(Photo: Casey Kelbaugh)

The Lower East Side is notorious for its bars, noise and rising crime rates, and the 24-block section known as Hell Square has one of the highest densities of liquor licenses in New York City. Neighborhood activists have been pushing back against the rise of nightlife for years, and adding another watering hole hasn’t been at the top of their to-do list. But a new beer-centric bar, Pretty Ricky’s, has entered the fray right as the City enacts a new plan to improve the quality of life in the area, and it promises to be an interesting indicator of whether nightlife and neighbors can coexist. 

Pretty Ricky’s aims to be a mellow, comfortable hangout focusing on beer and nostalgic, “Americana” vibes. Its massive neon sign has been buzzing late into the night since it launched Oct. 25, but it will also open its doors earlier on the weekend to welcome passersby to brunch. Co-owner Darin Rubell is cousin of legendary Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell, but you won’t find velvet ropes and mobs of celebrity wannabes here; he says he wants to “help the cause” of the Quality of Life Improvement Plan created by the Office of Nightlife, which went into effect Oct. 22. The plan brings together multiple city agencies to try to solve the big problems that nightlife creates. New parking regulations, adjusted sanitation times and a “Night Owl” etiquette campaign aim to lessen traffic and congestion on the Lower East Side. 

Despite his stated good intentions, Rubell encountered pushback when he and his partners first tried to purchase the space for his beer bar in 2017. 

Hell Square and all on-premises liquor licenses. There are 162 active licenses in the zipcode (10002). Data from NYC Open Data.

He was good friends with previous owner Rob Shamlian, and when Shamlian moved to France, Rubell wanted to take over all three of his establishments. However, Community Board 3 declined to support the application, fed up with the racket these late-night businesses were creating. “You might have the money to do it, you might have the best idea to push forward with it capitalized, and you’re still not able to do that,” Rubell said. “You’re not able to do that because the community board has a say in what goes into these neighborhoods.”

The community board was hesitant to support new bars, especially ones associated with Shamlian, due to his controversial history with the neighborhood. He owned Spitzer’s Corner, where Pretty Ricky’s now resides, along with other restaurants including Fat Baby and Loz Feliz. The establishments were plagued with violations and complaints, mainly because they were too loud, open too late and basically embodied all the problems nightlife was bringing to the community. 

Despite the baggage, Rubell kept fighting and finally got one of the three approved: Pretty Ricky’s. As the bar finds its home in Hell Square, Rubell is sensitive to how much disruption nightlife in the area can and has caused to locals. “It must not be easy to live in this neighborhood,” he told Bedford + Bowery, adding that he really wants to help find a solution. “As somebody that’s a) a native New Yorker and b) somebody that also happens to contribute to nightlife and bars and the restaurant scene, the best thing I know I can do is be as responsible as we can to not be a part of the problem,” he said. 

While Rubell is supportive of the Quality of Life Improvement Plan, local activists are taking a wait-and-see attitude.  The LES Dwellers, a community group founded in 2012 “in response to the decimation of quality of life and the deterioration of culture on the L.E.S.,” said in a statement that “while we have concerns that this ‘plan’ may be another policy that puts the profits of the nightlife industry over public welfare, we look forward to the promise of cleaner streets, cleared sidewalks and less honking.” The Dwellers’ main gripe is the lack of enforcement and “complete abandonment of the 500 Ft Law,” a rule that prohibits any new liquor licenses within 500 feet of three existing licensed establishments. 

Orchard Street Block Association, another community group against the proliferation of bars, tweeted out its thoughts about the new policies

The locals have reason to be skeptical, as time and time again the city hasn’t done much for the neighborhood. The encroachment of late-night businesses has caused countless traffic jams, noise complaints, sanitation issues and crimes. In 2017, the Office of Nightlife was created to act as a liaison between the city, nightlife establishments and the community. The “Nightlife Mayor” Ariel Palitz is a former Community Board 3 member and owned East Village nightclub Sutra, which was no stranger to noise complaints. In early 2018 she took the lead on the city’s newest office and went on a five-borough listening tour to gauge the problems and needs of the communities. But so far, she’s faced criticism from the locals. Her newest improvement plan focuses on Hell Square, and all the details about the regulations can be found in the press release here, but the most notable include, a “No Standing” rule from midnight to 6 AM on the west side of the streets and 7 PM to 7 AM on the east side of streets, seven days a week; street sweepers will operate between 3 AM and 6 AM instead of midnight to 3 AM; a 10-person team of Taxi and Limousine Commission officers will conduct random patrols between 11pm and 3am at least once every Friday and Saturday night; and an awareness campaign with slogans like the one below will be posted on LinkNYC kiosks and in bars. 

(Photo: Kai Burkhardt)

Rubell said he wants to be proactive about creating a healthier relationship between his business and local residents. The bar will close at 2am instead of 4am, there will be a security guard making sure there aren’t any fights or loitering and Rubell said he gave neighbors his and some of his employees’ phone numbers so they can get in touch if something is going on. “Text me and let’s lower the music now if you’re bothered.”

He also wants the new bar to carry on the address’ recent history. “This corner was an enormous beer destination for the last 15 years, we didn’t want to kill that idea. We just wanted to refine that idea.” Teaming up with partner Ryan Gleason, who owns Villains Brewing, the beer shines through with over 20 taps. There’s a private back room for its Pretty Ricky’s Beer Club, where beer-lovers can attend weekly ticketed dinners pairing three-to-four course meals with brew samples. These events will be led by certified members of the Brewers Guild for America, and focus on expanding and trading knowledge about the bubbly beverages.

Will Pretty Ricky’s play a role in improving the relationship between the tipsy and the tenants? We’ll see soon if the city’s new plan, along with more proactive businesses, can make the LES and its nightlife a little prettier.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Darin Rubell’s relationship to Steve was misidentified in the original version of this post.