BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | Once upon a time, the bakery Once Upon a Tart was an endearing storefront to the residents of Sullivan St. in Soho, serving its delicacies in peace and quiet. But when its owner, Jerome Audureau, sold his business to new managers who were eyeing a liquor license, the relationship of the cafe to the block changed. Two years later, with noisy and illegal parties across the street confirming some residents’ worst fears, a manager is under increasing scrutiny from the community.
Michael Stern is the new owner of the former tart shop space. He has been subletting a basement across the street, 138 Sullivan St., to an art company called Superchief Gallery, which is partnered with The Hub, an events-producing group.
Masquerading as an art gallery in space zoned for retail use, Superchief Gallery has been hosting weekly parties that feature dancing and live music since early January. Its grand opening on Jan. 2, advertised on its Web site, reportedly drew hundreds of people.
“We got completely blown out on that one,” Christopher Bleuze-Carolan, founder of The Hub, said.
Many had wondered if Stern, all along, had intended to create a party space at Once Upon a Tart, under the pretext of wanting to “keep it open.” Among them was Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, a local activist organization that responds to community quality-of-life issues.
“This gives us, if not concerns about his existing liquor license at Once Upon a Tart, at least justification for our fears that he did intend to create a party atmosphere on Sullivan St., and he wasn’t just taking over a simple little French pastry shop,” Sweeney said.
A brochure for Superchief Gallery says, “Thanks to a generous grant from Mike Stern, The Hub was founded by Christopher Bleuze-Carolan.” Bleuze-Carolan is a former Once Upon a Tart employee who has since been fired, according to Stern, for “outbursts” inside the tart shop regarding the joint venture across the street.
According to Bleuze-Carolan, his original plan was a “video-game lounge,” but Stern quickly “forced” him to turn the operation into an event space. In response, Bleuze-Carolan brought Edward Zipco, an event organizer from Superchief Gallery, into the picture. Stern, meanwhile, reportedly decided he did not like the new direction the business was taking.
According to Bleuze-Carolan, there is an amount of money, which he said is more than $17,000, sunk into a lease agreement with Stern that was never signed by the building’s landlord. There have been repeated calls to vacate from both Stern and the landlord. This has left The Hub and Superchief Gallery trapped in legal limbo, he said.
For Zipco, these legal troubles are nothing new. His eclectic experimental art group was also kicked out of a Brooklyn space in 2013 for similar noise complaints. This bit of history was mentioned on the group’s event page for Superchief Gallery’s grand opening in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on the art news site flavorpill.com.
Zipco was unavailable for comment, saying he could not talk until he gets back in town.
Stern denies supporting Superchief Gallery’s actions after his landlord rejected the lease contract. After breaking even, Stern withdrew himself from the business partnership, and made it clear that he would like to see them leave. He also contends that, “renting the space for events was a joint decision intended to be a temporary source of income.”
Though Stern thinks “their hearts are in the right place,” he does not believe the raucous events hosted below the apartment he rents in the same building are fitting for Sullivan St.
“They’re just sort of squatting there without any kind of rights,” Stern said. “I have two attorneys, and they want a minimum $5,000 retainer to get involved. We don’t have that kind of money.”
Stern also expressed frustration that the 138 Sullivan St. co-op board and the residents on the rest of the block are all blaming him for the situation.
“I literally saw Michael Stern come out of there yesterday,” said a concerned neighbor who wished to remain anonymous. “He doesn’t take responsibility for the mess he made, and I believe he actually quite likes the mess he made.”
“I have nothing to do with those guys,” Stern responded. “I want them out as badly as everybody else does.”
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the lack of legal action against them, the gallery is using the tacit “carte blanche” to continue to host private parties, despite having no lease.
In an e-mail to the neighborhood watchdog group South Village Neighbors, which was forwarded to The Villager, the above anonymous source described witnessing multiple instances of public urination on the staircase of the American Legion near the 138 Sullivan St. party space, lines of people waiting to enter the crowded basement, and hearing loud music while passing by. The parties also are reportedly havens for drug use, as documented by the organizer’s Instagram accounts, multiple neighbors and Stern.
From the Instagram account @superchiefgallery, one can see videos and photos of huge parties hosted at the small Soho venue, with the crowd stretching from the basement where the DJ played out to the street, where lines of partygoers awaited entry.
In addition, the basement — which is actually a subbasement, two floors below street level — does not meet city regulations regarding fire safety. There is no secondary means of egress, as in no fire escape — meaning any gatherings that take place there are potential firetraps.
On March 27, the building was slapped with a “peremptory vacate order” for the space by the Department of Buildings, which is still in effect, according to the D.O.B Web site. Posted on the building’s facade, but later moved to outside the subbasement, the vacate notice states the reason for the order: “Cellar has been converted into a theatre with inadequate light, insufficient ventilation, and no secondary means of egress. These hazardous conditions have therefore rendered the CELLAR unsafe to occupy.”
“Not having a basement basically makes the space useless to people who want to run events,” Bleuze-Carolan said in an interview with The Villager.
Bleuze-Carolan further claimed that he acts as a sort of security guard to keep events from getting “out-of-hand.” According to him, however, the subbasement currently is only being used for storage.
However, an anonymous source provided fliers with May dates that advertise the subbasement for events.
Bleuze-Carolan also claimed that their legal troubles have become so murky that he and his associates at The Hub once believed they were trapped in the gallery due to an issue where they would have been “breaking and entering” by exiting the building from the lower basement. He expressed regret that Stern’s landlord and the neighborhood are not happy with his activity, but added that he did not start The Hub to host events.
“What I’m doing is trying to create a community of creators that don’t have to get pushed out to Bushwick,” Bleuze-Carolan maintained.
When asked about the legality of their parties, Bleuze-Carolan characterized them as nonalcoholic events that are an extension of Superchief Gallery’s art exhibitions.
Multiple sources have confirmed that alcohol has been seen just outside the venue during these happenings.
“What I saw was people drinking out of glasses: It certainly did not look like a ‘bring your own beer’ event,” Micki McGee of South Village Neighbors said. “It looked like they were pouring.”
“What makes this such a nice place to live is that it’s charming. It’s quiet,” McGee said. “A place like The Hub is creating a party space, and it’s very loud, and it’s not O.K.”
Sweeney noted that, when he was younger, he worked at a similar venue in Soho, The Loft, which the Soho Alliance actually opposed in the 1970s on the grounds that it would “cause more nightclubs to come in.”
“It’s an old ploy to call a space an art gallery in Soho, and then claim, ‘Oh, we’re just having cocktail receptions or artistic exhibitions with dancing,’” Sweeney added. “We’ve moved on from that. Soho is no longer a neighborhood of art galleries anymore, nor is it a neighborhood for nightclubs.”
Superchief Gallery is planning more parties in the coming months. Given its operators’ plans, as of now, the Sullivan St. residents trying to restore the peace of their block will not be happy. While its operators hope to keep The Hub alive and eventually would like to take over the space, its future remains uncertain even to its owners.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article said that the former Once Upon a Tart space had become Navy restaurant. However, Navy is located next door to the former tart shop space. In addition, the article stated that The Hub space is zoned for art gallery use, when, in fact, it is zoned for retail use. Also, the article referred to Sean Sweeney as “the self-described ‘caretaker of Soho.’ ” According to Sweeney, what he actually did say was that he was the “director of the Soho Alliance — the caretaker of Soho’s zoning,” meaning the alliance is the “caretaker” and not him.