Considering how nasty the ongoing fight between the Lower East Side's bars and Community Board 3/Seventh Precinct has gotten in the past few months (see: the string of bars closed for serving minors) there is something gratifying in finding out that occasionally a bar can fight the good fight and (kind of) win. Which is what happened yesterday to the LES arts bar Culturefix when it faced the city in court.
Culturefix, which opened last July, is not your typical Lower East Side bar. It's made up of a boutique, a bar and a gallery space which shows works from artists in a variety of fields. One recent exhibition, Released with Conviction was a series of photographs following the lives of nine formerly incarcerated individuals as they return home to New York City. "We are most certainly not the nightclub that is described by the Community Board," owner Cole Schaffer tells us. "We do not have dance parties, which we have been accused of. We are an art space that encourages the use of our galleries in interesting ways."
Despite its intentions, three weeks ago CultureFix was sevied with a temporary injuction stemming from three separate incidents where police sent underage auxillary police to the bar. Though the police only mentioned the incidents when they served the bar with papers...one business day before they were due to defend themselves in court.
"This court order was an injunction that claimed that we were a public nuisance to the neighborhood due to our sale of alcohol to minors," Schaffer tells us. "But all of those minors were undercover cops, they had no evidence of any other drinking, despite two raids. Never once in those raids did they find someone underage drinking who wasn't a cop." And yes, in case you were curious, cops from the Seventh Precinct admitted on the stand that it is regular practice for the NYPD to allow underage auxiliary officers to drink at these stings, otherwise they might "blow their cover."
But Culturefix didn't take the attack lying down. Instead, they lawyered up and quickly got the initial injunction lifted by the courts. After that the city tried to compromise with the bar by getting it to agree to a series of stipulations, as often happens in these cases. But the bar balked at what the city wanted, and instead decided to "roll the dice" and try their case in court.
In the potential out-of-court compromise the city wanted, the bar would have had to agree to a half dozen stipulations, including
- A permanent injunction that tied the business and its address to the ABC123 laws (serving to a minor) broken.
- A $2,000 fine.
- The bar would also have had to agree to "have a security guard at all times with an electronic ID scanner from which they wanted us to report to the police—using the scanner—every person that walks into the bar. "
- And "they wanted an agreement that if any further violation were ever written, the first time it was written, it would be a $10,000 fine, the second time it would be $15,000 fine with a closing for 30 days and the third time it would be a $20,000 fine and a 60 day closure. The fourth violation would be a $100,000 fine and a permanent closure. And we wouldn't be able to argue."
Luckily for the bar, the judge in the case didn't find much merit in the city's argument against Culturefix. Though he found that the bar did serve auxiliary undercover cops, he also found there was no evidence of the bar serving anyone else underage and rejected the fines against the it (though it will still have to pay a hefty $10,000 fee to the SLA). And though he agreed that the bar should have a security guard on the weekends, he wasn't sure he could legally impose one on the space, let alone an ID scanner. The bar will now negotiate the final details until the judge is satisfied.
"It was a good result, not only for Culturefix but also for bars across the city," the bar's lawyer Kevin O'Donoghue of Helbraun & Levey told us. Especially as "the city is consistently going after small business owners, especially bars and restaurants, to fix the budget gap." But it didn't work out that way this time. "A police captain and multiple officers came down to court and the ultimate result is zero fines," O'Donoghue said. "What does that cost this city? So I would consider it a win. "
Still, the whole ordeal has taken its toll on the bars owners, who swear they aren't trying to cause trouble. "It is the most demoralizing thing to have the city and the community board tell me that I am a nuisance," said Schaffer, "when we have raised tens of thousands of dollars for several non-profit organizations."