Boxcar rebellion has Avenue B bar on the defensive


By Lincoln Anderson

A NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard, battle usually refers to community residents opposing a social-service facility or special-needs housing that they don’t want as a neighbor. But a current NIMBY battle on Avenue B involves an actual backyard — and a bar.

Last month, a few neighbors held a protest rally outside that bar, Boxcar, between 10th and 11th Sts. Their ranks were swelled by antibar activists who don’t live in the neighborhood, including individuals who had coalesced to push for the closing of The Falls, the Soho bar where Imette St. Guillen was last seen in February before her murder, allegedly by a bouncer.

Wearing a nightgown and robe, Liz Glass, who lives around the corner on E. 11th St. and whose first-floor apartment’s backyard abuts Boxcar’s backyard garden, organized the rally. With her were her three young children, ages 2 through 7, whom she says are kept awake by the bar’s noise, the older two of whom toted protest signs.

“We can’t sleep anyway. It’s a pajama protest,” Glass said, with a forlorn expression.

More than a year ago, Boxcar agreed to a curfew for its backyard of 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends.

However, shortly after the bar agreed to the backyard curfew, Community Board 3 passed a resolution calling for the State Liquor Authority to close the bar’s backyard entirely. Glass, the bar’s primary critic, is asking the S.L.A. to follow through on the resolution.

Although Glass is the neighbor most affected by the noise, others say they are too.

“I moved to here to be by the beautiful park, and then I got this,” said Eden Fromberg, an OB/GYN doctor who lives on 10th St. whose rear windows face into the block’s interior. “Somehow, with the A/C on and a tape of a babbling brook playing, I can still hear them,” she said of her unsuccessful efforts to block out the bar’s noise at night.

A woman from Huntington House, a shelter for female parolees and their families on the other side of Avenue B, saw the protest and came over to briefly lend support and add her name to their petition.

“Let me sign it!” Haydee Figueroa said, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth as she grabbed the clipboard. She said she was angry “because of the bullshit in the morning — 2 a.m., 3 a.m. they come out to talk and to fight. This one is worse,” she said, gesturing at Lakeside Lounge a few doors down from Boxcar. “A lot of women can’t sleep,” she said.

But other neighbors, some of them patrons of the bar, defended it.

John Holmstrom, who edited Punk magazine from 1975-’79 and has lived in the East Village since the 1970s, was hanging out at Boxcar the Friday night of the protest, and stepped outside to see what was going on. Bars as a quality of life problem pale in the face of the neighborhood’s former problems, he said.

“I was here when there were drug dealers, prostitutes,” he said. The real issue, in his view, are underage New York University students being served in bars.

“I don’t think Boxcar’s getting a lot of the N.Y.U. students,” he said. “To me, that’s the problem. I see the vomit in the mornings. I mean these kids are underage. Giuliani cleaned up New York. Parents are sending their kids here. Now there are more bars.”

Michael Edwards, the head of Glass’s co-op, was also at Boxcar having a drink the night of the protest. He says he stops in occasionally. A 20-year neighborhood resident, he lives in the back of his building, on the third floor, overlooking Boxcar’s backyard. A onetime opponent of the bar, he’s since changed his tune.

Edwards said that back in 1999, a year after Boxcar opened, its backyard used to be open till 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and that he recalled having shouting matches with John Spingola, the bar’s manager.

“There was no curfew. I hated his guts. He was feisty,” Edwards said of Spingola. “I was very much on Liz’s team. In ’99, I was going with Liz to the community meetings. I was totally on her side.”

Spingola, who was tending bar, with a nervous laugh asked him not to rehash those old disputes.

Now, Edwards says, he’s willing to deal with the noise, at least, up until the curfew.

“I’ve got a 6-year-old,” Edwards said. Yet, he added, “I figure, I live in the East Village, I shouldn’t have a problem with noise till 11 or 12 o’clock at night.” He said while it was admittedly “hard to get to the curfew,” Boxcar has been enforcing it.

The bar had only a beer and wine bar for the first few years, but in 2003 got a full liquor license.

While Glass is calling for the closing of the backyard, Edwards said she doesn’t speak for the building.

“The board of directors of the co-op has refused to take a position on the whole issue,” he said.

Closing the backyard garden earlier definitely cut into the bar’s profits, Spingola said.

“Believe me, we lost a lot of money,” he said. “That’s 31 hours a month.” A big part of the bar’s business is the backyard, which Spingola says he doesn’t allow to be used by more than 32 people at once. Were the outdoor area to be closed, he said, the cramped bar — barely 10-feet wide inside — wouldn’t survive.

Boxcar also built a sound-barrier wall between its backyard and Glass’s backyard — Glass called in a complaint to the Department of Buildings as the bar was building it because they didn’t have a permit. Spingola says they didn’t know they needed a permit.

Standing in Glass’s backyard around 10:30 p.m. the night of the protest, a steady mumble of voices could be heard from Gnocco, a restaurant on 10th St. with a backyard dining area. Less audible was the sound from Boxcar’s backyard. Inside Glass’s apartment, with the windows closed, it was hard to hear anything from either place.

“We have no violations — no noise violations, since she started her thing,” said Spingola. “The Department of Environmental Protection was here last Thursday night and we did not get a violation. And D.E.P. doesn’t mess around.”

Spingola said they have no violations from the S.L.A. or Department of Buildings either.

One thing Spingola and Glass both agree on is that smoking is only legally allowed in 25 percent of Boxcar’s rear yard. A sign is posted telling patrons they can’t smoke at the six tables by the sound-buffer wall, which has an overhang that curves over the tables. (Spingola said it’s illegal to smoke under an overhang since this traps the smoke.) Five other tables are not under the overhang.

Asked if he realized some neighbors were concerned about the noise from the backyard, an Uptowner who was leaving the bar with his girlfriend said it had crossed their minds.

“We were actually talking about it,” he said. “ ‘We know how those people feel up there.’ We thought about it for a minute — but then we forgot about it. But on the bright side, it’s only four or five months of the year. I think you have to expect a certain level of noise.”

But Spingola and the bar’s fans say it doesn’t attract a wild crowd. Rather, Spingola and Holmstrom say, the customers are mostly a mix of writers, people in film and creative types. Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” is a regular.

True to their description, later on, after the protest, Nancy Roth, a documentary film producer and Boxcar regular, and Edwards of Glass’s co-op, who formerly worked in film, connected in a conversation about the finer points of the vanishing art of film splicing and how to properly use a camera zoom. Manager Spingola came to New York from Pennsylvania mining country to make it as a screenwriter himself. He’s pals with some members of proto-punk rockers the Dictators, one of whom helped select Boxcar’s wine list.

“It’s a nerd place,” Spingola stressed of Boxcar. “We’re writers and filmmakers.”

Audrey Peterson, 43, who edits a magazine on black history and was walking her neighbor’s dog by the protest, said she feels comfortable at Boxcar. It’s a place where, she said, she can “have a wine or two and have intelligent conversation — and read my books, not be harassed. It’s not a hoopla place.”

On the other hand, The Cock, which used to be on her corner at 12th St. and Avenue A but closed, “was a nightmare…. On a scale of 1 to 10, with The Cock being a 10, Boxcar’s like a 1,” she said.

Boxcar’s backyard crowd is younger than the crowd inside the bar, she said.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who lives nearby on 11th St., though on the other side of Avenue B, said Boxcar, on the face of it, does not appear to be a bad operator.

“The owner says he’s tried to meet with one of the complainants but she hasn’t wanted to meet — and that they have offered to install soundproof windows for her,” Mendez said. And the bar hasn’t been hit with any noise violations, Mendez said.

“If a violation has not been issued, certainly, they’re in compliance,” she said.

Mendez added that she went in to Boxcar before the protest and stayed awhile to gauge it.

“I’ve been in noisy bars,” she said. “That one was, I thought, within reasonable limits.”

The Ninth Precinct isn’t convinced that Boxcar is out of control, either. It was Deputy Inspector James McCarthy, the precinct’s former commanding officer, who suggested imposing the backyard curfew.

Deputy Inspector Dennis De Quatro, the precinct’s current commander, said that under his watch, police and Department of Buildings staff have together checked out the backyard several times and haven’t found the conditions noted by Glass.

But the community board continues to side with Glass. Alexandra Militano, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Business Committee, which makes recommendations on liquor licenses, says the board remains on record calling for Boxcar’s backyard to be closed down.

“It’s a major problem for eating and drinking establishments to use the backyards,” Militano said. “That wasn’t the use for which they were intended. It’s all over this neighborhood. Sidewalk cafes are on the sidewalk where there is already noise. But in terms of backyards and rooftops, it’s a problem.” While noting the board doesn’t have “a blanket rule,” Militano said, “I think the board, as a whole, is of the opinion that backyard use is not appropriate given the uses in the neighborhood.”

Added Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, “I think it’s an impossible situation. Liz’s kids’ bedroom is right on the backyard. Even two people talking would be loud. And the noise is enhanced because of the buildings. I’m not saying it’s loud and rowdy. I’m just saying it’s a difficult situation to have mixed commercial and residential [uses] like that. I know he has offered to install soundproof windows — but why shouldn’t her children be able to sleep with their windows open?”

Councilmember Alan Gerson is currently working on legislation to reduce noise from backyards and rooftops being used by bars and restaurants — as well as to limit light emitted from rooftop bars and restaurants.

But for now, the Boxcar standoff continues. While Glass says the fight has been draining her, Spingola said it’s had the same effect on him.

“We tried to work with her. But she refused to work with us,” he said. “She wants us gone.”