By Chris Opfer
For many clubgoers, the allure of Meatpacking District clubs, Tribeca lounges and various "underground" speakeasies is not so much the $18 cocktails as the effort that must be undertaken to even get there. On the other end of the spectrum are the hundreds of dingy dive bars where New York City's drinking class goes for a no-frills shot and a beer. When one of the latter establishments starts turning people away based on what they're wearing, it's certain to raise some complaints. However, for the East Village's Continental Bar, it's not so much the dress code as how it's being enforced that's drawing the ire of some barhoppers and community activists.
Located just across from Cooper Union on Third Avenue, Continental is best known for cheap shots-the front entrance is adorned with a large sign advertising five shots for 10 bucks-and attracts a mix of NYU students, tourists and young professionals. Since its switch from a live punk rock venue to what owner Trigger Smith calls "a classy dive" about five years ago, the bar has also drawn a flurry of online complaints of alleged racism.
In 2010, Shaniqua Pippen and Ashley Diaz filed a complaint against Continental with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which investigates allegations of violations of the city's Human Rights Law, claiming that bar employees discriminated against the two African-American women by denying them entrance to the bar. They say that although two similarly dressed white women in line in front of them were allowed into the bar, Pippen and Diaz were told by a bouncer that they could not enter because they were dressed improperly and they're "not regulars." When Pippen complained and asked if it was because she is black, she says the bouncer-a black male-told her, "Your kind don't know how to act." The commission is currently investigating the matter.
Pippen contacted the nonprofit ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition shortly thereafter and the group began a picket and flier campaign on the block in front of the bar last October. "Without a doubt, I do believe that Trigger Smith is a bigot," said Jinnette Caceres, an ANSWER volunteer who helped organized the protests. "He wants a certain ambiance in his bar. He's getting it by keeping away people of color."
Smith, a Brooklyn native who has owned the bar for almost 20 years, says the protests have had no effect on his business but that the allegations are appalling. "It's so profoundly offensive to me. The claims that these people are making are so against everything I believe in," he said.
The bar's dress code is unwritten and flexible, but includes "saggy, baggy jeans" and a variety of "over-the-top looks," according to Smith, who acknowledges that doormen occasionally use the "locals only" line to get rid of unwanted patrons. "We're focusing on a whole look. If someone has just one ingredient of that look, depending on how they're carrying themselves, we make exceptions. We turn away as many Jersey Shore types as anyone else." On a recent Friday night, for example, the bar's bouncers denied entrance to a white man because he was wearing an oversized basketball jersey.
But it's just this type of loosely defined dress code that can result in a racially discriminative door policy, according to Professor Deborah Archer, who directs New York Law School's Racial Justice Project and Civil Rights Clinic. "Where you have a dress code that's relatively vague and the bar allows certain people in even if they don't comply, it's something that can be used arbitrarily to exclude people of certain races," Archer said. "The best policy is to have the dress code in writing and to not rely on racial or ethnic stereotypes in defining what's included and what's excluded. Don't say things like, 'I want my club to be safe' or 'I want to keep out drug dealers, so I'm keeping out people who wear baggy pants and sports jerseys.'"
Although ANSWER discontinued the picketing campaign over the summer, the debate continues online at a "Boycott Continental Bar" Facebook page and on sites like Yelp, where reviewers of various races mix complaints about overzealous bouncers and an undefined door policy with posts praising Continental as a good place to get drunk on the cheap.
Two young women allege they were denied entry to this East Village bar because of an exclusionary dress code. Photo by Chris Opfer
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