Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Cause of... and solution to... all of life's problems

6:15 PM: I'm filing live tonight and already the room is packed. I gently ask Nancy Wechter (one of the opponents of the wine bar application) to move from Press Row and she and a small crowd move to the next table graciously. One guy stays. He's sitting next to me and he's glaring slightly. Will Florentino from Diana Reyna's office buzzes over to say hello and greets the guy next to me, saying "Hi Danny." Will is making his rounds. A string of people come by to ask if the seats are taken, including two women (regulars), and I explain that I'm holding two seats for soon-to-be-arriving reporters. They move. Danny's not happy about this.
"Can I ask you something? Why are you holding two seats from members of the community who want to sit here?"
I explain that two colleagues are arriving late and that we need table space to write our reports for the story."
Danny grimaces again and moves to the other side of the room. I swear I've seen him from somewhere before but I can't place it. Oh well.

This is a different crowd that we've seen here before, many of whom came to the CB 1 Public Safety committee meeting last Thursday. The conversation isn't exactly animated, but this looks like a talkative crowd. Cliques have formed based on whether people are for or against the Custom Wine Bar (644 Driggs Avenue), which is reapplying for a liquor license. There's a lot of lively tension in the room tonight. You know would help reduce that tension? A 2005 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir, at $13 a bottle.

6:37 PM: CB1 Chairman Chris Olechowski calls the meeting to order. The first item of business, aka the BSA Special, involves 114 North 8th Street, aka The Finger Building. It was 16 stories. Now it's 14. Ward Dennis details how there has been an ownership change at the buildng, while opponents to the Custom Wine Bar quietly slip outside into the hallway to talk strategy. Construction is already underway and completion is expected by Summer 2010. A BSA public hearing should happen next week and a vote likely in November. Ward notes that the next ULURP meeting is on the 27th. In honor of the New York Jets' defensive meltdown in Miami on Monday, I would like to nominate a name change. From now on, I think everyone should refer to Ward Dennis as Wards Island. As in, let's take a trip to Wards Island. Any objections? Show of hands?

6:44 PM: Likely Incoming Councilmember Steve Levin slips in. The Democratic nomine has got what looks like Barbour jacket. On closer inspection, it's a Carhatt. And he's holding a medium coffee. Nice Steve. Meanwhile Teresa's Rolf hands out a flyer for an OUTRAGE community meeting on Tuesday, October 20 to promote a community truck traffic survey. I'd like to take this time to welcome two reporters, one returning, to press row. Will Yakowicz is reporting from the Brooklyn Paper and Jeff Harmatz is back, repping the Greenpoint Gazette (Linderman is at the Where The Wild Things Are premiere in midtown. Lucky Linderman.) Welcome back Harmatz.

6:52 PM: District Manager Gerry Esposito takes a roll call for the board meeting. 33 members answer call. That's a quorum. Chairman Chris moves the agenda around to move the 644 Driggs speakers ahead of committee reports. It’s a one-time deal. There are 29 speakers. This might take a while. Chairman Chris is pleading with people to be brief, and even consolidate their speaking times so that all the business doesn’t get drawn out.
“Chairman’s report….(long pause) Ahh.. that’s me. I haven’t been working long enough.”

7:04 PM: Gerry gives his District Manager's report. He notes a man who lived on Maspeth Avenue whose building was condemned who was about to be vacated. He’s going back home by Thanksgiving.
“These are the moments out of human history that make everything worthwhile,” says Chairman Chris.
Oh, and there’s another issue that we’d like to know more about, but we're moving right along.

7:07 PM: Chairman Chris reads off the speakers, starting with Marisa Cardinale (she’s in favor). Let's go to highlights...

Marisa Cardinale: I’m a 26 year property owner. When I heard about the opposition to a bar, I discovered that it was a restaurant. There are three restaurants on my block and I think they make excellent neighbors. There is no more noise from these restaurants than from the gallery across the street.

Stefan Mailvaganam owner of Custom Wine Bar: I and my partners are professional operators. The atmosphere will be low key, relaxed, and with background jazz. We have offered concessions, withdrawing outside seating and reducing hours.

I whisper to Steve Levin: Thank God this one’s not in your district.

Frederick Twomey, friend and business partner: If they called it Custom American Restaurant, I don’t think we would be having this kind of issue.

Danny Hoch.... wait a second... Danny... the guy sitting next to me that I probably pissed off was Danny Hoch. Yes that Danny Hoch. The hip hop performer. He held court at the 2008 Hip Hop Theater Festival, that culminated in his one-man show in Williamsburg at 850 Grand Street. My former colleague Greg Hanlon wrote a big preview about him for The Courier, and a number of NAG members went to the show, which one described as "provocative".
Here are some reviews:
New York Times, New York Press, New York Observer, New York Daily News, Brooklyn Rail, more New York Times, Village Voice, New York Magazine
and here's last year's press release:


Free neighborhood shows before Public Theater run get New Yorkers talking about gentrification

Beginning October 1, theater innovator and Williamsburg resident Danny Hoch (Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop) is bringing his latest one-man show, Taking Over, to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn as part of Taking Over: the All-City Tour, a series of FREE performances for neighborhood residents. Prior to the show's run at the Public Theater starting November 7, Hoch and local community partners are holding post-show conversations at each tour stop, engaging Taking Over's themes of gentrification and displacement. Taking Over: the All-City Tour is part of the 2008 NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival.

Hoch describes Taking Over as a story "about how people take over neighborhoods and how absurdly funny and absurdly heartbreaking it is at the same time." He plays nine characters linked by the upheaval of Williamsburg's gentrification, from rapper Launch Missiles Critical to a real estate developer named Stuart. Originally produced at Berkeley Repertory Theatre to rave reviews, this comic journey through one block of gentrifying Brooklyn comes home to the city that gave birth to it.

And a video:

Damnit! Powder Keg. I can't copy everything he says down, but I'm trying...

Danny Hoch: Should we believe that you think it’s beneficial to us that we have another bar in our community? We need a library, we need a fish store, we need a dental clinic, we need a pharmacy…
Danny lists twenty bars that are in there area. He's just getting warmed up.
"They sing and laugh as young man takes his pants down, urinates on the streets. We've had problems with defecation in the street."
Are we invisible to you? What you are doing, saying to us is that our home is a playground for drunk people. But it’s ok because they’re white drunk people.
So which is it members of the board? Which is it?
Chairman Chris bristles: Are you finished?
Danny: Yeah, we’re finished. Thank you.

Now Chairman Chris is riled up. I'm not sure why. Usually you have to pay $10 to $20 to hear a Hoch monologue and we were getting it for free.
"The community board does not grant liquor licenses. The community board is advisory. We can vote to advise."
Danny doesn't let me take his photograph as I sheepishly wander over to his side of the room.
"Get that camera away from me!" says Danny. Sorry Danny.
I think the only way we're going to settle this neighborhood bar problem is to have Danny Hoch and Lemon Andersen throw down at a hip-hop gentrification-themed theater monologue-off. Held at El Puente. Luis Garden Acosta and Ben Brantley can moderate it. How much would you pay to go to that? $10? $25? $50? C'mon Luis, make it happen!

We mostly alternate between for and against now. Let's look at Ray Martin and Luis Santiago.
Ray Martin- I’m in support of 644 Driggs. They have an unmarked record. Their business plan is fine. They’ve made many concessions. I think you guys should consider them. They’re a better model than many of the businesses that are here now.
Luis Santiago- This isn’t personal to the establishment. I think we’ve gotten away from the families being raised in Williamsburg. I’m sure the intentions are all good, but when do we put a stop to these establishments serving alcohol I call the 90th precinct the 94th precinct regularly. It’s not easy dealing with this rowdiness on a daily basis.

7:49 PM: The speakers are done. We now make a return voyage to Ward’s Island for his committee report. “That’s it! See you on the 27th!” says Ward. See how great that nickname is?

7:50PM: Mieszko Kalita, CB 1 Public Safety Chair reads off a list of 12 other liquor licenses, including Pinkerton 263 North 6th Street, three blocks away from Custom.
What is missing is a place where you can come and here Tchaikovsky, Chopin, absolutely lyes of course. Have you ever gone to a bar that plays Tchaikovsky? Not really."
I'll say one thing. Mieszko didn't spend ten years studying counterintelligence a Warsaw KGB field office so that he could deliberate over wine bars in Williamsburg.

The Committee recommends to approve all the liquor licenses. The motion passes. After that, we get renewals. They pass too.Finally, 644 Driggs Avenue. A hush falls over the crowd. Miesko announces that there are letters from Diana Reyna and Nydia Velazquez and leaves it off at that. An unidentified board member raises a question.
“Are these letters for or against?”
“They’re letters from politicians… They wrote a letter,” says Miezko. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a CB1 MVP tonight! Congratulations Mieszko Kalita! All those years translating missile defense commands were worth it.

8:01 PM: Miezsko asks for a vote and Chairman Chris takes questions. Teresa Toro makes a motion to keep hours at 2 AM on weekdays and 3 AM on weekends, as a rider to the liquor license (sounds like a yes). She mentions The Gibson as a precedent for this action.
Peter Gillespie (of NAG): "The community who came here tonight was opposing the application with these conditions." (looks like he’s a no vote).
Julie Lawrence makes a time change request. 12 on weekdays and 2 AM on weekends.
Too bad Felice Kirby isn’t on this board. As a restaurant/ bar owner of a popular restaurant, Teddy's, I wonder what she thinks about this.

8:21 PM: The vote! And it's a close one. In Favor: 17 Against: 14 Abstention: 1. Motion passes.

8:32: Teresa Toro gives report while I go into the hallway to do some interviews. Mieszko briefs the owners about the next steps in dealing with the State Liquor Authority, which will probably hold a hearing since the bar is within 500 feet of several other bar/ restaurants. Nevertheless, Custom owners Stefan and Dan Lathoum are relieved, as are their friends. Dan said he had no idea that he would have the crowd of supporters at the meeting tonight.
"I'll be honest with you, I didn't even invite them."

Stefan spoke with Nancy and some other residents who live nearby about their concerns with noise, though I didn't get the gist of what they were saying. The opponents were mostly arguing that this bar would be a tipping point towards too much noise in the area, but did not argue well enough why this particular bar is not suitable for the proposed Driggs Avenue location, and that's likely why they lost. Also, the owners' spotless record, with regards to noise complaints, in Community Board 3 convinced a lot of board members that the business deserved a chance to operate. Mieszko said as much at the Public Safety meeting last week.

8:40 PM: Back inside, the board is recognizing two new committee chairs: Julie Lawrence (Environment and Sanitation) and Esteban Duran (Education and Youth). Julie's the new Evan!

8:52 PM: We're into public session.
*A South Side Williamsburg resident nearby complains about drugs and alcohol near her block. She expresses a desire to join the community board. Good for her!
*Another South Side resident who lives on South 1st Street. He’s repping 10 families in his building concerned about a bar/ restaurant in the bottom floor of his building.
“I need your help. I’m from England but I’ve lived here 17 years. The guy who owns the bar doesn’t live in the community and the people he serves doesn’t live in this community either.
*A resident of North 1st Street is talking about a common rent regulation problem where landlords may be removing buildings from rent regulation and kicking tenants. He should really be talking with NAG or St. Nicks. Actually Peter figures that out too, and immediately pulls him into the hallway.
*Veronica Fidler from the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is talking about the scope of sexual violence in Williamsburg and preventing sexual violence. She mentions a recent study and is asking people to join. More on this later.
*Rami “Corrugated” Metal from David Yassky's, talks about those metal fences on the street ends on Noble and Java Streets and it looks like those gates may come down soon.
“The owners objected. They lost,” says Rami. “This community won.”

9:04 PM We’re done. I'm giving the last word to Father Joseph Calise of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church who voted "yes" for the restaurant bar and wanted to explain his vote. He also noted that an opera will be held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Novemeber 9.

Monsignor Calise: "To say that there is problem in the neighborhood is true, but that doesn’t mean that these guys, who for all appearances want to open a very respectable place, should pay the price for people’s mistakes. All the complaints being made were made for other establishments. They invited people to come to their other place, but nobody went.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the Danny Hoch background. I didn't make the connection until I read this.

I will admit there was a certain poetic-quality to his presentation (even if, as a Community Board Member who hails from Detroit, I didn't quite understand why he kept talking about people from Michigan being outsiders -- maybe it had subconsciously to do with a debate regarding the origins of hip hop culture?) The rhythm of his compelling speech also reminded me a young Bob Dylan Bootleg poem called "Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie," obviously of a entirely different theme -- but something about the progression of images...

Okay, another angle on this story would have been the Henry Miller aspect -- which I never really knew about until last night. It's Henry's ghost (and that of his children) that's haunting that part of Williamsburg.

Anonymous said...

Hoch is such a colossal moron. As if being a middle class white guy from Forest Hills gives him some kind of street cred as the Voice of Indigenous Williamsburg. He's a total joke.

Anonymous said...

I wish you would have added that we were in the midst of several contagious illness bearers (most likely). Whoever it is that deems it okay to bring sick , coughing , sneezing children to this meeting are self centered a-holes. ( The 7 year old that cried for half an hour, and then went out to the sidewalk to vomit was especially WRONG to do so)

Anonymous said...

You mean the parent/accompanying ADULT of the 7 year old, I hope? Cause I'm sure that poor kid didn't want to be there either.

People: They're called babysitters. AKA friends and neighbors, often happy to trade babysitting favors occasionally. Consider it!

Anonymous said...

Correct, I meant guardian of said children. They were kids of people there to oppose the tapas bar, and were probably intended to tug at the heartstrings of all the bad bad people that approve of a liquor license for the restaurant.