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
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,
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
“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
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?