The Devil Came Down to Soho

The mimeographed note had been taped to the door of my Soho

apartment building for almost a week, calling all neighbors to a community

meeting to discuss the hotel being built down the block. “It is important to

show up in large numbers to make sure the hotel and restaurant owners take us

seriously,” said the flier, trying to guilt us into coming. Well, it got me.

Plus, I was interested in getting involved in my new community, where I had

moved two months earlier from midtown. I imagined getting to know some of my

neighbors, and soon I was fantasizing about having them over for coffee,

meeting for drinks at Raoul’s ….

So on Jan. 9, I left work early to attend the 6 p.m. meeting

at 60 Thompson (which is also the hotel’s name). I hurried down my block to

catch up with a neighbor. I had seen him around; he was probably in his 60’s,

with longish white hair. He was grouchy and never said hello back. Here,

finally, was my chance to get to know him.

“Heading to the meeting?” I asked bravely.

He glanced at me and grumbled, “Yes. And expecting the

worst: cars, traffic ….”

“Noise,” I added with an eager nod.

Upon arriving, we climbed a dusty flight of paint-splattered

steps to the large reception area, which was still under construction. Two

elderly women with brightly dyed hair dunked cookies into cups of coffee while

an attractive young man in a turtleneck sweater and a blond woman with artfully

tousled hair looked on. It wasn’t hard to tell the hoteliers from the

hotel-haters.

The meeting was never

called to order; it just sort of started, with two 30-ish neighborhood women

lobbing questions to the hotelier, Jason Pomeranc: “How many rooms will there

be?” Around 100; it’s a very small boutique hotel and restaurant, marketed to

an upscale clientele, he explained. The women smiled flirtily at Mr.

Pomeranc-perhaps, like me, envisioning evenings at the bar and dinner dates at

the restaurant, Café Nacionale ($65 a head for dinner, with some outdoor

seating). And so it went for the first few moments. It was all very civilized,

even informative.

I was surprised.

As a former newspaper reporter, I had covered plenty of

community meetings. I knew that the angry people always came. I had written

about places where good people had good reasons to protest horrible circumstances, including corruption, inept

politicians, rat-infested homes, a strip club opening in a residential

neighborhood, as well as incidents as ugly as a seventh-grade girl sexually

molested by her classmates on a school bus. But I also knew that there were

people who came to public meetings just to hear themselves talk. And then there

were those who resisted change. Even in neighborhoods designated as rural and

protected from most development, some came to kvetch about minor alterations,

such as crumbling stonewalls that had been repaired to look “too mended.” I

quickly learned which stories were worth telling.

I had suspected that the

opening of a small hotel in Soho was not a story, but I anticipated at least

mild controversy. Sensing none initially, I was proud of my neighbors. They

appeared to realize that the project was worth investigating, but not

castigating. They seemed like reasonable people who recognized that communities

are ever-changing, made up of people with conflicting goals and ideals who

nevertheless learn to live together.

I was wrong. The docile scene lasted all of 10 minutes.

Before I knew it, the grouchy man from my block had pounced on one of the

restaurateurs.

“You’re not trying to improve this neighborhood. You don’t

care about this neighborhood. And you want us to eat your cookies ?”

Crestfallen, I said “Uh oh” loud enough to make some people

turn and look. The fracas had begun. People edged closer to the hoteliers as

more locals arrived.

A woman called for calm.

She started telling a drawn-out story about a hotel in Brooklyn that, when

faced with protests, agreed to allow neighborhood children to use the pool.

“Maybe we could work out something like that,” she said. “I don’t know if

there’s a pool here, but …”

Then they started being mean to each other. When a woman

interrupted the boring pool tale, a man interrupted her.

” Excuse me,” he

said in a dizzyingly self-righteous tone-a plea that would soon become the

evening’s refrain-“but she was talking. Please let her continue without

interrupting.”

Excuse me , but a

small upscale hotel and café? It’s not a homeless shelter. Had any of these

people ever lived across from a public high school in New York City? Come

complain to me then.

I understand that many

of the people present had lived in the neighborhood for years-even decades-and

saw the hotel as one more agonizing sign of the area’s appeal to obnoxious

strangers “standing outside, yakking on their cell phones at one in the

morning,” as one woman put it. Of course, I happen to be one of the people they

probably hate to see moving in. I work for an Internet company. I pay too much

for a small studio. I eat at trendy restaurants. And since the hotel’s

restaurant will be run by the same people who started Indochine and Bond

Street-um, yeah , it’s likely I’ll be

a patron, cell phone and all.

The hotel people and the restaurateurs seemed honest and

decent. They said that they had a refrigerated area to house the garbage until

the haulers came, to keep the rats away. They promised that the outdoor seating

would be closed by midnight. They told us that they intend to plant birch trees

in front and would try to time their deliveries and guests’ arrivals so they

didn’t coincide and block the street.

But my neighbors acted

so put-upon and outraged, they could have been an army of Erin

Brockoviches-except they were lacking any pitiful tale, and no one was trying

to fool them.

They were a wild band of NIMBY vigilantes, the type of

obnoxious white liberals who wear berets and ponytails and feel it’s their duty to protest anything trendy, which they were

above, or anything that makes money, which they were apparently also above.

They shook their heads

and exchanged knowing smirks of disbelief that anyone could be that

money-hungry, that anyone could actually construct a small, trendy hotel and

restaurant on a block full of small, trendy shops and restaurants. They said

they couldn’t live with the garbage trucks and the traffic and the noise. When

they were rude, they prefaced themselves with, “The reason you’re meeting with

so much hostility here is because our bedroom windows are right on the street

….”

I turned and left, hoping my departure would send a signal

that at least one resident didn’t mind the hotel. I walked home disappointed,

my visions of neighborly chats disappearing, my civics experiment failed. It

seems that to my neighbors, I am as much an outsider and opponent as the

hoteliers. As I turned my cell phone back on, I could imagine them muttering to

themselves: With neighbors like her, who needs enemies? The Devil Came Down to Soho