HELL'S KITCHEN — On paper, two bars that have come before the local community board in recent months appear very much alike: Both are gay bars that want to open on 10th Avenue, proposed by owners with other locations farther south.
Community Board 4 largely voted against a liquor license for Boxers, the gay sports bar that wants to open a second location near two schools in Hell's Kitchen, at a tense meeting in October. But the board last week near-unanimously voted to recommend a liquor license for Physical Onion, a proposed gay bar that wants to open in the same area.
Physical Onion owner Eric Einstein, who also operates the West Village gay bar Pieces, attended the meeting and broached the subject of proximity to schools when addressing the board last Wednesday.
"You basically said ...to open anywhere on 10th Avenue, except the schoolyard," he said.
"That's what I'm doing, and I ask for your support."
Boxers came under fire for months from local residents who didn't want the new bar so close to a school. Its proposed new location at 766 10th Ave., at West 52nd Street, sits across the street from Sacred Heart of Jesus School and also abuts P.S. 111's schoolyard.
Physical Onion is set to open up just blocks away, at 697 10th Ave., between 47th and 48th streets.
Many Boxers opponents said that the bar would sit on P.S. 111's schoolyard, though the building is actually located on a square plot of land beside the yard — a point which supporters stress.
"Kudos to [Physical Onion]," said Boxers' co-owner Rob Hynds about its license approval. "But I think [opponents] are missing the point — we want to open on a private piece of land adjacent to a schoolyard. It's not on a schoolyard."
Last month, both Hynds and some of Boxers' supporters said that homophobia played a role in public opposition to Boxers, leading to the board's decision to ask the State Liquor Authority to deny its liquor license application in October.
At that board meeting, several members of the public expressed fear about what their children would see by looking into or walking by a gay bar. One board member publicly said he was "troubled" by the use of what he felt was the use of veiled anti-gay language.
But board chair Corey Johnson said that the denial came only because of the proposed bar's controversial location. The board itself has several gay members, including Johnson.
"Community Board 4, and especially Hell’s Kitchen, is probably home to the highest number of gay bars in the city," Johnson said. "We look at each application on its merits. Boxers was recommended for denial based on location, and not because of it being a gay bar."
Einstein himself had to deal with controversy and opposition during the summer, when he tried to relocate Pieces from Christopher Street to West Eighth Street in the Village.
Residents there expressed concerns about noise and having too many bars in the area, and even though the establishment eventually received approval from Community Board 2, the deal with the new location's landlord fell through.
Einstein said that experience taught him the importance of early and thorough community outreach. He spent the past few months meeting with block associations, and even scrapped plans to operate a backyard space after nearby residents expressed concerns about noise.
In those meetings, Einstein said he found nearly none of the homophobic sentiment some Boxers supporters claim they saw in the Hell's Kitchen community.
"Everything was much more difficult in CB 2," he said. "CB 4 is a lot better, and everything was businesslike."
Boxers itself was scolded by the community for not conducting enough outreach, and was asked by Jonson to push back its initial schedule of asking for community board support from the summer to October.
"From what I saw, Boxers went in only paying lip service to community outreach and had then had their proverbial asses handed to them," Einstein said. "I went to the [board] having done all that."
That was reflected at Wednesday's meeting, where many of Physical Onion's future neighbors stood up in favor of the new bar.
"The fact is, he represented himself so conscientiously and reached out to everyone involved," said Dylan Pass, a Hell's Kitchen resident.
"This is the exact opposite of a bar on a schoolyard."