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There Flows the Neighborhood: Follow the Booze to the Next Big Block

From our latest print issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing

One cool evening this fall, I stopped for a quick drink in my neighborhood. The bar I happened into, Custom American Wine Bar, is about as New Brooklyn as it gets: sleek lines, warm wood, niche bourbons, and a crowd both tattooed and understatedly but expensively dressed. Custom is nice, but not unusual. There are plenty of similar spots in postindustrial Williamsburg. The neighborhood was famously hipsterfied more than a decade ago by hordes of 20-somethings who came for cheap housing, access to Manhattan, and an appealing nightlife that soon became practically the area’s claim to fame. The cake seemed baked.

So I was surprised to learn that Custom had faced a protracted battle in 2009 when its owners applied for a liquor license. Longtime neighborhood residents showed up in force at the hearing; the bar would spur drunken nuisances, they argued, even “gang violence.” The neighborhood, despite being a hotbed of New York Times trend pieces, isn’t entirely without gangs. Still, it’s fairly clear that an establishment hoping to sell wine by the $12 glass would probably push away, not draw in, such a crowd. The neighbors were reacting, rather, to what Custom American Wine Bar represents: a critical mass of watering holes catering to the young people cycling in and out of Williamsburg nowadays. They had finally, fully taken over.

“It’s nothing personal to the people running this business, but the neighborhood is nearly saturated with bars,” Williamsburg resident Dennis Thompkins told the Community Board at the hearing. “The area is becoming unlivable. What we need are businesses that serve our community, not a transient community.”

In a way, liquor is the lifeblood of the modern urban neighborhood. Where it flows, growth often seems to follow. Upscale bars can be a sign of change—as they are in a neighborhood like mine—or they can drive change, as they do in places just starting to transform. In some cities, such as Detroit, people are even hopeful that well-placed watering holes can be a tool to reverse-engineer neighborhood revitalization—if you build it, the young will come. And as more 20-somethings embrace city living across the country, bars and restaurants have become, perhaps, what the church or country club are to the suburban lifestyle: tangible evidence of a vibrant community.

They’re also tangible evidence of gentrification. That’s a loaded word, of course; the people who study the phenomenon often prefer “neighborhood change.” But that term’s a little vague, and in spite of the sometimes-negative connotations, gentrification remains the easiest shorthand for describing the specific sort of transformation I’m talking about. No matter what you call it, though, the process by which neighborhoods evolve remains complicated. It’s messy. And as battles like the one over Custom American Wine Bar show, liquor licenses are often a proxy for understanding how and why a place develops as it does.

* * *

Lately, when I need a break from Williamsburg, I’ve being going with friends to a bar on the border of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, an area of Brooklyn that sociologists who study this sort of thing would refer to as a “frontier.” There are plenty of young professional types who have moved in over the past couple of years, but the bar, Franklin Park, is also a few blocks from a much-publicized shooting at the end of the summer. The place is very much in transition. I like Franklin Park as much or more than any spot in my neighborhood, which in itself isn’t a reason to move (unless, perhaps, you are far more of a committed barfly than I). But as I’ve trekked there more and more, I’ve started to notice how much more elegant the dilapidated brownstones are than their vinyl-sided Williamsburg counterparts. I’ve gone home and checked prices on Craigslist, salivating at the larger spaces and lower rents. I feel a little more comfortable every time I walk from the subway—and though I’m a little ashamed to admit it, the fact that I pass a warmly lit wine shop alongside boarded-up bodegas and dollar stores is part of that comfortable feeling. When my lease runs out, I’ll think very seriously about moving to Crown Heights.

My progression is a fairly typical one. In urban-planning circles, the theory goes that people who come to a bar for the night might decide they’d like to stick around; the bar makes them feel like they know the area, like they’d have plenty of things to do if they moved. Booze, when it comes to neighborhood change as well as personal interactions, is a social lubricant. It hastens developments that were already underway.

That’s easy to forget when you look at a place like Williamsburg, where residents are taking to Community Board meetings to fight for the neighborhood equivalent of a cold shower. For the most part, people want upscale bars to move into their less-than-upscale neighborhoods, at least in the beginning. First of all, bars stay open late, making streets that would have otherwise been been dark and abandoned less vulnerable to crime. A new bar also brings foot traffic to the neighborhood, spurring both short-term business and long-term development. And when people have better options for where to drink, less-desirable booze peddlers—the seedy liquor store on the corner, say—are more likely to close. Wine shops and wine bars are a classic sign of gentrification (and here, you’re probably allowed to sneer at the term a little bit). Merlot might not be the edgiest drink order, but if it’s readily available, the neighborhood is on the cutting edge of change.

While neighborhood transformation often starts on the residential side, commercial development is key to it lasting. A wine or cocktail bar that stays in business sends a certain economic signal, says Jenny Schuetz of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “Those places are hitting a fairly high price point,” she says. “They need someone with a fair amount of disposable income, so it’s a sign that [the bar] is either drawing people in from outside the neighborhood, or that the people who live there have a fairly high purchasing power.” When other businesses, like boutiques or coffee shops, see that, they become more willing to bet on the neighborhood. And, of course, more amenities attract more interest from potential residents—if all goes well, the neighborhood has locked itself into a positive reinforcement cycle.

“Liquor has been classed in a way that is very visible,” says Winifred Curran, an urban geographer at DePaul who has studied Williamsburg’s gentrification. And booze is not only an issue of social status; often, race can bring battles over liquor licenses to a boiling point more quickly. That’s perhaps one reason why Williamsburg and neighboring Greenpoint, both home to blue-collar ethnic whites, were slower to react against the hipster colonizers: The change was less apparent at first glance. It’s also why the expanding nightlife in East Austin, historically a minority neighborhood and increasingly home to the young arty set’s favorite bars, has experienced a certain amount of pushback from longtime residents.

* * *

The most basic reason that liquor licenses are such a lightning rod for worry over neighborhood change? They can be fought. In many cities, neighbors have more input and legal recourse once booze is involved, so any rage they might have felt over the fancy gelato place has to be channeled toward the wine bar. The specifics of the laws vary from state to state; in New York, for instance, the 500-foot rule grants community boards more of a say if there are a certain number of bars clustered within 500 feet of one another. In parts of Los Angeles, establishments first get a “conditional-use permit,” after which they must notify neighbors by mail to get approval.

But perhaps nowhere is the community more involved than in the District of Columbia, where Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) wield a hefty amount of control over the issuing of licenses.

Sheldon Scott owns a stake in the restaurant group behind U Street’s Marvin and American Ice Co., among other establishments. Marvin (named for Mr. Gaye) was an instant hit in the neighborhood, which over the past few years has experienced rapid development.

While Scott has never failed to get a liquor license for one of his ventures, he’s had to jump through a number of hoops. Others haven’t been so agile: Scott has friends who were unable to obtain ANC approval and had to scrap their business plans.

“Every liquor license we’ve ever had was protested to the point where we had to enter a voluntary agreement, above and beyond the written law, around matters of ‘peace, order, and parking,’ which are the three things neighbors tend to protest,” he says. Knowing where neighbors are likely to fight liquor license applications, and to what degree, is also crucial to his group’s success. “Down one block even, it’s a completely different neighborhood, more hostile to businesses and used to a lot less traffic,” he says. Scott has been around D.C. long enough to know that a particular ANC might not, for instance, let a bar construct a roof deck—crucial for drumming up business in an era where indoor smoking is banned at bars.

Scott is sympathetic to neighbors’ concerns. He serves as an ANC commissioner himself in a nearby neighborhood, Columbia Heights, which is also in the midst of a dramatic socioeconomic shift. “One thing you always hear is that ‘we don’t want this to become the next Adams Morgan,’” he says, referring to the bar-heavy strip as a sort of Vegas on the Potomac. “That’s a neighborhood that is more invested in serving people outside the neighborhood than the people who live there.” Scott suspects that one reason U Street residents haven’t pushed back is that the neighborhood’s change has been less by bars than by restaurants, albeit ones that serve alcohol up to last call. The mix feels more like a place that’s geared to residents, both longtime ones and newcomers. If others take the Metro in to visit, well, that’s just the cherry on top.

It’s easy to assume that a neighborhood dependent on bars for growth would stay young. People might move to such a place in their 20s and live with roommates before settling down elsewhere to start a family. But that’s not the case. Even in Williamsburg, where the unappealing housing stock makes a certain amount of transience and turnover inevitable, some of the first wave have decided to stick around and raise kids. U Street appears to be headed for a mature sort of neighborhood change, as well. Where there’s a parenting Listserv, there are people in it for the long run—and U Street Tots has been active for more than five years.

The potential for such a change is part of the reason Scott and his partners decided to open their most recent establishment in Petworth, a neighborhood less far along the road to revitalization. But Scott knew there was opportunity when he saw “cranes in the sky.” There are blighted buildings to be turned into restaurants for cheap, sure, but there are also plenty of single-family homes. People can move to Petworth planning to stay. Plus, the neighborhood is still in the stage where both new and old neighbors are excited to see more commercial enterprise and more amenities arrive.

* * *

So liquor can help along a neighborhood that’s already changing, but can it keep one afloat that’s teetering on the edge, or even turn it around? Can gentrification be manufactured in a cocktail shaker? That’s the question being tested in a pair of Rust Belt cities.

Downtown Cleveland has been on the decline since the 1970s as the city’s core manufacturing industries dried up and major corporations left town. In response, the city made a big bet on entertainment, and liquor, as a way to lure people from the suburbs. Cleveland’s sports arenas were the centerpiece of a 1990s-era push for a renaissance. And in recent years, the city and various civic organizations have poured money into developing downtown’s East Fourth Street corridor as a nightlife destination, adding bars and restaurants in hopes of re-creating the pattern sociologists see in places like Crown Heights: 20- and 30-somethings come for a meal or drink, enjoy themselves, and begin to see the neighborhood as a viable place to live. Getting them to buy a condo is the goal, but booze is the bait.

Just outside downtown, though, in a neighborhood called Ohio City, liquor has been luring new residents for more than two decades. It’s been a slow, organic shift from hardscrabble, factory-worker neighborhood to the kind of place that now serves, well, slow, organic food. In the 1980s, Pat Conway and his brother opened the Great Lakes Brewing Company and an attached beer garden in an elegant-but-boarded-up red brick building that had an old-timey tiger mahogany bar (complete with a .38 slug lodged in it from some bar brawl past).

Ohio City was fairly bleak back then. But, over time, Great Lakes won over its existing neighbors and began drawing new ones. Young people looking for cheap housing and good bars—of which there are now several, in addition to the brewpub—started calling Ohio City home. Just recently, a local gourmet ice cream shop opened. The neighborhood remains socioeconomically mixed, but Conway thinks that makes Ohio City an appealing place to live—it’s got more character than the East Fourth corridor downtown. There are some concerns from longtime residents that the neighborhood has changed too quickly, but, as Conway says, that’s “a good problem for Cleveland to have.”

Cleveland’s Upper Midwest neighbor, Detroit, is famously the starkest example of a city gone to ruin. But the city’s civic boosters aren’t giving up. Talk to any of them for more than five minutes and they’ll probably mention Slows Barbecue. Now with two outposts, the restaurant has become famous for more than just its big portions of American food, careful beer menu—it often serves Cleveland’s Great Lakes on tap—and hip aesthetic. Slows, which opened in 2005 in the city’s Corktown neighborhood, has come to symbolize the effort to bring a sense of community back to the abandoned downtown.

The place is the brainchild of Phillip Cooley, a former model who’s almost accidentally become one of the ambassadors for a new vision of Detroit, one where artists and creative types can enjoy cheap rent in a city that was built by industrial titans in flusher times. The restaurant stands across the street from Detroit’s abandoned train station, which makes an appearance in just about every slideshow of ruin-porn photographs to bounce around the internet. Phillip is not unaware of the symbolism of his venture. “The restaurant is the modern dinner table,” he says. “Our generation is just as likely to believe that restaurants and bars are essential public spaces.” Slows sitting so close to the abandoned station just seems fitting.

Slows filled a void. It has a three-hour wait every weekend, and did triple the business in its first year than the owners had expected, a fact they weren’t shy about publicizing in hopes of drawing in more commercial neighbors to the still-blighted neighborhood. New establishments were slow to join the bandwagon, but now there’s a burger bar opening up nearby, along with a classic cocktail bar that will be another destination for the suburbanites who make a special trip downtown just to eat and drink at Slows.

The drink part is crucial: Cooley opened a place called Mercury Coffee Bar in 2008 that didn’t have a liquor license; it failed. There were broader management problems, says Phillip’s brother Ryan, but he’s convinced the place would have stayed in business with a liquor license. Phillip didn’t mention his own place by name, but refers in passing to other establishments that failed after getting busted for illegally allowing BYOB. Liquor licenses are actually relatively cheap in downtown Detroit—perhaps for $25,000 and in bountiful supply, compared with as much as $250,000 in the nearby northern suburbs.

Phillip is happy to help other would-be restaurateurs get accredited. He needs a critical mass to make his own business work. “In a place like Manhattan, if someone opens up a restaurant on your block, they’re cutting into your territory,” he says. “Here, we have nothing but space. We’re going to be supportive to make sure they’re successful, helping them with permits. ... I’m a huge fan of other people coming in; not just bars, but coffee shops and bookstores, too.”

Ryan runs a real estate agency headquartered right next to Slows. The brothers are gambling heavily on the idea that destination restaurants and watering holes can convince residents to move in, even though most neighborhood revitalization efforts start with real estate and are helped along by amenities. So far, Corktown has attracted the kind of people you might expect: Detroit natives who spent time in big cities and aren’t quite ready to give up the chance to live alongside a Maltese immigrant community and a smattering of artsy types enticed by cheap rent.

“Sometimes I feel like the only person who’s not in a band,” laughs Ryan about the latter group. But that’s exactly the crowd they’re trying to attract: “Interesting people” who appreciate drinking “as an interest rather than just drinking to get drunk.”

Houses in Corktown can be had for $40,000 or $50,000, about half what they were at their peak in the mid-2000s. Ryan concedes that even though Slows is going great guns, he hasn’t seen the average price point tick upward much in the neighborhood since its opening. “The block we decided we wanted to work on had places that haven’t been worked on for 15 years,” he says. “We’re a long time away from real gentrification.” As for wine stores, that classic sign—well, there are only a few in the entire city, and certainly not any in Corktown. “The gentrifying term only gets brought up locally. When people come in from other cities, they worry that Corktown is unsafe. It looks a lot scarier than it is,” Ryan says. The bars and restaurants haven’t yet been accompanied by the grocery stores and other businesses that need to follow to get people to stick around.

This year, only five houses might be sold in the area. But Ryan just closed on his highest residential sale yet, and he believes his real estate venture will turn out to be a canny one. “Slows is its own thing, but it’s hard to say where it’s all going to end up.” Still, he hopes that the community forged around Slows will make his investment pay off, and they need to not be the only game in town. “We want a successful, healthy community,” says his brother Phillip. “We can’t be successful without the rest of the community being successful.” They’ve got a vision of what that would look like, but Corktown isn’t there yet. What Williamsburg calls a problem—too many places vying to open up, and the neighborhood’s rents spiraling north as a reaction—is one the Cooley brothers would love to have.

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