“Norm!”

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up

Sarah Laskow at Capitol New York:

LONGTIME VILLAGERS OFTEN TALK ABOUT the change in their neighborhood as synonymous with the rise of bars and restaurants that create street traffic and noise unlike that in any other neighborhood. Words and phrases like rowdy, circus atmosphere, zoo are used to describe the street scene at night. When bar owners and nightlife operators argue that the East Village has always been a nightlife destination, they respond: Yes, but. Something’s different now.

Academics have a word for what the neighborhood has become: a nightscape. Bars and restaurants were once peripheral to the main drag’s primary economic drivers: supermarkets, coffeehouses, boutique shops, record stores. But in post-industrial cities, nightlife has grown into an industry in its own right. As in any industry, shop owners tend to cluster. A century ago, that meant the creation of a Garment District. Now it means the creation of a Party District.

There are a few of them of course. You’ll hear similar complaints about the Meatpacking District, about areas of Fifth Avenue or Smith Street in Brooklyn, or the side streets of the Flatiron District. But the Party District below 14th street east of Third Avenue is the largest, the densest, and still growing. To hear the people who live further up near the Stuyvesant Town end of the East Village talk, the Party District is spreading largely north, and somewhere around the summer of 2009, it wholly enveloped the stretch of Avenue A between the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park and 14th Street.

Superdive, more than any other establishment, was the sign that the area has reached some sort of tipping point. There were already more bars in the area than there had been ever before, but none like Superdive. When Superdive opened, bright young things across the city talked about it. They also talked about keg service, the bar’s primary innovation. By calling in advance, customers could secure a keg of almost any beer imaginable: PorkS.L.A.p, Chimay, Allagash White, or any one of the hundreds of German, Czech, Belgian, or British beers on the 16-page keg menu prepared by “Kegmaster Matt.” A New York Press review noted that Superdive was “the stuff of frat-boy dreams—in a good way. We think.” Urban Daddy called it “a world of crazy—an all-out raucous, beautiful disaster of a bar.” It was rumored, briefly, that customers could pour their own well drinks.

In short order, party-seekers were lined up behind the bar’s velvet rope to get in. Positive reviews came rolling in on Yelp, and private parties booked the space, night after night. Upper Avenue A had had theme bars (one of Superdive’s predecessors at the space was Korova Milk Bar, which had a Clockwork Orange leitmotif lost on many of the patrons), and the original location of the neighborhoods most notorious gay bar, The Cock. Superdive was self-conscious, though. It promised not just beer or a dance floor, but an experience directly targeted at a crowd the East Village had perhaps hoped it hadn’t overtly been catering to: Not some group of characters out of an old Lou Reed song, so much as the group of characters you’d find on Bourbon Street, or worse, North Avenue in White Plains. There was some irony in the marketing of Superdive, but not much.

Matthew Yglesias:

Street noise is a very real issue in large swathes of Manhattan and I think it’s perfectly understandable that people prefer not to have lively nightlife scenes located directly outside their windows. So when I read Sarah Laskow’s long and excellent account of liquor license battles in the East Village, I’m not-unsympathetic to the incumbent residents’ concerns. But as she observes at the end, there’s a real cost to this attitude:

At the meeting with Kao, the locals gave him the same reason for opposing him that they had given Warren, when he wanted to open a burger bar in the space: according to the current license, the only type of business that should be selling liquor at 200 Ave. A is a bookshop. With rent set at $10,000 in the East Village Party District, that’s as unlikely as it sounds.

The broader issue, as she explains, is that cities are driven by agglomeration:

Academics have a word for what the neighborhood has become: a nightscape. Bars and restaurants were once peripheral to the main drag’s primary economic drivers: supermarkets, coffeehouses, boutique shops, record stores. But in post-industrial cities, nightlife has grown into an industry in its own right. As in any industry, shop owners tend to cluster. A century ago, that meant the creation of a Garment District. Now it means the creation of a Party District.

Basically the East Village really “wants” to be full of nightlife establishments just like Qiaotou, China wants button factories. Restricting the creation of new button factories in Qiatou will help incumbent button makers (and alleviate neighborhood concerns about factory smoot) but it’s hard to call a bar scene into existence that way. Similarly, making it hard to open a new bar in the East Village isn’t going to create a button factory. It’s going to create an underutilized space. That means somewhat more unemployment in the city, somewhat less tax revenue in the city, and thus at the margin higher tax rates and fewer social services for everyone.

Meanwhile, as a policy analyst living in a different city the right way to look at the neighborhood concerns is this. Will another bar on the block make living on that block worse? I have no reason to doubt it. But it’s not like there’s some excessive quantity of affordable housing in Manhattan. If a given block becomes less desirable to live on, that just means someone else will live there. In equilibrium, we’re looking at lower housing costs and higher employment rates.

Ryan Avent:

Matt is right that “nightlife”, like a lot of other industries, often clusters. People like to have options when they go out, and they like going where there are other people around, so watering holes that cluster together often find that they do better than they might outside of a nightlife cluster, despite the impact of increased competition within the cluster. And Matt is right to say that when you limit liquor licenses in an area, you cut off the potential gains of clustering to the consumer, you cut off the potential gains of clustering to the businesses, and you cut off the potential gains of competition to the consumer, since you effectively hand existing businesses a great deal of market power.

But I’m constantly reminded of another side of this equation whenever I’m in London. London, like cities and towns across the British Isles, is filled with pubs. They vary in type, quality, and clientele. I was very lucky this time around to find a near-perfect gastropub just a five minute walk from my flat. It was quiet and well-maintained with a great menu, and while there were always people there, there was also always a free seat. Kids were welcome during the day, as were dogs. Every time I went I thought to myself how great it would be to have such a place close by back in Washington. And every time I thought that, I immediately reminded myself that such a place, back in Washington, would be perpetually packed and fairly unpleasant. In the Washington area, you can’t have a place that’s both really good and quiet in a neighborhood-y sort of way.

That’s largely because it’s very difficult to open new bars. And the result is a pernicious feedback loop. With too few bars around, most good bars are typically crowded. This crowdedness alienates neighbors, and it also has a selecting effect on the types of people who choose to go to bars — those interested in a loud, rowdy environment, who will often tend to be loud and rowdy. This alienates neighbors even more, leading to tighter restrictions still and exacerbating the problem.

Megan McArdle:

I don’t want to push this argument too far–London has a sizeable population of obnoxious drunks, many of whom decide to get into fistfights outside their local pub.  (An editor at the Economist who had recently moved to the United States was asked how he had enjoyed his first New Year’s in New York.  “It made me quite homesick,” he replied.  “All those drunks throwing up in the subway were like a breath of London.”)

But it is true that London also has more quiet pubs New York–and New York, in turn, has more of them (outside of the East Village) than DC does.  And this does make bars and cafes noticeably more unpleasant for the neighbors, as well as the customers.  Which in turn causes residents to fight like hell to keep out any business that might attract a late-night crowd.

One possible solution is upzoning–neighborhood bars aren’t so obnoxious when you’re ten floors above them. But of course, the local residents tend to fight that as well.

Matthew Steinglass at DiA at The Economist:

I think these observations are all apt, but I’m also wondering why a comparison of pub quality in these three places would focus primarily on regulatory or economic issues rather than that diffuse and confusing beast we call culture. I can think of two reasons why people tend to write disproportionately about economic and regulatory reasons for these kinds of problems. First, they’re concrete. You can investigate the regulatory issues surrounding licensing businesses in your area pretty easily, and those rules are discrete and public and clear. Then you can analyze the expected results. Second, problems with regulatory and eocnomic origins are amenable to solution. Change the regulations and you might in principle have solved the problem, even if in this case nobody can figure out quite how to do that.

But what strikes me overwhelmingly about the difference between bars/pubs in London, New York and Washington is that these three cities have completely different nightlife cultures. Those cultures are irreducible to the regulatory environment or to economic behaviour. The regulatory environment in London doesn’t do much to explain why, when you walk through Southwark on a winter’s evening at 6:30pm with the thermometer tipping 0 degrees centigrade, you see crowds of men and women in long dark coats standing on the sidewalk sipping pints of bitter. It doesn’t explain the fact that up until 1990 there basically wasn’t a decent atmospheric bar with good food in Washington, DC, or not one that would be recognised as such by someone from New York or London. It doesn’t explain the fact that even though breweries are allowed to own pubs in England, and are prevented from doing so in America, most pubs in London that are bought up by breweries or conglomerates have retained their individual characters and atmospheres, while in America they would almost certainly be swept under by company-wide branding campaigns. It doesn’t even explain why bars in Washington have gotten so much better over the past 15 years that when I go back, I barely recognise the place.

Andrew Sullivan

McArdle responds to Steinglass:

One can argue about whether our posts should reflect more on culture, but I can tell you why they do focus on regulatory issues:  we all live in DC.  And in DC, regulatory decisions are very clearly driving what the bar culture looks like.

The gentrification boom in DC has hit up against a limited supply of bars–and neighborhood commissions that are very resistant to quickly opening more of them.  The result is that no bar stays un-crowded for long; if it’s any good at all, it’s soon overwhelmed with a tidal wave of people fleeing the standing-room-only crowds at all the other bars.  The bars aren’t like this because most people in DC want to spend their Friday nights packed like cheap sardines; the bars are like this because there are so few of them in the areas where people under 35 live, that the only people who can bear to be in them are the people who will tolerate any conditions, including those of veal calves, if only they can endure them while holding a drink.
This is a new development in the areas of DC where, as it happens, Matthew Yglesias, Ryan Avent and I, all like to go out of an evening.  When I moved to DC a scant three and a half years ago, there were enough bars where you could enjoy a Thursday night seated in the company of friends. Then came January 2009, when I held a birthday get-together at a previously local place on 11th street.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much getting together; more than half the people were turned away because of overcrowding.  Several bars had been shut down in Adams Morgan because the weren’t serving enough food to comply with their tavern licenses; the result was that Adams Morgan relocated to U Street.
Since then, this pattern has been repeated over and over; any bar that opens is pleasant for a month or so, then completely, miserably jammed.
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