Young bargoers hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the Living Room on Ludlow St. on a Friday night.
Is L.E.S. bar scene drunk on growth?
By Patrick Hedlund
It’s just a few hours before sunrise Sunday morning when the crush of humanity teeming along Orchard St. reaches its climax on this trendy block of nightlife real estate.
The avenue’s late-night populace, many of them early-twentysomethings hopping between the stretch’s multiple bars and nightclubs, throng the thoroughfare in howling cliques, drunkenly deliberating their next move, offering pickup lines to passing strangers and generally creating the sort of hemmed-in havoc typically reserved for college campuses.
On Chrystie St. across from Sara D. Roosevelt Park, a queue of nearly 30 well-dressed and well-behaved patrons forms outside an unmarked building guarded by even better-dressed doormen, with many would-be entrants trying in vain to parlay their flamboyant fashion choices into a spot behind the velvet rope.
Half a block north, a similar line wraps around the corner of Stanton St., where spectators inquire as to the probability of passing the burly bouncers’ muster and earning acceptance behind the shrouded doors.
The neighborhood’s current and sometimes disputed status as ground zero for Manhattan nightlife has drawn a mixed reaction from Lower East Side residents, business owners and fans eyeing its inevitable, yet somewhat unpredictable, evolution. Some see the area as Downtown’s greatest frontier for innovative nighttime activity, while others rue its transition from gritty to glam, and fear a slip into commercialization and maybe most dreaded normalcy.
The neighborhood has retained its historic character amid the onrush, with landmarking and rezoning efforts currently under review by the city. But most can agree that the Lower East Side faces an uncertain future. And, as anybody walking along Orchard or Ludlow Sts. post-midnight on weekends can tell you, the crowds are only growing.
“Certain areas are oversaturated, overwhelmed,” said Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3 district manager, citing new liquor-license applications and development as the two most prominent issues facing the board. “This isn’t Times Square.”
Stetzer said residents didn’t catch on to the influx of new nightspots fast enough in the past to stem the recent surge. The “fraternity-party places,” as she referred to some of the neighborhood’s more rollicking nightspots, have even supplanted some local pubs that Stetzer and others thought of as their community “living rooms.” Nightclub proprietors serving a steady stream of revelers can afford to pay higher rents, she said, forcing out the more modest tenants that once dotted the streets.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy underwear in the neighborhood?” said Stetzer, who lives on Avenue A. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy a book?”
That hasn’t stopped nightspot owners and promoters from attempting to get on the gravy train, as new venues rise and fall dictated by their patrons’ determination of the zeitgeist.
“This is my home away from home,” said Patrick Pinon of Baldwin, Long Island, smoking a cigarette outside The Annex, a bar and live music venue at 152 Orchard St. The 23-year-old says he has been making the trip exclusively to the Lower East Side every other weekend for the last year and half to mingle with the like-minded crowd.
“The area very rock ’n’ roll,” said Pinon, balancing an orchestrated mess of a hairdo above his vintage threads. “The people I meet here are just like me. They’re here to listen to the music and dance and have fun, drink have a good time.”
However, Josh Boyd, owner of the popular eight-month-old GalleryBar a block south, isn’t necessarily courting patrons like Pinon to his nightclub/art gallery at 120 Orchard St.
Boyd, 33, who’s been in the business for a decade and also owns East Village lounge Plan B, said GalleryBar has attracted a regular crowd from the neighborhood, but claims 30-year-olds as his ideal demographic.
Although he looks to foster the local art scene while also encouraging nightlife, Boyd doesn’t shun the weekend warriors visiting from outside Manhattan that some complain have overrun the area.
“It’s no different than 10 years ago: People from out of town come in on Fridays and Saturdays, and they come in to party,” said the Princeton, N.J., native, who did the same as a teenager. “That’s us being New York.”
Sion Misrahi, a local real estate developer and nightlife supporter, encourages the crowds that flock to his neighborhood on a nightly basis.
“Thank God for those people who bless us with their money and their presence and their laughter and their cheer and their vibrancy,” said Misrahi, who opposes local rezoning and landmarking efforts. “You can’t just put a muzzle on everything.”
GalleryBar’s concept might match the culture of the Lower East Side by promoting local art, but the patrons inside early Sunday morning seemed none too interested in the aesthetics. The near-capacity crowd, whose median age appeared well below Boyd’s preference, seemed more concerned with achieving Pinon’s goal of drinking and dancing over a thunderous sound system.
Some, like gossip columnist Michael Musto, think the Lower East Side lost its grit when the media took notice and the neighborhood became marketed to a broader audience.
“Once the bridge-and-tunnelers start coming in, they take over,” said Musto, comparing them to “head lice.” “Generally, they mark a spot the way a dog urinates on a traffic pole. … They move in en masse, and any edge instantly dissolves.”
The nightlife scribe points specifically to the opening of exclusive nightspot The Box, at 189 Chrystie St., as the death knell for the Lower East Side. Calling it a club for “bohemians with credit cards,” Musto joins a chorus in criticizing the nearly year-old dinner theater for “sell[ing] the counterculture to rich people.”
The hot spot for A-list celebrities has run into some recent legal trouble regarding the scruples of one of its business partners, and Stetzer said her board has received noise complaints stemming from activity both in and outside the club. A police raid at The Box in late August has only fueled the controversy, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from clamoring for a spot inside.
“There’s only a handful of great nightlife spots down here, this sort of being the premier one,” said Jeff Rubenstein, 28, who was standing outside The Box around 1:45 a.m. early Saturday morning. A West Villager, he’s lived in the city for the last five years. “I think a lot of people come here and don’t get in,” he said, “so they’re creating this 27th and Tenth vibe in the heart of the Lower East Side, so we’ll see how long that lasts.”
Rubenstein pointed to the “dichotomy of people” waiting outside the club comparing his blazer-and-button-down look to that of some fellow patrons’ more unconventional attire for driving its distinctive flavor.
“You really can’t pull this off on the Upper East Side,” he said of the velvet-rope crowd. “It’s like nightlife theater.”
Roberto Ragone, president of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, wants to see the already-popular nightlife scene complement business in the area.
“We feel like the nighttime has recuperated, and, if anything, the BID wants to reach out to the nighttime communities to [help] the daytime community,” said Ragone, citing an effort to balance nightspots with retail and restaurant options. “We don’t think that the area has peaked,” he added, noting also that area’s music scene is far from “mainstream.”
Speaking for C.B. 3, Stetzer agreed that more non-nightlife options are needed, but said the board won’t summarily dismiss new liquor-license applicants because of the current abundance of bars.
“Would I like to see it less congested and less a destination spot? Yes,” Stetzer said. “Would I like to see it moved somewhere else? No, I’m not going to say that.”
Carlo Schiano, general manager of Pianos, the Lower East Side live music mainstay at 158 Ludlow St., claims the neighborhood transformed drastically over the last four or five years both geographically and venue-wise but said the biggest changes are yet to come.
“You’re getting people who are spending a great deal of money to come down here and be a part of what’s going on now,” said Schiano, 32, adding it “may soon resemble something like the Upper East Side.”
But Schiano, who is also the vice president of the Seventh Precinct Community Council, noted that he has tried making predictions about the neighborhood in the past.
“I would have told you three years ago that it was at peak, and that was wrong,” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
Schiano and Boyd both admit it will be hard for them to look at new ventures on the Lower East Side due to rising rents, with Boyd casting an eye south of Delancey St. down to Canal St.
“Ideally, I would like to stay down here, but I don’t think that’s probably going be feasible,” Boyd said of any future endeavors in the area. “Obviously, location is key to business.”
David Bruno, 26, a local music promoter and DJ who lives on Orchard St., also gave a nod to the area south of Delancey, noting landmarked and government property there will help preserve its “low-rise mentality.”
Bruno’s monthly party “People Don’t Dance No More” has drawn international acts to the area but was recently dropped from the lineup at Element, a large nightclub on E. Houston St., in favor of more themed events, like ladies’ nights.
“It definitely sucks that they couldn’t maintain the creative policies that they built the space on,” he said of his former venue. “They can’t make money being extremely creative.”
He’s not convinced the Lower East Side can maintain its reputation for creative innovation.
“I can’t say that I’m 100-percent sold on the neighborhood, [although] there’s not really anywhere else to go in Manhattan,” Bruno said, adding he might be forced to look east over the bridge to Brooklyn.
Back on Orchard St. on Friday night, two Upper West Siders stood outside GalleryBar lamenting the loss of the Lower East Side of their teenage years.
“It was more fun [seven or eight years ago], because I guess the whole being underage you think you’re cool and all that stuff,” said Annabelle Acosta, 23. “But now it’s like, another bar, another club.”
“Honestly, I think everyone looks the same,” added Theresa Villavicencio, 24. “At least back in the day you can see a difference in, I guess, the appearance, the attitude. … You could vibe with really different people. Now it’s like everyone’s the same.”