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Lower East Side’s nightlife scene decimates quality of life for residents: study

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A new study reinforces how the area’s proliferation of liquor licenses has dampened the community

Lower East Side at night
Lower East Side at night.
Flickr/Satish Indofunk

If you’ve ever passed through the Lower East Side on a Saturday night and thought “I would never want to live here,” you are not alone. The area’s residential character has been chipped away at since a 2008 neighborhood rezoning that paved the way for its birth as the nightlife capital of lower Manhattan. Now, the area bounded by East Houston, Allen, Essex, and Delancey streets is home to the highest density of on-premise liquor licenses throughout the five boroughs.

It isn’t just the rezoning that led to this shift on the Lower East Side. A New York state policy seeking to create an “entertainment zone” in the area to spur revitalization has had side effects that were, somehow, unforeseen by policy makers. Streamlining the pipeline of liquor licenses in the area has increased instances of public urination, fighting, and noise that have lead to a deteriorating quality of life for area residents. As a result from policy changes on high, the neighborhood is getting less neighborhoody.

A new study by graduate students of Hunter College’s Department of Urban Policy & Planning (h/t Bowery Boogie) finds that the area’s concentration of liquor licenses has led residents and business owners to feel less safe in their neighborhood. They have reason to feel that way: The area colloquially known as “Hell Square” has seen an increase in crime in a time when crime levels have dropped throughout the city, and quality of life has decreased with noise pollution and rising rents that lead to a higher turnover rate in the area.

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The study was conducted at the request of the Lower East Side Dwellers Association, who the study notes “have collaborated in resistance to these changes; however, they have found little support from local and state authorities.” The study, the association hopes, will become a tool for them in their continued effort to restore a neighborhood character to the area.

The logical place to start would be to reduce the concentration of on-premise liquor licenses in the area. (This, of course, is easier said than done.) The Hell Square area is home to 130 on-premise liquor licenses—the kinds held by bars and restaurants, rather than liquor stores—with many of the neighborhood joints staying open well on to 4 a.m. One researcher cited by the paper finds that extended hours coupled with density of bars increases the risk of crime in an area. The concentration of these kinds of liquor licenses itself is generally the greatest predictor of violent crime.

Even nominally decreasing liquor licenses in the area could have a major impact: A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that eliminating one bar per zip code in California would reduce the number of assaults requiring overnight hospitalization by 290 percent throughout the state. (Whether this would be affected by California’s dependence on cars to get around versus the foot-bound nature of the Lower East Side isn’t commented on.)

The study recommends a few potential fixes—upping police presence in the area, reducing liquor licenses, among others—but this is, after all, only a study conducted by graduate students. However, it could also be a leaping point for larger change.

The full study can be found here, in thanks to Bowery Boogie.