The New York Times recently reported on what is commonly known as a NIMBY battle between residents of the Century Building on Central Park West and the owners of the Central Park West Cafe, who want to move in to the building. Slick, professionally produced websites have been launched on both sides. The bar bills itself as a "sophisticated" boite "in the tradition of the Cafe des Artistes," while the residents' representatives say the bar will be a noisy, crowded, velvet-roped nightclub. With hired lobbyists and a team of measuring tape-wielding doormen on their side, the residents are using their deep pockets and powerful connections to combat the bar. And while their genteel story might be the cream that rises to the top of the media's attention, it's important to note that similar battles have been raging in recent years in smaller, less-affluent neighborhoods, and that the tide has been turning at last in favor of the NIMBYs, thanks in large part to hyperlocal blogs.
In the East Village, these "noise wars" have become epic smackdowns. For a decade at least, bar owners have had the upper hand. The East Village quickly gained the sorry title of second-most alcohol-saturated zip code in America. But the atmosphere began to change in the summer of 2009. Angry East Villagers, fed up with noise, flocked to community meetings where they confronted bar owners. Local bloggers like Blah Blog Blah, EV Grieve, and The Lo-Down reported on the complaints and fed the fire. And residents got creative. After failing to defeat the Cooper Square Hotel's too-close-for-comfort outdoor lounge on the Community Board level and in street protests, neighbors introduced innovative, attention-getting tactics, like stringing up clotheslines of soiled underwear and blaring from their windows a "vile, 7-minute comedy routine about a prostitute and a banana." These exploits and more were reported on my own blog as a series called "Notes from the Backside."
Still, not much changed. Neighbors walked out of Community Board meetings in defeat, filled with the futility of fighting City Hall, and the parties continued to rage. But over the winter, local forces strengthened. In February, Dennis Rosen, the newly appointed head of the State Liquor Authority, held a Town Hall meeting for an auditorium overflowing with outraged East Village residents. Soon after, a group in nearby Little Italy defeated the seemingly unstoppable Shake Shack. Then came Barnard professor Georgette Fleischer's successful strike against celeb hotspot La Esquina. It was clear: A sea-change was upon us.
Jill at Blah Blog Blah credits the blogosphere for the shift. Through the community action of her own blogging, she has reformed her block association on East 12th Street and is working to build a network of neighbors. She says, "I hope my blog is one of the places where neighbors can find each other and feel that sense of community that maybe they didn't think about too deeply, but realize they yearn for it, like I do." Jill has also noticed that bar owners have started communicating with residents in helpful ways. "It took a year of blogging and inviting the Avenue A bar Destination to block meetings until they finally agreed to close their big front windows at a reasonable hour. Their open windows were a huge noise factor, and by closing them earlier they took a terrific step toward reducing the resentment that their popular bar was causing on the block. They should be commended."
Today, with watchdog bloggers exposing their transgressions, it's the bar owners who are nervous, while the locals gain the upper hand. EV Grieve notes that the "sluggish economy has played a big part in this dynamic. Bar owners realize that the out-of-town and out-of-neighborhood crowds may stop showing up. Very few new bars in the East Village actually cater to residents any more. Most new bars are actually for the benefit of tourists and weekend warriors from New Jersey, Long Island, and elsewhere. New bar owners have all but alienated locals. The crap economy has made them aware that locals are their best bet." Grieve reports that conciliatory bar owners now visit neighbors' apartments after a noise complaint, post paper flyers asking the community for support, and hold meet-and-greets to try and win over hostiles. He says, "They understand the power of social media. I've had six bar owners/managers reach out to me in the last six weeks to either explain themselves or offer an apology. I don't know if bar owners are just being smart, or if they're scared. My guess is the latter."
Maybe those Central Park Westers should take a lesson from these stalwart, DIY Lower East Siders.