UPPER MANHATTAN — Dyckman Street restaurant owners say they are tired of being painted as nuisances by residents and community board members and want to be treated like part of the neighborhood.
Speaking Thursday night at a special public forum held by Community Board 12's Licensing Committee, hundreds of restaurant owners, employees and patrons spoke about the controversial stretch of Upper Manhattan dubbed "Alcohol Alley."
"We deal with a Community Board that literally targets us—comes in and videos us—and basically treats us as if we're criminals," said Eddie Santos, the general manager of Papasito Mexican Grill and Agave Bar; a controversial Dyckman Street eatery that nearly lost its liquor license last year after receiving numerous complaints of loud music and unsanctioned dancing.
"We're part of the community. We're the heart and soul," Santos added. "We give people jobs."
But some residents said the area has become too loud and boisterous for what used to be a predominantly residential strip.
"All we want is some sort of compromise that allows the residents who pay good money to sleep," said Katie Weaver, who lives above Papasito.
The Dyckman strip has become a flashpoint for the community in recent years, as restaurants like Papasito, Mamajuana, MamaSushi and La Marina have sprung up and drawn revelers to the area.
Supporters said the restaurants have revitalized the neighborhood and given uptowners places to hang out locally. However, residents who live around the restaurants say that loud music, drunken fights and traffic generated by the eateries has lowered the quality of life and makes it difficult to co-exist.
Anger and rhetoric flew from both sides.
Papasito spokesman Fernando Mateo caused an uproar this week when he labeled residents who have complained of noise issues as "haters" in the New York Daily News.
Restaurateurs mobilized supporters to attend the meeting with a series of Instagram posts that claimed the CB12 is on a mission to shut down the Dyckman Street clubs. And community members voiced their concerns on Facebook's Inwood Community Group.
Despite the tension building before the forum, community board and elected officials worked to calm the room by addressing the concerns posted on social media throughout the week.
"This is not about trying to put anyone out of business or causing any resident that's here to lose a job," Fernandez said. "If you were informed that we were trying to shut down businesses, I assure you that is not the plan."
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat said both sides had valid points.
"We are one community," he said. "There are extreme voices on both ends that make a lot of noise, but we are one community. I reject the extreme voices."
Though the majority of the forum was civil, one speaker hinted at the racial tensions that underline the restaurant battle.
"I take my girlfriend out here weekly, I feel so safe," said Francis Keenan, who is white and pointed to his face. "To those of you who look like me and are complaining about noise, let it go."
Residents fought back against accusation that they are gentrifiers who do not understand the predominantly Dominican culture of Dyckman Street
"My ancestors came here in 1651," said resident Barbara DiPietro, adding "All I want is something reasonable, like a closing time that allows me to get some sleep."
"It's being represented that the only way to make money is to have a loud nightclub," added resident Maggie Clarke. "I'd like to challenge everyone in this room to find other ways to make money that don't affect people adversely."
Though no real accord was reached between restaurant owners and residents, several ideas were proposed. Fernandez asked the Department of Environmental Protection to help educate restaurant owners on appropriate decibel levels. And City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez asked the Department of Transportation to undertake a study on transportation in Upper Manhattan.
Despite the controversy, Rodriguez added that most of the restaurants on Dyckman Street obeyed the rules.
"Most of our businesses have good intentions, they work very hard," he said. "But we also have bad apples."