Everyone say the serenity prayer with me.

I briefly considered writing an entire post about the SLA (State Liquor Authority) as if I had it confused with the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army). But that would prove technically complex, and likely not worth the payoff. Plus, the only thing I know about the SLA (the latter) is what I gleaned from Doonesbury collections about the Patty Hearst trial (in point of fact, only one panel that I recall, which was a joke that the defense attorney made the entire jury get in a closet so they could empathize with Hearst’s brainwashing, a joke that wouldn’t play as well since the SLA [the former] is only three members, who might actually fit comfortably in a closet, even if that visual accurately reflects what most bar owners would like to do them). So I’m using the ‘this is the joke I would have made’ gambit instead.

Whew, that was exciting. Maybe a little more than an actual SLA meeting (or reading a recap thereof), but not much. Since you aren’t obliged to read community newspapers or food blogs, what then is the big deal about the SLA? Well, they are currently in the hot seat of a strange nexus of competing interests that comprise the nebulous boundaries of ‘community’ in Manhattan neighborhoods.
Simply put, the SLA is the make or break hurdle for anyone who wants to sell alcohol. There are over a hundred types of licenses (covering retailers and wholesalers as well), but the general breakdown is for bars and restaurants, and full liquor (spirits) and beer/wine. I won’t claim to be an expert, so I can’t say for certain how restrictions apply (operating times, etc.) — either though rules or on a case-by-case basis, though it seems to be the latter.

Buying established properties is the safest bet for business owners. Leases aren’t granted conditionally, so signing a ten year lease and then spending three years (Boxcar on Avenue B) getting a full license can be a scary business proposition. And finding out the space downstairs that was supposed to be a restaurant but ends up morphing into Le Souk makes for anxious tenants and apartment owners.

Because suspension of a license or refusal to grant can drastically change the character of a place, the SLA has an outsized footprint in a process that also includes Community Board review as well as some city licensing, namely cabaret and sidewalk dining, all of it compounded by the imposition of the smoking ban. Zum Schneider, on Avenue C was embroiled in a particularly bruising court case (and the owner proved himself to be quite the modest victor), much of which stemmed from noise and congestion due to sidewalk seating.

In effect, the argument is about licensing taste. No one wants to be the cranky neighbor yelling at kids, but it’s also not unreasonable to make it through a weekend without someone puking on your stoop. The competing interests implicitly argue over whom gets to define the culture of a place. And like all New York turf arguments, people inflate the significance of precedent and persistence, not to mention the inevitable superiority of their own opinion.

The tropes are pretty tired: stroller-constrained aging hipsters who forget how to they used to party, tasteless interlopers who don’t respect community standards, indifferent policing, mercurial community boards and malicious bar owners trying to siphon the last dollar from that drunk braying loudly at harried cab drivers. Everyone accusing everyone else of not knowing how to have fun. Given the tenor of all these conversations, that may very well be true.

Pretty broad generalizations carry some legitimate weight. Problem locations tend to draw disproportionate numbers of non-local patrons, and owners with sketchy reputations oversee venues with sketchy manners. It would be hard to strictly define causation, but put a rope outside your door and trouble starts. There are plenty of examples proprietors who manage the most refined exclusivity through entirely different means (and still manage to have a hard time navigating the shoals of the SLA), and others who deal with large sidewalk crowds without the concomitant mayhem some residents would have you believe is inevitable. And simply telling everyone to not be an asshole pretty much counters every extant notion of New York culture.

The chicken-egg aspect of individual cases make it hard to argue for substantial overhaul. Death & Co. has proved to be an exceptional neighbor, and EU has even gotten approval for sidewalk seating. In both cases, you could argue they got the screws applied because Le Souk continues to be a zoo. That might be true, but you could also argue that effective regulation produced its intended result. The continuing troubles of Death & Co with licensing seem to stem from a disregard for, or misunderstanding, of the rules. EU suffered plenty of kitchen turnover, which took the wind out of the sails more than a little (though that turnover may have been directly the result of fears of financial viability). The latest effort from the AvroKO team (which designed EU), Double Crown, certainly skirted on the edge of officious neighbor the night I was there, so the fears of the residents on Fourth Street may be vindicated on that point.

Aside from Le Souk, which, until it closes, will be everything that is wrong with New York nightlife, the latest scourge is The Box, located on Chrystie Street, and is beset by everything from angry neighbors, a obstinate SLA and rather dramatic charges from former employees. The politics here are a little trickier, since by any measure, everything The Box is known for is exactly what it wants to be known for, alluding to various golden eras of New York, from vaudeville to Studio 54. Catering to a celebrity crowd underwritten by suckers ($1,000 plus two bottles for a six-top reservation on a Saturday), you can’t really blame the business model, only lament when someone suggests going there under such terms. The neighbors who are raising a fuss have their own cred: pioneers dating back into the early nineties on a stretch of street that still isn’t that apartment-friendly.

You could ask for a little more discretion on the part of the bouncers and managers, but keeping a lid on things via obscurity is no longer an option in the Internet (and Dodgeball) era. People went to Save the Robots if they knew where it was and if they were willing to brave the trip. Now, people will pile into a car service (themselves becoming bad neighbors) to the most remote parts of Ridgewood and Bushwick on a tip from a blog.

What’s tiresome is the repetition of the lobbying: nightlife is dead or living in the city is untenable, even though statistics on both fronts fail (more parents are staying put, and bars grow like mushrooms). Zoning as it pertains to dancing and the cabaret laws need to be reformed. The interconnection between the Community Boards and the SLA doesn’t seem as dysfunctional. The city finally has a local board member on the SLA, but if one constituency benefits disproportionately remains to be seen. We need drinking to be able to talk to strangers and we need to have something to talk about when we are drinking, so maybe it’s just the cycle of (night) life repeating itself.

These are not minor concerns. Given that drinking appears to be the go to refuge in times both good and bad with the economy (thankfully the swings are so dramatic we can justify nightly binges), we don’t want to imperil what will be the last viable sector of our local economy. And now, it’s time for a drink.

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