The LES and Chinatown Grapple with Nightlife Fallout Amidst Open Restaurants

Posted on: November 3rd, 2021 at 5:01 am by

Photo: Candace Pedraza

The following guest post was written by Candace Pedraza, a graduate student in the Newmark School of Journalism.

The concept of Open Streets is a simple one: use of public space normally unavailable for restaurants and communities is allowed, ensuring socially distanced patronage of local businesses and the safe rekindling of neighborhood connections.

The initiative has been the city’s solution for struggling business owners who are reopening post-Covid, and residents who need outdoor activities amidst the pandemic. But some neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side, are averse to the program becoming permanent – especially as they potentially put small businesses and residents at risk.

Noise and quality-of-life complaints have been the focus during the pushback to end Open Streets and Restaurants in district. These concerns have led to several proposals for liquor licenses being rejected by Community Board 3.

A tally of 30,652 noise complaints were made to 311 within the confines of Community Board 3 between March 2020 and September 2021, according to 311 Open Data. Over 4,000 of those complaints were tied to commercial business since the start of Open Restaurants, and over 10,000 of them were complaints about street noise.

Compared to the same date range the year before in 2019, there were 22,742 noise complaints made in the area. Noise has always been an issue for residents of the Lower East Side, but some feel that the uptick is notable.

Photo: Candace Pedraza

“It really feels like a concert just let out…it was not like that before,” said Lower East Side resident Marcell Rocha of the area past Ludlow Street into Orchard Street proper.

Rocha is a member of Orchard Street Block Association and lives on Orchard Street. He explained that while the area has always been a hot spot for bars and clubbing in the city, he has never experienced the atmosphere pre-Covid as it is now.

“It’s turning into Hell Square Two,” said Rocha. Hell Square is commonly used to describe the area bounded by Allen, East Houston, Delancey and Essex Streets and features an extremely dense area of liquor licenses.

Founder of LES Dwellers block association, Diem Boyd, expressed how interest in businesses that attract tourists and younger crowds has taken precedence over the safety and health of residents in the area.

Locals filing lawsuit against Open Restaurants

“Any space that isn’t dedicated to eating, drinking…they’re going to see a rent hike,” said Boyd. She feels that this is going to lead to a “brutal” displacement of residents and smaller businesses.

“This is the city giving away public space to private landlords…the sheds are a metaphor for the lack of accessibility now. Residents can’t afford a $20 cocktail to sit outside,” said Boyd.

City Council candidate Jenny Low had given vocal support for Open Streets and Restaurants in Chinatown.

However, the action was denied by the Department of Transportation in the fall of last year due to traffic restrictions. Jan Lee, a resident of Chinatown and member of Chinatown CORE Block Association, offered another reason for the rejection of this proposal.

“A third of the population in Chinatown is over 65-years-old, another third in that group have to be picked up by Access-a-Ride…street closures would make that difficult,” said Lee.

Access-a-Ride is operated by private carriers under contract by the City, and they have hundreds of routes through the five boroughs. They primarily service residents with disabilities and seniors who may have difficulty accessing public transportation through the MTA.

Open Streets means street closures for an entire weekend, which would stall traffic through areas with a higher density of senior and low-income residents who rely on Access-a-Ride for doctor’s appointments and other quality of life needs.

Photo: LES Dwellers

“Candidates will say things during their campaigns…they don’t always make sense,” said Lee.

Christopher Marte, newly minted City Councilman for District One and a lifelong resident of the Lower East Side, said he didn’t understand Low’s proposal, and that it was not considerate of small businesses that do not serve food and drinks.

“You have jewelers, you have porcelain shops, you have small health facilities…it’s a lot more diverse of an economic ecosystem, and it’s not just bars and restaurants,” said Marte.

Marte also said that while he is against “car culture” in the City, one reliable source of tourism for Chinatown was commuters coming in from New Jersey and Long Island into the area by car.

Anna London, a younger resident of the LES, described her block in Alphabet City as “total chaos,” especially since school started for NYU students in September.

“There’s hyper policing on Avenue D, but not as many police in places considered luxury. You’d have to literally walk to Avenue D to ask them to stop what’s going on near you,” said London.

NYPD representatives have stated there is not much they can do beyond closing streets off to foot traffic on weekends to stop the inundation of bar-goers in the LES and Hell Square.

Bushwick resident and LES restaurant server Mitchell Keller said he doesn’t mind the noise in the area, and that it has made a positive difference for his job at Fat Choy on Broome Street.

Photo: New York Shitty

Meanwhile, DOT has published a timetable for making Open Restaurants a permanent fixture for the City’s streetscape, turning public space into private property with the change of zoning text and local laws. A program meant to open streets may end up, however, closing them off to those who need it, according to Boyd.

“They can no longer participate in the community. Even if they’re supported they’re no longer a part of the streetscape…this is immoral,” she says.

And now, there is counter-action, as concerned residents across Manhattan just filed suit against the city to halt the program.

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