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Manhattan: The Suburb


"If you don't have a political party to use as a tool, you have to find other inroads to the system," says Kathryn Freed. "And the community boards are a good way in. Instead of the old ward boss dealing with problems, you now have the community board." With her term running out in the year 2001, Freed is now thinking public advocate, and she's about to start fund-raising. "I wish we didn't have term limits," she says, sighing. "There'll be a complete turnover. This is the first paid political position I've had." Freed was among the first to sense the power shift in 1989, after the city got rid of the Board of Estimate. "In the past, people went to borough presidents or the Board of Estimate if they had problems. Now the power is with the council. We vote on land use and the budget. So we're a real legislative body. Community boards are now making demands on local council members." Freed admits that some people in her district seem to think she's evolved from community activist into a hack politician. That hurts. "God knows, we don't do this to get rich," she says. "We do it because we're interested. Sometimes I think I should have been a professional busybody."

Nightclubs are a business that get all these newly minted politicos excited. For public-relations purposes, if nothing else, nightclubs are now spending a lot of time placating everybody. Robert Bookman, chief counsel for the New York Nightlife Association, says the association urges all of its members -- who are mainly nightclub owners -- to set up 24-hour hot lines so activists can voice their complaints.

Nightclub operator Peter Gatien -- acquitted last year on drug charges but now facing two months in jail for tax evasion -- doesn't need any more problems than he already has. He has his staff sweep the stretch of Sixth Avenue outside his recently reopened nightclub, Limelight. Gatien also forked over $10,000 to a sound company that checked the building out before installing extra doors and soundproofing seals.

Sitting at a table on the top floor of Limelight, Gatien is surrounded by eerie blue murals of zaftig women and peace symbols -- the work of local artists. The club owner and two of his full-time "community liaisons" explain how modern dancers are using the space for rehearsals during the day and are paying the club back by performing there at night. (No, not as go-go dancers.) Limelight has already staged Molière, and Mamet is on the way, says Gatien, as are puppet shows. Gatien makes sure to mention that on Easter, there will be a wholesome egg hunt at the onetime church.

Clearly, Gatien's pumping the soft pedal. His arch-nemesis is Community Board Five member Laura Michaels. She has been "relentless" in her attacks in the press, says Gatien. Gatien's liquor license is up for renewal, and in spite of his turbo-schmoozing and concessions to culture, the local board doesn't want that to happen.

Sympathy for club owners is in short supply. Whereas kickbacks once went to the police and license-granting agencies, some nightclub and restaurant owners have been known to placate complaining residents by paying their rent or their utility bills. "Tenants ask for straight-up cash," says one nightclub owner. "Clubs are in a very vulnerable position. The standards the city is holding clubs to means we're responsible for virtually anything a patron does in the establishment. If they applied these same standards to Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, or the public schools, they'd all be closed."

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