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Manhattan: The Suburb


After some painstaking research, Keith Galloway's Chelsea block association discovered that 217 West 20th Street -- a former sign-maker's shop -- hadn't had a phone number since 1991. Galloway says that means the ground floor should revert to being residential space, since a business hadn't been operating there for two consecutive years. With Jack Lester, Galloway and company are preparing to file suit with the Board of Standards and Appeals. To raise money for Lester's fee, the activists have been auctioning off household items -- jewelry, old clocks, even a movie camera -- on eBay, the online auction site.

Lester is also representing the tenants who live above J.E.T. 19, a Bali-motif bar at 19 Cleveland Place run by a British entrepreneur named Andrew Sasson and his American partner, Greg Brier. Georgette Fleischer, a doctoral student at Columbia University and a building resident, says she's slowly losing her mind from sleep deprivation: "We are a little tenement building. We live in this little doll's house, and suddenly this giant downstairs is rocking the rafters."

The campaign has already borne fruit. In August, harried by ongoing protests and facing the prospect of permanent litigation, J.E.T.'s owners started preparing to evacuate. Their attorney contacted Lester and offered to move the lounge to a new venue if they could sign their lease at 19 Cleveland Place over to another business. Now all that remains is for a new acceptable commercial tenant to be chosen. So far, none has emerged, but the offer still stands. "We have to wait and see," Lester declares, not wanting to jinx his victory. "If we could get a restaurant-slash-bar in here that's a quieter establishment, we'd be doing okay," he says. "But the tenants only want a restaurant. And that's holding things up." He sighs.

Not surprisingly, Kathryn Freed is also on the case. People don't want to stroll around outside with her anymore, she confesses. "Every building we pass, I say, 'See that building? This is a problem.' Every empty lot: 'See that empty lot? This is a problem.' My staff is so overworked."


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