On Sunday, W42ST was tagged in a social media post alleging homophobia had blocked the license application of a gay bar in Hell's Kitchen. We've spent the last few days investigating the claim, through the public records of Community Board 4 and conversations with many of those involved.
Lansdowne Road was a busy sports bar (until COVID closed it down permanently in March). Michael and Patrick McNamee, brothers who run bars like the Mean Fiddler and Dutch Fred's, saw it as an opportunity and applied to the Community Board for a new license. Their new place would be "a warm and inviting bar and tavern offering, with a robust and sophisticated food menu" as well as jazz brunches on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and late night bites. Their application went through the license committee with a 4am close with no issue, and was approved by the Community Board in May with no dissent. But then the deal fell through — the space was vacant again.
Meanwhile, Ted Arenas and his partner John Blair from Rise Bar on 9th Avenue had made a license application next door (Lansdowne is 599 10th Avenue, the place they applied for was an empty retail unit at 601). Their application was rejected because of the change of use from retail and were advised by the Community Board to find a location to takeover that was currently zoned as a bar.
This seemed like the perfect opportunity. Two problems solved. The old Lansdowne Road site would not stay vacant, and the Rise owners would be able to create their new bar, The Spot. It didn't work out that way.
"If they just had that history, I would not have voted in favor, but they have a different history with their current bar.”
The Spot faced several layers of opposition. The first was that Ted and John had run bar and club spaces in Hell's Kitchen before at Bartini (on 10th Avenue) and XL (on 42nd Street at the OUT Hotel). They'd run into problems with residents and the Community Board on both. Their venture, Rise on 10th Avenue, had a rocky start (some, like landlord renovations, not under their control). However, Rise has become a success with customers and neighbors. Burt Lazarin co-chair of the Community Board's licensing committee said: “I think that track record from those first two places was horrible. The current operation that Ted is involved with at Rise has had very little conflict. They have had a new security team for the last year or so. Yes, they had issues 10 years ago, eight years ago, five years back. If they just had that history, I would not have voted in favor, but they have a different history with their current bar.”
Two weeks ago, Ted made The Spot application to the Business Licenses and Permits Committee. There were many arguments for and against the granting of the license from neighbors, local interest groups and committee members. After much deliberation and modification of opening hours and timings for last live performance, the application was approved by 8 of the 11 committee members present. Success!
As with the previous application, this had to be ratified by the Full Community Board. They had approved the previous McNamee application 47-0.
What went on in the week between the committee and the full board, we will never fully know. But this is what we have discovered.
"I’m not sure why a bar that hosts live games is ok, but a gay bar that hosts drag artists is not.”
At the meeting last week, there was a long list of public speakers wanting to express their opinion. There was much passion and argument for and against The Spot.
“Drag queens are basically just comedians in a wig. Are drag queens going to cause more noise than football games as entertainment?” said Bruce MacAffer, who lives next door to the Lansdowne Road location and is a former CB4 member. “I’m not sure why a bar that hosts live games is ok, but a gay bar that hosts drag artists is not.”
When it came to voting on approving the committee's recommendation for The Spot, Board member Christine Berthet said that despite 800 petitioning in favor of The Spot (including more than 130 from Manhattan Plaza) the opposition from Manhattan Plaza, delivered by their Tenants Association, meant that over 3,000 local people opposed The Spot, adding up to 80% of the population in our district is not in favor of the bar in that location.
The Board decided 26-19 to reject the recommendation for The Spot from their own committee.
So why did a gay bar get rejected, and a straight bar get waved through without issue? There is obviously the issue of Ted and John's previous enterprises, but the committee took that into account when reaching their decision. What was the role of Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association?
Manhattan Plaza has 3,500 tenants and 1,600 apartments. It spans a full city block from 9th to 10th Avenue and 42nd to 43rd Street. It's an anchor to the diverse and artistic Hell's Kitchen community. Household names from Larry David to Alicia Keys have been residents.
Their Tenants Association is active and lead by President Aleta LaFargue and Vice President Adrienne Ford. They attended and spoke against the application for The Spot, but made no objection to the previous "straight"bar.
"Since Lansdowne procured their liquor license in 2006, we have gained two schools. One is on the same block as Lansdowne and the other is just around the corner, an elementary school that has more than doubled in size over the last few years."
Aleta told CB4 that the “residents have directed me to speak for them against the proposal. The owners have shown an inability to control their patrons as they wait to enter, or when they come out to smoke at the previous establishment. They had to send people from outside of the neighborhood to gather petitions from our tenants. If it looks like a nightclub, it's a nightclub. We are not confident that we would be able to maintain the tone of the block.”
Vice President, Adrienne Ford, had told the licensing committee: “Since Lansdowne procured their liquor license in 2006, we have gained two schools. One is on the same block as Lansdowne and the other is just around the corner, an elementary school that has more than doubled in size over the last few years. Then just two blocks away we have a Success Academy. The neighborhood has vastly changed since Lansdowne had their liquor license initially. So I think it should be strongly considered what the demographics of our neighborhood are like now when granting liquor licenses for establishments, such as these. Also, COVID parties. The thought of it just makes me nervous. We live in an incredibly elderly community. I think just about 60% of our population is over the age of 60. I'm not sure that everybody would be really excited about COVID parties.”
We spoke to Daniel Kelley, also known as drag queen Paige Turner. Daniel has lived in Hell’s Kitchen since 1996 and has been a resident of Manhattan Plaza since 2006. “I always wanted to live in Manhattan Plaza and am grateful to be in such a diverse building that is extremely gay friendly, and filled with many gay artists and transgender tenants and all different people from all different walks of life and ethnicities,” he told us. “When I went to the Tenants Association meeting in January to discuss The Spot application, my body kind of froze. I was shocked because I haven't felt this way in so many years.
“There were these outworn stereotypes about gay men. When you start to mention things like nearby schools or people smoking and drag queens, to me that is code for an underlying homophobia and that 'we don't want your kind'. If they have a problem with the owners and don't think they're good business owners, I respect that. But when you start using the other language, that's something completely different.
“Do the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association make the decision for this whole neighborhood? No. That's not the voice of everyone.”
We spoke to Aleta about how the talk of schools and other references had been seen as code for homophobia.
“I'm sure, you know, the history of Manhattan Plaza. The idea that there's a shred of homophobia coming from me or a piece of brick in this building is so far beyond the scope of my imagination” she added: “To say I'm homophobic. It's the most disgusting thing I've ever experienced.”
She decided not to react to the accusations on social media (our initial reference point to this issue). “I’m a disabled black single mother. I know this is all just a distraction from all the actual work that I'm doing within my community every single day.”
When asked about why the tenants had objected because of schools to The Spot application, but not the “straight” bar application in May, Aleta said: “You're the first person who's told me that there was another application for the liquor license. I never even heard about that. I understand how that sounds terrible now.
“I am here serving such a diverse community of people from the elderly down to the five-year-olds and everything in between. You can be a single issue person, but that's not what makes the community.
“The truth is we would welcome any gay establishment that is not a nightclub. A gay ice cream parlor, a queer coffee shop, a clothing store run by queens would be amazing!! Give us a Housing Works!!!! The bottom line is we want diversity in establishments and are saddened that all that seems to survive are bars. This is the conversation I would love to engage in.”
Ted Arenas told us: "I think it's really horrible that during a pandemic when businesses are closing left and right, people put their personal opinions of what type of bar that they would want to go to, over a business that would provide jobs to the community."
The Spot team are determined to continue their fight. "I'm going to speak out and not let any organizations suppress the community voice, to push their own agenda. I am going to fight to shed light on the suppression of the LGBTQ voice that is going on in these organizations. It is not acceptable,” Ted told us. “In terms of The Spot, I'm not sure what the future holds. There are so many moving pieces. However, if I do move forward to the State Liquor Authority, it will be with the support of the community and the tenants of Manhattan Plaza that were ignored.”
This all comes at a time when the shuttered Lansdowne Road is surrounded by locked store fronts and occupied by a new homeless population. Add to that the closure of gay bars like Therapy and 9th Avenue Saloon.
Lowell Kern, the Chairperson of Manhattan Community Board 4 responded to our article.
"It is completely outrageous and ridiculous to assert that Manhattan Community Board 4 is homophobic in any way."
"Typically things come out of the BLP committee unanimously. To have three votes against, including one of the co-chairs, is not typical. I think that split at committee was reflected in the full Board’s consideration of the application."
"I don't believe that the full Board based its decision on the presentation of the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association. Every SLA application we review has many people speaking both for and against the application. It is my sense that this vote came down to this operator already having three strikes against him."