Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The War of Noise
By Gamal Hennessy
Certain members of local community boards have been fighting to suppress and limit New York nightlife for years. Their latest offensive is heating up on East 5th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Instead of looking for a way to peacefully co-exist with operators, some residents have called for an end to all new liquor licenses in the area threatening the economics and prosperity of the city as a whole.
Community boards and liquor licenses
Community Board 3 covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Like several CBs with a high nightlife presence, there is a vocal group of residents in the community who feel that nightlife venues are magnets for negative elements in their communities. Their main grievance is the noise coming from the areas around clubs and bars. They also report coming out of their buildings in the morning to find urine, vomit, used condoms or even unconscious people in their doorways. They feel their neighborhoods have two personalities. During the day they are the envy of urban living. At night they become almost unlivable.
CBs affect change in local government based on the power that their recommendations hold. . In 1993, the Beverage Control Law (BCL) was modified to require increased public input for the granting of liquor licenses. The requirements state that if an operator planned to have a bar within 500 feet of three other established bars, clubs and lounges they had to consult with the CB and attend a mandatory public hearing to determine if the establishment serves the public interest. If you think about how dense New York City is, you quickly realize that almost every new bar needs a public hearing. This is how the community boards wield influence over the licensing process. They have a large say in whether or not a new bar ‘serves the public interest’ and whether is gets a liquor license or not. A bar without a liquor license won’t be opened for long, so when a CB is against a particular venue or venues in general, they have significant pull about whether that venue survives or not.
Club noise, street noise and the smoking ban
Disturbed residents often complain about ‘club noise’. They usually do not make any distinction to the type of noise in question. To them the definition is straight forward; some sound coming from the general direction of the club woke them up and they want it to stop. What they fail to understand is that it is one thing to complain about sounds coming from the club that the club can control and sounds coming from the streets adjacent to the club that it can’t control.
Operators have a certain degree of control over what is referred to in acoustics as sound transmission or the way that sound passes through solid objects like walls, doors and windows. But when you start to look at sound generated outside the four walls of the venue, the control of operators diminishes to almost zero. Bouncers and club security have no legal authority over activity that takes place on a public street outside their venue. If a person insists on smoking and talking loudly in front of a bar, if a cab illegally double-parks forcing other cars to blow their horns, if someone is removed from an establishment or refused entry and decides to remain on the street causing problems, bouncers are powerless beyond asking repeatedly for the person to stop. This type of disturbance, which is what many club noise complaints are about are not instances of club noise at all. This is street noise. But even though the noise is not generated or controlled by the club, the club is punished for the noise by local residents.
The street noise issue is exacerbated when the effects of the smoking ban are taken into account. When patrons go into a bar, they grab a drink, and begin interacting with each other. The volume of the music played in the venue and the increased levels of intoxication naturally raises the volume of the patrons when they are inside. They are screaming, laughing and shouting at each other. Then a few of them go outside to grab a smoke because it is against the law to smoke inside. As they open the door, noise from the dance floor and the DJ booth spill out into the street. When the patrons get outside, they are still intoxicated. Some of them, especially the amateurs and fanatics, are still screaming, laughing and shouting at each other. The only difference is now they are yelling beneath the window of someone who is trying to sleep. Now they are awake. They get frustrated. They call 311. And the club gets a fine and a threat to their liquor license because they conformed to the smoking ban.
We are not saying that the residents of CB 3 don’t have the right to enjoy their living space. The people who live in areas that include nightlife venues have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed if the industry is going to reach its full potential. But the answer to this issue is not a blanket ban on liquor licenses. The answer is not to simply go after every operator with the same broad brush and blame them for noise they can’t legally control. Closing lounges, restaurants and clubs isn’t the answer. It will only lead to higher taxes, economic depression and higher crime in the area.
Club owners can’t control street noise, but there is a group of people in the city who can; the NYPD. The proper level of police presence in and around nightlife concentrated areas could greatly reduce the problems that take place between nightlife and its neighbors. Instead of using the police as a weapon to close clubs, CB’s could proactively work with the NYPD and the clubs to prevent problems before they arise.
If noise and safety are the major concerns for CB’s, then it would be in their best interest to support operators in their attempts to convince the NYPD to allow Paid Detail or regular police patrols in the areas outside the venues that need and want it. With an increase uniformed police presence in certain areas, noise, vandalism and potential outbreaks of crime can be reduced or even eliminated. If the NYPD is concerned about a direct connection between the venues and the Paid Detail because of pre-existing corruption issues, the CBs can be used as a buffer to protect the integrity of both parties. The CB could hire the Paid Detail to patrol the streets at night and the operators in the area could contribute to a fund that the CBs would use for the exclusive purpose of funding this Paid Detail. Under this proposal, the CB would get an increased quality of life, the operators would have the ability to solve the noise and crime issues that are so detrimental to the maintenance of their liquor license and the NYPD could keep crime rates down without any direct association with the venues themselves.
Constructive solutions to CB problems makes more sense than knee jerk ‘not in my backyard’ reactions from vocal CB residents. Working together to solve a legitimate problem can create a situation that is better for everyone involved, instead of deepening the divisions and prolonging the war.