Who owns the night?
Northern Manhattan’s nightlife industry
by Adam Garrett-Clark
Vomit, trash and rodents lay claim to the sidewalk where a stampede of trendy sneakers roamed the night before. The Lower East Side, full of hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants, is a young person’s wonderland – but it wasn’t always that way. In fact just a few years ago it shared many similarities with Northern Manhattan.
Once a dense, immigrant community shedding a reputation as a dangerouse drug center, the Lower East Side was moving to safer ground. It was known as one of the few places left to find cheap rent in Manhattan and its empty storefronts were plentiful.
At the time, neighborhood leaders viewed new restaurants and bars as a way to stimulate a depressed local economy. Area residents welcomed the new choices and services to their turf.
Now the LES is on the 2008 list of “America’s Most Endangered Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and local blogs with names like “Save the Lower East Side” chronicle the ongoing battle between nightlife investors and longtime residents.
Noise and quality of life complaints are so intense that Community Board 3, which sees over 400 liquor license applications a year, has a general policy of automatically denying any new liquor license in its well-saturated hotspots.
According to CB3’s statement of community needs, the weekly influx of outsiders every Thursday through Saturday night has overburdened the police, sanitation and transportation systems. More money and jobs have come into the area, according to CB3, but escalating rents have pushed out many daytime small businesses.
While the size of Northern Manhattan’s nightlife industry is still just a drop in the cup compared to the LES, its growth has caught the attention of community leaders and residents.
In roughly the next six months Northern Manhattan is scheduled to have 11 more notable nightlife establishments than it did a year earlier. (See sidebar.)
Six new nightlife establishments have opened over the last six months, and the popular Umbrella nightclub on W. 202nd Street off Ninth Avenue has reopened. Five new locations already have signs up and are under construction.
“I’m beginning to think our community has a drinking problem,” Community Board 12 member Emilia Cardona said during the June general meeting vote on recommending a liquor license for a new 5,600-square-foot Egyptian-themed club and restaurant called Cairo on W. 202nd Street. The board decided against supporting a license for the club, though Cairo may still very well receive one from the State Liquor Authority.
Cardona remembers a time when monthly CB12 general meetings were not always dominated by liquor license debates.
“It never used to be that way,” Cardona said.
The sheer volume disturbs her. “I’ve gotten to the point where a new place comes to ask for a license and I say no,” she said. Cardona, who chairs CB12’s Public Safety Committee, feels there should be a moratorium on new licenses, even though she acknowledges it might be bad for the local economy.
The growing number of local nightlife establishments has meant more work for the police, primarily in the 34th Police Precinct covering Northern Manhattan north of the George Washington Bridge where most of the venues are concentrated.
“Eventually we’re going to need more resources just to deal with the clubs,” 34th Precinct Community Affairs Officer Tony Trinidad said.
Dreams of the night
Standing in an open dusty room on 10th Avenue near W. 211th Street, investor William Segura directs workmen as they construct his vision. At Viñtich (pronounced Vintage) there will be a water fountain at the bar, he explains, and the back room will serve as a separate catering hall. For Segura, who owns restaurant and bar Café Tabaco y Ron a few blocks north of his new lounge, the industrial area of east Inwood could be the next Meatpacking District. Segura said he’s just investing early.
Victor Osorio, one of the associates of the Mamajauna group, which has two restaurants operating on Dyckman Street and plans for a third, sees the neighborhood as the next Tribeca. “They’ve done it down there, why can’t we do it up here?” he said. “We have the people, we have the experience and the space.”
Osorio and Segura are part of a network of home-grown investors that through loose associations have spawned a number of nightspots in the area.
The connections between club owners as they trade industry advice and form new partnerships have led to many recurring personalities in the northern Manhattan nightlife scene. Osorio has a stake in Mama Sushi, the new Papa Sito restaurant opening a few stores over, Talay on W. 135th Street and was formally part of the ownership at Umbrella.
“It’s almost like they’ve mastered how to make money in these types of businesses and everyone wants to work with them,” said CB12 Economic Development Committee Chair Tony Lopez.
Unlike many of the Lower East Side’s nightclub owners, the majority of Northern Manhattan’s investors grew up in the neighborhood. In Washington Heights, new club owner Kelvin Crucey of Vibe said he opened his venue on Audubon Avenue near W. 175th Street because he wanted to bring something nice to a historically troubled block, a business with “high service” he said.
For many of the owners it’s about improving the place where they live and grew up.
“Us right now as investors are giving our community value,” said Miguel Acosta, owner of Mimosa, a sports bar that recently opened on Sherman Avenue and W. 207th Street.
Northern Manhattan, with its location physical between the Bronx and New Jersey and culturally at the center of the Dominican-American experience, or perhaps the New York Latino experience, attracts floods of outsiders to its streets each weekend to party.
Party in the Bedroom Community
As Northern Manhattan increasingly becomes a nightlife destination, the calls for quiet in a neighborhood with recurring issues of noise complaints have gotten louder. The focal point for these complaints is the strip of Dyckman Street west of Broadway known to some as “restaurant row.” Complaints of excessive double parking, public drunkenness, traffic snarls and clubbers going into Inwood Hill park to continue the party past closing time, have given the police considerably more work.
While the amount of businesses with liquor licenses in CB12 has remained relatively the same since 2001, calls to 311 have increased in recent years (see graphs).
Residents have also become more organized.
Two neighborhood associations, Dyckman-Inwood Noise Action Group (DIN) and the Fort Tryon Park East Association, have formed to address “noise pollution” and quality of life issues on the Dyckman strip.
Bradley Brookshire, a co-founder of DIN whose Yahoo group logs noise complaints to 311, said the problem has been less severe this year because of the rainy weather. But he points out that the strip, with its buzzing sidewalk cafes, has so far lost a deli, a dry cleaner and a copy shop.
In addition to the 311 calls, the police have received numerous videos detailing the chaotic after-hour behavior that riles residents, according to Officer Trinidad.
“It’s extremely difficult to deal with these complaints,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where it’s never going to be a good night.”
When all the clubs let out at the same time, causing complaints across the precinct, “What do you do?” he asks.
Other hot spots, aside from Dyckman Street, are on 9th Avenue behind the Dyckman Houses, where Umbrella and Club TBA are located, and the Broadway strip near W. 190th Street where Arka Lounge, DR lounge and Serie 56 share a club scene with newcomer Locksmith Bar across the street.
“The issue is manpower,” Trinidad said. “We can’t have a vehicle at every location because we don’t have manpower.”
For its part, the precinct has worked to maintain a presence on the Dyckman strip as a deterrent by parking a large police van there or occasionally using the much more intimidating police tower. The tower, while highly effective, is also in large demand because it is shared among every precinct north of 59th Street.
In the near future, Trinidad said, the police will hold a summit with restaurant and bar owners to talk about how to address some of the community’s concerns.
The future of the night
For now, there hasn’t been a groundswell of support for a moratorium on new local liquor licenses.
The growing nightlife industry has meant more activity, choices, services and jobs available to the community. “People want that convenience,” Lopez said. “Ten to 15 years ago you couldn’t get anything [to eat] up here but beans and rice.”
Even Brookshire of DIN himself would like to see the wave of restaurants and bars continue to flow in. “It’s not my hope that all development would stop,” he said, explaining that development could be done in a more responsible way.
Brookshire predicts that next year’s expected re-opening of the three-restaurant Dyckman Marina by the Hudson River Group, which will employ an active security force, will change the atmosphere of the Dyckman strip enough to alleviate many of its current problems.
As for new venues, both Trinidad and Lopez believe that the best place to open any new club is in Segura’s “Meatpacking District” in east Inwood, where there are virtually no residents to wake up at night.
But as Lopez points out, perhaps the battles we seem to be sharing with the Lower East Side are not necessarily rooted in nightlife businesses at all.
After all, “I can show you bodegas that have people outside drinking on crates at twelve o’clock at night too,” he said.
The Manhattan Times is the bilingual newspaper of Washington Heights and Inwood.