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?
Many a NIMBY dispute begins its trajectory at a community-board meeting. Community boards were instituted in the fifties, primarily as a forum where objections to the projects of Robert Moses could be aired (even if they were pretty much ignored by the decision-makers of the day). There were isolated victories: One lower-Manhattan board succeeded in thwarting an expressway that would have swallowed much of SoHo. But in the past twenty years, after a couple of key restructurings in the city’s government, the boards found themselves with more power over zoning and policy-making than anyone had ever anticipated.
Community-board meetings have a reputation for attracting garrulous eccentrics, but the boards have amassed real political clout, and each has its own characteristic obsessions. Some, like Two (in the West Village) and Four (representing Chelsea and West Clinton), are known for opposing new high-rises, hotels, and bars; others pretty much limit themselves to single issues: Until the latest Trump-tower controversy erupted, the traffic near the Queensboro Bridge took up much of Community Board Six’s energies, for example.
The boards’ activities are augmented by a growing army of community associations and freelance activists, defending their territory with an array of tactics; urban planners who work for the city have taken to calling these people bananas, another acronym that stands for Build Anything Not Anywhere Near Anything. In TriBeCa, residents led by Carole DeSaram of the TriBeCa Community Association have taken to hanging sheets out of windows to disrupt film shoots on their streets. “Next time,” DeSaram says defiantly, “we’re going to start using strobe lights out the windows and music.” In Chelsea, the nonprofit Downtown Boathouse group got torpedoed this summer after it sought to store kayaks in a shed on Pier 64. Community activists feared that cars would be drawn to the area, and the plan was shelved. And in an industrial neighborhood in the West Village, FedEx has slammed into a wall of opposition in its attempt to expand a large, monolithic distribution center on Leroy Street. Ellen Peterson-Lewis is a local retiree who lives in a charming third-floor loft near the center and mainly objects to the look of the place: “The Village is a village. People don’t just withdraw into their homes and lock the door.”
Donald Trump’s plan for a 72-story residential skyscraper near the United Nations has already attracted an impressive roster of celebrity detractors, like billionaire industrialist David Koch and Walter Cronkite. Madonna has joined local residents who are fighting plans to convert the old YMCA building on 63rd Street into a 41-story luxury development. In an affidavit, Madonna expressed fears that the project could very well “create a hazard for me and my child” while under construction. The plan is currently in limbo, the developers having postponed the closing until at least April.
Even four-star French restaurateur Daniel Boulud found himself on the receiving end of local wrath in the fall, when Community Board Eight debated his request for a liquor license at his new Restaurant Daniel on East 65th Street. Conjuring up a nightmare vision of double-parked limos and reckless drinking in the vicinity of Central Presbyterian Church, several of Boulud’s new neighbors spoke forcefully in favor of the somewhat oxymoronic concept of a wine-free French restaurant. Says Boulud, “Before Daniel, there was a hotel here and a restaurant – Le Cirque. The 5 percent of people who come in limousines come in the evening, when traffic is lighter.” Boulud plans to appease neighbors by planting flowers and trees on the street. “I should receive a medal from the city,” Boulud kids.
While community boards may sound like democracy in action, they’re not quite that. They’re actually patronage institutions, with the approximately 50 people on each of the 59 boards across the city appointed by City Council members and borough presidents. And while some 150,000 people live in an average Manhattan board district, perhaps 100 residents show up at the average monthly meeting – 200 to 300 if a community is really angry.
On paper, community boards still serve only an advisory role to city and state agencies, who frequently choose to ignore their recommendations. The five members of the State Liquor Authority (SLA) – all appointed by Governor Pataki – customarily disregard community-board advice, even though they are forbidden to issue licenses until the boards have their say.
But the boards’ sophistication has been growing exponentially in recent years. They have learned to play city and state agencies off against one another, and have started recruiting agencies to act as fellow plaintiffs when they take businesses to court for violating obscure statutes. The threat of negative press is potent to these agencies, who don’t want to be accused of not enforcing the law.
There are now several thousand pages of laws and codes and addenda governing who can build what and where in New York – the first city in America to be formally zoned, in 1916. Some of the rules are extremely specific: The western side of West Broadway, for example, can have large buildings, whereas the eastern side, on the edge of the historic district of SoHo, has to meet landmark-commission requirements limiting buildings to six stories.
Not surprisingly, the agencies responsible for meting out permits and licenses are themselves not familiar with every law. And that has opened the door to an increasing number of challenges by activist groups and community boards, who have made these laws their business. When a space is vacated, the battle that ensues over its future use often turns on familiarity with the tangled web of regulations.
Mayor Giuliani, fluent in quality-of-life rhetoric but also eager to appear business-friendly, has often expressed his frustration with the boards; he tried to cut their funding when he was first elected mayor. Superstores are one example of something the mayor wants and SoHo residents don’t. “A proposal in 1994 would have allowed megastores in SoHo to take up as much as 20,000 square feet at ground-floor level,” says City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who got supporters to write the mayor and mustered crowds to protest at hearings and council meetings. “You can imagine the horror.” The proposal was eventually scrapped.
Ironically, in reorienting city politics around quality of life, Giuliani and his appointees have found it increasingly impolitic to ignore these boards. State authorities like the SLA may dismiss community concerns, but more and more, the courts are then requiring that these situations be redressed.
And who represents this aggrieved citizenry in these clashes? More often than not, they call attorney Jack Lester.
“I grew up in a rental house in Laurelton, Queens,” says Lester, sitting in jeans and a gray T-shirt in his paper-crammed office overlooking Third Avenue. “When I was 10, my parents went on rent strike because there was no hot water or heat in the middle of the winter. I became a lawyer to represent people like my parents.” Lester’s mother, a bookkeeper, was a supporter of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party; she’d discuss politics at the dinner table with his dad, a jewelry-supplies salesman. Lester’s grandfather was a textiles-union organizer on the Lower East Side. “He’d come home, and his head would be bloodied,” the attorney says proudly.
Lester, 45, became politicized in the sixties, attending New York Law School as a classmate of Kathryn Freed in the late seventies. “We’ve been on the same side of the barricades ever since,” he says in his gravelly voice.
He began his career in the office of the Queens district attorney, serving three years in the anti-bias unit. But Lester’s real interest lay in landlord-tenant law. In 1989, he was hired as an associate at the law firm Fischbein Badillo. Richard Fischbein had made a name for himself successfully representing Central Park South tenants who were resisting Donald Trump’s efforts to evict them. Trump wanted them out so he could refurbish their aging building as a high-priced co-op. Fischbein had a reputation for taking on the big guys. But he found himself spending more and more of his time representing the corporations that paid better, and Lester grew disillusioned. (“Community groups are very time-consuming,” Fischbein says. “If you have three different factions, you spend your time wearing a striped shirt and playing referee.”)
The firm assigned Lester a number of cases; in all of them, he was representing the landlord. One client was the owner of a loft building on lower Broadway. “He sent me over there to inspect it,” Lester recalls, “and I felt more sympathetic to the tenants than I did toward my client. At that point, I realized I had to leave.”
Lester quit and hung out his own shingle. Although five or six other lawyers work a considerable number of community cases in the city, Lester is tops in the field, with up to 50 cases going on at once. He likes to trumpet himself as the protector of the bourgeoisie: “Middle-class neighborhoods should not be destabilized by the city’s attempts to bring in tax dollars,” he says. In his time, Lester has represented local groups fighting bars, superstores, movie complexes, street fairs, heliports, and the red neon Travelers umbrella logo that hangs high above the streets of TriBeCa. Thanks in large part to Lester’s efforts, there is no 42nd Street trolley and no multiplex cinema near the Holland Tunnel exit. And Riverside South, Donald Trump’s high-rise project now taking shape on the West Side, could still be foiled. “Trump promised a park to the community in exchange for zoning changes and special permits,” Lester says. “Now he’s building it in such a way that the community won’t have the park he promised,” he adds indignantly.
“That’s an absolute lie,” says Trump’s lawyer Jeffrey Braun. Trump wants to give them their waterfront park, explains Braun, but the Department of Transportation wouldn’t move the piece of highway required. They’ll get their park, but much of it will be below the overpass.
Lester is a brash man, respected by many but loathed by an equal number, including some former clients. “He’s tried several times to run for office,” says one community activist. “Does he do it because he believes in these causes? No. He loves to get his name in the papers.”
With a slightly bittersweet laugh, Lester responds that if he’d wanted that, he would have stayed with the D.A., trying rape and murder cases. He does admit he’d be interested if a State Assembly seat opened in his district – in 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for State Senate. “But the bottom line,” he says earnestly, “is that being involved in these cases gives me an influence on public policy.”
Are there cases where residents are being too thin-skinned? “I was once asked by a community group to bring a lawsuit against outdoor cafés,” Lester remembers. He turned it down. “I like outdoor cafés. They give the city a European feel. That’s where I part company with my brother and sister activists.”
Two years ago, in December 1996, NIMBYism scored a major victory in Lester’s own Upper East Side neighborhood. Toys ‘R’ Us tried to open a large corner store at 80th Street and Third Avenue, and Lester went up against his old firm Fischbein Badillo, arguing that the warehouse on the proposed site was supposed to revert to residential usage because no commercial activity had occurred there for a consecutive two-year period.
Fischbein Badillo argued that the warehouse had never been deserted. He produced work logs kept by the warehouse’s owner, even though it was hard to believe the warehouse had been up and running – the electricity had been turned off, and there were pigeons nesting inside the building.
Richard Fischbein also argued that the locals were being racist: They opposed Toys ‘R’ Us because it would attract large numbers of residents from north of 96th Street to shop in their district. “People did not want blacks and Puerto Ricans coming into the neighborhood,” says Fischbein, who also lives in the area. “You see it. You smell it. You know it. I was a legal-services attorney representing the Black Panther Party. I’m the administrator of the Tupac Shakur estate. You don’t have to be a chicken to tell a rotten egg.”
In the fall of 1996, after a two-year struggle in which Toys ‘R’ Us had won two rounds in the lower courts, Lester was fired by Neighbors ‘R’ Us, the local group that had engaged him; members felt he was too in love with the limelight. And that December, the New York State Court of Appeals finally agreed with Neighbors ‘R’ Us and their new lawyer, zoning expert Norman Marcus.
The locals have since changed their minds about having a commercial enterprise on the site. Eli Zabar has opened an upscale gourmet-food market there – fava-bean salad being preferable to Beanie Babies, evidently.
Community law came of age in the early nineties, as activists on the Upper West Side were rising up against the SROs, rehab clinics, and homeless shelters the city was insistently dumping in the area. It was then that NIMBYism started looking respectable – perhaps because the agitated residents were ultimately successful in keeping similar new facilities out: While the majority of those operations existing at the time of the rebellion remained in place, monitored by community-advice boards (CABs), only a handful have been placed on the Upper West Side since 1994. Says one member of Community Board Seven, “There’s less money for that now with Giuliani in office. But also, providers don’t want to come into a neighborhood where they’re not wanted.” She reflects for a moment and then continues: “Our bigger concern right now is with jazz clubs and cigar bars.” Call it a sign of the times.
The battle on the Upper West Side “was a turning point,” says SoHo councilwoman Kathryn Freed. “Very liberal communities who honestly felt they should bear their burden suddenly woke up.”
Freed, perhaps the most visible neighborhood activist in the city, has been known to kick back with a cocktail in hand at trendy nightspots in her district like Balthazar – owner Keith McNally took great pains to befriend her, say other local bar owners. But officially, she opposes the influx of more tourists and late-night bars in SoHo.
Freed was lobbying from the cradle, and in scarier times. She handed out flyers at Pennsylvania’s York County Shopping Center with her mom in 1960. Senator John F. Kennedy was going to be speaking at Pennsylvania’s state fair in her hometown, and York County was overwhelmingly Republican. “People sicced their dogs on us,” she remembers.
Freed moved to New York the same week the Woodstock festival was raging upstate. A self-confessed hippie who lived in jeans and allowed her long red curly hair to reach her waist, Freed says she took her degree in political science and came to New York to be with a boyfriend who was attending NYU. At the time, downtown was fighting the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and Freed decided to get involved, working the phones to drum up opposition. As a McGovern supporter, she worked with the Downtown Independent Democrats. Freed took a job writing contracts for Equitable Life Assurance and then had a stint as a cabdriver, but mostly, she says, she was working on community issues in her cramped Thompson Street tenement.
Freed moved to TriBeCa before enrolling at New York Law School: “We all lived illegally in these loft buildings. In 1975, I got involved with the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants. I helped write the Loft Law, which granted residential rights to tenants in 1980.”
Finally, she was elected to the City Council in 1991. It was Freed who made an unsuccessful bid to delay construction on the SoHo Grand Hotel, arguing that the community needed six months to catalogue and remove vulnerable artwork stored in an adjacent building. Demonstrators took to the streets wearing devil costumes and waving signs that called developer Emanuel Stern a devil. In front of the hotel, they chanted, “Go back to New Jersey, go back to New Jersey.”
Eventually, Stern offered to donate 5,000 square feet of land on Grand Street to the community to install a park. But Freed and her supporters rejected the compromise. To their chagrin, the courts found that the proposed business met local zoning requirements. The SoHo Grand opened in 1996, and nobody got a park. Stern is now building a second hotel, in TriBeCa. And he hasn’t heard any complaints. Yet.
Other matters are consuming Kathryn Freed these days. In Little Italy, residents grouped together last spring to form the Little Italy Neighbors Association. In October, the newly opened Café Habana had a liquor-license request turned down after the association said it objected to the owner. There was opposition from both the local community board and Councilwoman Freed.
Visual artist Sante Scardillo, one of the founders of the association, is now campaigning against the M&R Bar- Dining Room, which operates out of the building on Elizabeth Street that he lives in. Says Scardillo, “They have an outdoor garden. It’s a sound trap, especially in the summer when people keep their windows open. I’m a lot more sensitive since I had this in my backyard.” Since Scardillo’s group began asserting itself, Community Board Two has adopted a policy opposing all restaurant gardens.
There’s more. With the SoHo Alliance, a local organization founded with Freed’s support in the early eighties, Freed has launched a vigorous campaign to clear the streets of the street-vending artists who have sold their wares in this part of town for more than twenty years – undercutting the established, rent-paying businesses.
Gallery owners are angry at the food wholesalers who double-park delivery vans and stack produce outside. Freed wants existing laws that state the produce must be stacked inside to be enforced.
A 400-car parking lot has been proposed for the corner of Thompson and Broome Streets, and Freed is against it. “I can’t imagine bringing more cars into that area,” she says. With a group called Trees Not Trucks, she is agitating to remove commercial trucks from Broome Street.
She has also declared war on air pollution in her district: “My next big campaign, if I get around to it, is to sue the city or state government to improve the lousy air standards in SoHo and TriBeCa.” And she’s allied herself with the NoHo Neighborhood Association to strip the oversize billboards from Houston Street, Broome Street, and Hudson Square. “On Houston between Broadway and Crosby, there’s one for cigarettes,” she says. “It’s the kind of billboard you see out in Middle America by the superhighways. They’re all over New York now. Most are illegal.”
Says attorney Norman Marcus, who considers himself a fan, “She argues like a longshoreman. She’s very difficult, but she does a fabulous job.” To many, she is a slightly eccentric local heroine; to others, her politics are less benign. “It’s silly to be anti-commercial,” says one local bar owner. “SoHo couldn’t be cobblestoned, tree-lined, charming, if there weren’t companies here that contribute and pay taxes.”
Then there’s the matter of Freed’s occasionally migraine-inducing manner. “Well, we’re all so hidebound in this city,” she says, “you almost have to blow up to get people to move.”
Another of Freed’s confrères is SoHo Alliance leader Sean Sweeney, whose group hired Jack Lester to oppose two high-rise residential developments open to non-artists and planned for the south side of Houston Street. The Alliance wants the developer to obey current zoning laws for the district and build a five- or six-story building with loft spaces rentable only to artists in this strip of land stretching from Wooster to Greene to Mercer Streets. So far, the campaign has cost the Alliance $30,000.
Twenty years ago, Sweeney worked in one of SoHo’s original discos, the Loft, which Kathryn Freed and her group – then known as the Artists’ Association – tried to have shut down. He was the manager. “It was a different time and place back then,” says Sweeney. “We were all age 25.”
Sweeney always had an activist streak. He was at the first Human Be-In in 1967 at Kennedy airport. He was at Abbie Hoffman’s Grand Central Station Be-In when the police charged in and began beating up the crowd. (Sweeney escaped. “I wasn’t a hero,” he says.) Later that year, he was Maced by police in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, where he was protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. In the seventies, in support of the Irish republican movement, he helped organize a daily picket outside the British Embassy that lasted for ten years. He eventually became a partner at the Loft, but only after it moved to the Lower East Side. He sold out his share in 1988. “I was in my forties, and I was tired of partying,” he says.
Then, in 1990, Sweeney was living on the top floor of a Greene Street building that he owned with three other people. A Pritzker-family-owned company was planning to build a hotel in a parking lot on West Broadway between Prince and Houston – right in his backyard. “It was going to be a thirteen-story building blocking my nice westward view,” says Sweeney. “I heard the SoHo Alliance was fighting it, so I got involved.” Finally, because of the community protests and because the real-estate market collapsed, the hotel was shelved.
After that fracas, Sweeney became a stalwart supporter of Freed’s, campaigning for her in 1991 and every election since then. Now 53, he leads the Alliance, is a member of Community Board Two (a Freed appointee), and is president of the politically powerful Downtown Independent Democrats, a group indispensable to anyone seeking election to public office in the area. “And all because I didn’t want a hotel going up,” he says. Activism has become Sweeney’s full-time job, and politicians have come to realize that Sweeney is a force to be reckoned with. “Right now, I have a call in to the borough president,” he says. “I’m not going to say ‘I helped you get elected, Virginia Fields.’ But I was the downtown coordinator in ‘97 for her election campaign.”
These local activist organizations and boards are the new Democratic machines. State Senator Tom Duane and City Council members Kathryn Freed, Margarita Lopez, and Ronnie Eldridge are just a few who ran for higher office after serving on community boards – their work whetting their appetites for public service, and, perhaps, the spotlight. Jennifer Raab, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is also a board alumna. Even the city’s Planning Commission chair, Joseph Rose, was chair of Community Board Five from 1985 to 1988, spending much of his time fighting the Koch administration’s plans for the development of Columbus Circle.
“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.”
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.”