Good guys getting bounced by liquor license politics
BY CLAYTON PATTERSON | Manhattan is a small island. Starting in the early 1980s the Lower East Side began to be discovered as valuable property. We witnessed the start of the real estate boom. Property was bought and sold, buildings were being flipped. Property taxes were going up and the increases in commercial rent tax started to equal the price of rent. The amount of rent tenants were paying was not keeping pace with the costs connected to making a good-sized profit from the property. Landlords started using every means possible, legal or illegal, to evict long term tenants.
The power behind the money and the selling off of the community — the section I live in between Houston and Delancey Sts. — seemed to be based on the idea of making it a playground for youth with money. Much to my surprise, at a meeting in 1998, Captain Cooper of the Seventh Precinct, called our area an entertainment zone. Now I know he did not make that term up. How to attract the young as well as make a lot of money? Bars.
So, next came the bars. It seemed anyone could open a bar. The laws, the rules, the regulations that governed who could own a bar and where a bar could be located were all thrown out the window. There were many heroic, intelligent, attempts to limit the number of full liquor licenses for all these new establishments, as well as licenses for beer and wine. Nothing worked. This was going to be a playground for the youth with money, tourists, students, yuppies, mostly people from outside the community.
O.K. already. We are an entertainment zone. I get it. I have to adjust or leave. I decided to stay. But what baffles me is how the licenses are handed out. There’s no question that a new business can still get a full liquor license. But how do the politicians decide who gets and who does not? Very few of the new operators grew up in the community or live here. So why can’t Orlando Rodriguez, Javier Rodriguez and Enrique Cruz get a full liquor license?
These three Hispanic men grew up on Suffolk St. While most of the kids they grew up with ended up hanging on the street, dealing drugs, dying young or going to jail, these three were stay-at-home kids with strict parents. In my part of the Lower East Side there are not many success stories. I have known Orlando and his brother as neighbors, because they own and operate E&S Wholesome, the deli next door to where I live. No question — they’re honest and good people. (See The Villager’s May 28, 2008, article, “L.E.S. success story: Bodegas to Wholesome Foods market.”)
Orlando started working at the age of 14 at Economy Candy, putting in three years there. His brother Ralph owned Ralph’s bodega. When Orlando turned 17 he starting working in the bodega and did that for seven years. Next, he bought his own bodega on Madison St. As the neighborhood changed, Orlando was able to make the transition — he changed with it. He now owns a couple of small stores that cater more to the new world than the old one. He is an L.E.S. success story, as are Javier and Enrique.
For his next business venture, Orlando, in partnership with Enrique and Javier, wants to open a restaurant on Rivington St. between Ludlow and Essex. I am familiar with the building. I asked him why he wants this particular space. The building is a wreck. The last business I remember being there was a house of prostitution. Orlando explained he got a long lease and is willing to do whatever amount of reconstruction it takes to bring the building up to code, and has done all the necessary legal work to allow this.
I have been around this liquor license tomfoolery now for a couple of decades. In the beginning, I, along with a small group of others from my area, fought against the liquor invasion. It became obvious that we were fighting a losing battle. I know that getting a liquor license is tied to community politics. Even recently, I have been surprised as to who gets and who does not get.
But these three guys are local. They are from the hood. They spend their money where they live, and have invested in this community. They are opening a restaurant not a bar. I have never witnessed any kind of stupidity in or around their deli, which is, again, my next-door neighbor.
Over the years I have photographed thousands of people from my area. I am always shocked — when going through the photos with other community people — to see who ended up where. Believe me, these guys are the rare exception to the rule. I can think of some off-the-record reasons, which I will not mention, although it is a part of local politics, why they have been rejected. It’s a sorry state of affairs is all I can say.