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Manhattan: The Suburb

Egged on by low crime rates and escalating property values, the city's new activists have declared war on high-rises, French restaurants, toy stores, and other social undesirables of the new millennium.

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Keith Galloway, a project manager at an interior-design firm who bears a passing resemblance to Jack Lemmon's Felix Unger, lives in a doorman building in Chelsea. His narrow stretch of West 20th, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is lined with elegant brownstones; cars are parked at an angle in front of the block's 10th Precinct station. It's a safe place to live, and the cops who check in between shifts are the only real congestion in the neighborhood.

Keith Galloway wants to make sure it stays that way.

Over at No. 217, Webster Hall club owner Doug Ballinger and his wife, Alexandra, are gearing up to open the Fresh Organic Coffee Lounge. But the lounge's name is a smoke screen, says Galloway. In November 1997, Ballinger announced that he would be applying for a liquor license and suggested that six days a week, the lounge would stay open until four in the morning. And that has the block percolating with anger.

At age 43, Keith Galloway has found himself cast in the unlikely role of community activist. He's not the in-your-face, snarling kind of anarchist who threw bottles and rocks in Tompkins Square Park in the eighties. Galloway is one of a species now proliferating in New York -- men and women with high-paying day jobs who hold meetings in their lofts or brownstones after work to resist all kinds of development in their neighborhood. Perhaps you've seen their flyers, printed in bulk at the local Kinko's and slipped under your door. They want your support. Or donations to pay the lawyer they've engaged to fight the good fight.

Improbable as it seems, the battle over whether martinis will ever be shaken at the Fresh Organic Coffee Lounge speaks volumes about the state of politics in fin de siècle New York City. New Yorkers have always been adept at the art of kvetching. But these days, the complaints about who moves in next door are getting increasingly high-pitched as local groups demand a say in how the Apple is carved. Says one veteran anti-bar campaigner, "Sometimes I feel like Ibsen's Enemy of the People. This is a political story, too."

As New York -- and Manhattan in particular -- rebounds from decades of decay and middle-class flight, residents are demanding living standards comparable to those in the suburbs: safe and clean streets, quiet nights, few outsiders passing through. Murder rates and violent crime are down in all five boroughs. Real-estate values are soaring, nearly 50 percent higher than they were a decade ago.

Expectations have risen just as quickly. Once, it took violence-prone outpatients at drug treatment centers and vagrants hanging around outside homeless shelters to raise our hackles. But nowadays, people are willing to protest just about anything -- street fairs and parades, garish billboards, trucks unpacking produce outside grocery stores, limos discharging diners at restaurants. A revitalized New York has bred a sense of entitlement; suddenly, nobody wants to trip over any of this stuff on his or her doorstep.

Developers and businessmen are having to answer to a new corps of self-appointed turf police, and they're not happy about it, to say the least. "The idea that 'you're moving into my neighborhood,' " exclaims hotelier and restaurateur Brian McNally. "Excuse me! We're New Yorkers as well. Trying to divide New York up into a succession of autonomous little villages is ridiculous."

All politics is local -- but New York's new politics is more local than ever. The tactics honed in service of liberal activism are being applied to distinctly small-town goals. Today's picketer is tomorrow's politician, as people are using these causes to network their way into public office. And these days, the quality-of-life issues they're riding in on go way beyond squeegee men and muggers. Now the targets are movie shoots and Toys 'R' Us stores and outdoor cafés and fancy French restaurants as well as nightclubs open till all hours, all of which, arguably, are things that help make New York New York. Not in my backyard! (acronym: NIMBY) has become a mantra of civic pride. But just where, in New York, does one person's backyard end and another's begin?


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