contentious issues:

Karaoke Bars: The first item on the agenda was a true baptism by ire introduction to the heated underworld of CB clashes. A husband and wife who live across the street from an Eldridge Street karaoke bar named Neway KTV (and coincidentally in a building ravaged by fire last week), alleged violence, operating without a license, after hours activity and profanity, including bouncers who shouted “There’s the bitch!” when the wife came to the window to demand quiet. The Chinese owners showed up, but didn’t have a firm enough grasp of English to defend themselves. They also couldn’t remember when the business opened. On the bright side, the room was treated to the sound of a middle-aged woman reading a bar patron’s letter repeatedly tearing into Mayor Bloomberg (for being a “jerk” among graver offenses) in a misguided attempt to defend the place. Result: Renewal denied (with a chance to appeal and argue in front of a larger board)

Sidewalk Cafes: The old biddy guard really coalesced around this one. They made the argument that sidewalk tables in this particular 2nd Avenue location might lead a pedestrian to trip on a nearby fire hydrant, crack his skull open on said tables and then sue the restaurant, Ballaro. Things got so tense that Susan, apparently the Patron Saint of CB 3 board assemblies, was called on to mediate from her perch in the front row. Result: sidewalk tables approved.

Poutine: T-Poutine’s item concerned noise complaints and a beer and wine license application. I mostly felt sorry for the owners, who’d gone out of their way to appease neighbors but hadn’t won over two especially crusty complainers. Better luck next time, T-Poutine. In the meantime, excited whispers about the titular foodstuff—“it’s French fries, with gravy. And cheese!”—made up for the diligent owners’ sad exasperation and needless justification of the glorious junk as Canada’s “national cuisine.” Result: Beer and Wine license denied, for now.

Surprisingly, legitimate restaurants had the toughest go of it. A proposed Vietnamese place was shot down because, as one observer put it, “It’s on St. Mark’s! That ship has sailed!” Then a fish market/seafood restaurant on Avenue A inspired a long, fuming debate (ending in approval) because of a proposed retractable roof, a 2am closing time, too much bar space and its location in a resolution zone. (It seems like the entire East Village is a resolution zone.) Board members nixed a new Avenue B location of Zerza, a humble family run Moroccan eatery even though the old and dignified mother of the clan, who is also the chef, showed up. Why? Mostly because it's close to the much-loathed Le Souk (now gone from the street) and China 1. This one bummed people out.

Who woulda thunk that renowned sleaze beacon The Cock would have the least trouble of all the establishments on the docket (or at least the ones I had the patience to sit through)?  There were some questions regarding the bar's name (one board member asked, sans irony, "Is that for poultry?") and a manager's surname:

Board Member: "Are you really Chris Woody, of The Cock?"

Chris Woody (or something to that effect): "Yes. Unfortunate coincidence."

But otherwise, a shift in corporation ownership went uncontested.

What I took away is that community board decisions, or at least Community Board 3 decisions last night, are somewhat arbitrary and frankly unfair. The cranky board, whose members frequently yelled, derided or rolled their eyes at applicants, often held a location's history of mismanagement or perceived overcrowding against new businessmen and women who had nothing to do with those infractions. Still, it was encouraging to see community members--especially young ones, and there were more of them there than I'd expected--passionate about maintaining quality of life, even if they did it a bit too stringently.

But until the board, which gave an entertaining good cop/bad cop performance, resolves its own infighting--let's just say none of the members will be sharing a drink or a meal with each other soon--and establishes a clearer determination method, I'm not sure residents or restaurant and bar operators will be pleased with the direction of the community.

Photo 3 via Keegie