What's at risk: Measuring change, neighbor by neighbor

Neal McKnight is not voting as an East Village Association board member on a restaurant proposed at the end of his block. But he has been participating in the discussion, and here he offers a personal view about why it's an important debate.
By Neal McKnight

My wife and I have two daughters and we live on Winchester Avenue in East Village. Mom lives across the street and some of my best friends in the world are my neighbors.

We have lived here since 1995, longer than some and much shorter than others. Over the years we have seen waves of development roll through the neighborhood, some of it good and some of it bad. The recession has slowed development in the neighborhood in the last couple of years, but recently new developments have been proposed along Chicago Avenue.

The latest proposal is for a 250-seat bar-restaurant at the northeast corner of Chicago and Winchester avenues. I think the hours and size of this business will alter the character of my street and ultimately our neighborhood. The block, the neighborhood, the city I know and love is at risk.

Each time a bar (and let's face it, it really is mainly a bar) forces someone to leave because it is too loud, because there is nowhere to park, because the patrons have forced the neighbors inside, off the sidewalk, off the porches, or to shut their windows, my street becomes a smaller, narrower place.

This undermines the stability of our neighborhood. I don’t know if anyone will leave if this place opens, but I do know if this place opens it will be a different, less attractive block.

Division Street is great but it does not make the city great. I don’t want Division Street on my street. Good development does not mean building a playground only for transient and newly employed recent college graduates.

Too often we just look at the size of building, the type of business, the number of customers. We focus on zoning changes, licenses and permits in an attempt to keep new businesses from damaging our community. But there is more at stake than property values and business interests.

It is important to remember the stability of our community and value what we already have before we allow any business to change the character of our community. After all, that is why business wants to be here.

I love my street. My block has a nice mix of rentals, condos and houses. The people that live there are a nice mix also. Hispanic families have befriended and watch out for my mother and their other neighbors. Polish tenants I wouldn’t trade for the world: They love my daughters like aunts and uncles. Polish property owners keep their buildings immaculate, if not updated with Viking and SubZero appliances.

My retired neighbor who lives alone next door was born on the block. He argues politics with me every chance he gets, but once said to me, "I am grateful every day because I eat my meals while looking out my window at your garden."

There are young couples you won’t meet until they have their babies out in their strollers and they start asking you about schools and parks and gardens. Other young couples on their own help garden the parkways and clean the alley. Older families have been on the street awhile and steer everybody away from the bad element, the bad deal and the bad contractor.

Croatian girls down the street ride bikes with my daughters in circles up and down the street. An Indian family at the corner helps the kids from the neighborhood cross at Iowa because there is no stop sign. My gay neighbors have watched over my kids like hawks, taken them into their homes and taught them the real values of tolerance and respect.

Artists and students in the cheaper rentals are out late talking and smoking on their porches. They serve as the nighttime sentinels, tattoos and all. My southern neighbors (from Georgia and Bridgeport) have two little boys who feel safe enough to run down the street with their dog. All the neighbors pitch in to return the dog to their yard.

Shopkeepers have invested in our neighborhood when others wouldn't, without bothering their neighbors. The Pakistani owner will make the right change for my girls and watch out for them. The Ukrainian florist lets me in after closing hours because I forgot to get flowers for a birthday or anniversary.

The Korean dry cleaner asks to see my daughters’ pictures every time I am there and is surprised by how big they are, because she remembers when they were born. The African American insurance agent across the street took care of my in-laws (not her clients) when their house was damaged in Hurricane Katrina and they couldn’t go home.

I can go on about more neighbors and more businesses. I have used a ton of labels to describe them all, but that is the point. I live in a big, rich and varied place. It is a real diversity of not only the labels but the life experiences attached to those labels. This is the city that we hope for; it is the city for everyone. It is worth protecting.


  1. Right ON, Neal McKnight. I couldn't have said it better.

    A neighbor who lives on Division Street

  2. Love it. a great description of what a neighborhood is about.

  3. Neal – thanks for posting and sharing.
    First, thank you for all that you do, for being involved and being aware of so much in your neighborhood. It is a huge compliment to you and your family that you have so many acquaintances and friends. Winchester is truly a very unique gem of a block.

    My husband, two daughters and I live on Wood Street and enjoy some of the same attributes you point to; great diversity and character, but also significantly more traffic on our street. Thanks in large part to the ’13 District police station’ a half a block north of us. And more stroller traffic as caregivers make their way to Commercial Park half a block to the other direction.

    I have mixed feelings about the proposed development. I wished there were ways to reconcile the pros and cons.

    I am anxious to see financial commitment and development come to Chicago Ave. I do not need to see a new Division Avenue – but I would like to see more retail, more occupancy and the perception of more safety. I have previously asked the chamber about incenting existing store owners to remove their metal security gates. The gates ‘send a message’ that the area is not safe to those that are less familiar with the neighborhood. In many cases, the gates are covering a garbage strewn establishment that has been vacant for the entire 5.5 years I have been in the neighborhood. Not exactly sure of the need for such security measures in many cases.

    On the other hand, I am very aware that the location of ‘NE corner of Winchester and Chicago Avenues’ is adjacent to long-time residents. I am sympathetic that any type of noise nuisance or even just any outdoor business activity will impact those that live closest. It would be ideal if there were a way to ensure that the business on the furthest most corner was of a type that would have most activity during the day.
    Again, thank you for ensuring that there is dialogue among all stakeholders and community members.

  4. Ronda as I have noted on another post compromise is a two way street.
    The initial proposal calls for a pizzeria with a 2 am bar with large garage door like windows open to a 50 seat outdoor cafe. The proposal also included a late night pizza slice and pic...k-up window. This element of the proposal is the closest to the residential properties. The proposal also calls for a large delivery presence. All of these elements of the proposal face Winchester versus Chicago Avenue. The developers in their opening press release were also touting 32 oz soda drinks "spiked" with alcohol. I know the developers have indicated a willingness to work with EVA to reach a compromise but their opening proposal was a maximum use of the outdoor space on Winchester a residential street. I also note that they are planning to open in March 11, 2011. That does not leave much time to work out details or compromise. There wasn't much compromise or recognition of neighborhood issues in the opening proposal. I would love to see a reasonable proposal with enforceable limits.

    Neal McKnight

  5. I live across the street from the proposed bar. I agree with Neal's review of our wonderful neighborhood but I would like to tell you about some of the negatives.

    On countless occasions I have had to stop drunk people from urinating in the alley next to my condo complex. Not just because it is disgusting but because they were too intoxicated to realize families with kids were walking by.

    Finding street parking can be extremely difficult on a slow day, but especially during a sporting event, holidays, weekends, if a resident is having a party, and so on.

    Before Bella's Pizzeria burned down we had major problems with the delivery drivers. They used the alley as a parking lot and raced in and out without regard to pedestrians. Also, the fact that the alley is the only means to reaching tenant and owner garages, this can be a huge hassle.

    I like the local bar owners and they tend to be very open to community "suggestions". However, currently, it is the neighbors and tenants in the community who clean the alley because of the overflowing garbage. Grease traps are attracting rats and the fly populations during the summer have increased to swarms with the new restaurant and bars.

    I understand the need for commercial development but not like this. This is a big bar and if it is anything near the style of 50/50 it will be extremely loud. If the owners came to the community and worked with the neighbors to understand our concerns BEFORE announcing their plans it would have gone a long way to building trust. This feels very reminiscent of the last proposal for the corner property.

    Currently, I hear the laughter of children running up and down our street or neighbors chatting on the sidewalk. I fear the charm of that neighborhood hum will turn to loud music, obnoxious behavior, increased waste, lewd acts and an overhaul of such a pleasant place to call home.

    Michael Dorich
    President, 814 North Winchester Association

  6. I've only been in the neighborhood six years, but in that time I've seen Natalino's, Five Star, Lush, Mexique, Ruxbin, Beauty Bar and other establishments similar to the one proposed open on Chicago Ave. I've been happy to see each one open up and that section of Chicago has improved significantly due to the activity, the neighborhood has benefited and the character of nearby streets have only been affected positively if at all.

    I'd like to see more development like this nearby, not less.

  7. A-1 you are comparing apples to oranges. Natalino's is a higher end restaurant with a few tables outside and the bar is enclosed entirely inside. Five Star faces Chicago Ave. not a residential street. Lush is a higher end wine and spirits shop. Mexique is a higer end restaurant also facing Chicago Ave. Ruxbin is also a higher end restaurant facing Ashland Avenue. Beauty Bar also faces Chicago Ave. and is entirely enclosed except those waiting in line to get in. Roots proposes to be a different place with greater impact on a residential street.

  8. I think some of the Roots bashing seems a little unfair. Statements like "building a playground for transient and newly employed college graduates" and worries about "loud music, obnoxious behavior, increased waste, lewd acts and an overhaul of such a pleasant place to call home" seem a bit overblown. It's a pizza place with a bar -- not a strip joint, casino or anything like that. While I agree that the carry-out window could be an issue and the outdoor space and noise need to be controlled, I personally don't think dialogue is furthered by painting Roots quite this negatively. And I think we all agree that the return of Bleeding Heart is absolutely a great addition to the neighborhood.

  9. Perhaps, the dialogue would be a little less heated if the initial Roots proposal didn't seek maximum use of the outdoor space on Winchester.

    The proposal that is on the table is the proposal outlined in their press release and their submission to EVA. Late night pick up window (on Winchester, a 2 am bar, a 50 seat outdoor café (on Winchester) connected by garage door rolling windows open to the bar (again on Winchester), a large delivery presence (again on Winchester) pizza oven and kitchen exhaust that is not electric (again facing Winchester).

    The Roots proposal is not inherently bad and drinking is legal but we all live in context. The location of the business as proposed may simply be inappropriate. Let's hope Roots can develop a workable and enforceable proposal to address their neighbors concerns.

    The Bleeding Heart proposal looks great, I think if they swapped locations and put Bleeding Heart on the corner they would have more support.

  10. I walked around this site Friday around 10:00 PM to get an idea of what Winchester and Chicago is like on a busy weekend evening.

    I knew, but hadn't fully understood, how integrated Winchester is to the busy Chicago and Damen intersection. The west side of the building already feels like it's in dialogue with that intersection and, while that intersection is busy, it seem like it could really benefit from a restaurant/bar space, as most of those businesses there are closed in the late evening despite the heavy pedestrian traffic.

    If a dance bar or club was being proposed on Winchester, I could see why neighbors in the immediate vicinity might be concerned about noise. However, anything like the written proposal seems like it would serve the community almost perfectly. It seems like a great use of an unused space and I would be excited to have a restaurant like this I could walk to.

  11. A-1 I am all for the back and forth but claiming these two intersections are integrated is more than a stretch. The "dialogue" the west side of the building has with an intersection a block away is non-existent because the west side of the building faces another brick building across Winchester. Check out this video if you want to compare the two intersections.


    You may also want to compare Division Street and Fifty/50 on a cool November evening to Winchester where Roots is proposed.


    The concerns are obvious.

  12. I know the intersection well, and the neighborhood extremely well. I lived in the apartment directly under the railing in the foreground with the large front window. I know Neal and his family, and many in the neighborhood. I moved a short while ago to NYC, and visit Chicago often. What Neal is clearly asking for is a rational consideration, for a change, of the concerns of the neighbors. In my time in the neighborhood, developers ran roughshod over many concerns and transformed an intact and historically valuable neighborhood into a something that created some density and parking issues where there had been few if any. The size and scale of the development is rather large for the space, but given the right balance of respect and thoughtful design could really enhance the quality of life for the neighborhood. But not every development with glitz is an asset in such a quiet neighborhood, in such proximity to Damen and Chicago. I was in EVA during my time there, and loved the energy and character of the neighborhood and the neighbors. As someone who fought vigorously for preservation and planning throughout the city, I am sad both were so often not even an afterthought to developers and to city planning. I really hope the character and content of the neighborhood is not transformed much more beyond the scope of it's abilty to retain it's special character. Lakeview is great in Lakeview. Parts of Lakeview should serve as a warning-RE: number of liquor licenses and large restaurants in proximity of residential properties. That has always been an issue, and here in NYC, liquor licenses, thankfully, are being thoughtfully limited, long after they went too far. Sadly, even popular, non-strip club restaurants can bring plenty of problems. So glad to see EVA still kicking, and offering such a clearly articulated group of reasonable concerns. Remember, this neighborhood belongs to the residents. SO glad it is still a great place to live. I miss it.

  13. I am not from the area, but after reading Neal's original comment, I feel the bakery and pizza joint should fit right in to the diverse culture of the community. An organic bakery with vegan options? What if someone said no to the gay family, the African American, the Pakistani, the Ukranian, the Kroacian??? I mean he did say that these people with their Businesses have put a lot back into the community. Why not this Pizza place and Bakery? I understand parking may be bad, it's the city. I understand that drinking may be a problem. But is it a bar or a pizza place? If pizza ends at midnight, then drinking should too. If the pick-up window closes at 11, that's great. You shouldn't be able to "pick-up" a 6 pack! I think things need to be thought out and discussed, but not completely stopped. This could be a place this family might start traditions at on down the road. Bakery for breakfast on a special day, pizza at night for a family celebration.

  14. Diverse residential neighbors are not the same thing as the proposal for a 250 seat bar restaurant. See my comments above.


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