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Repeated clashes lead community board to suspend neighborhood group

It's Saturday, close to midnight on the Lower East Side, in an area known to some who live here as "Hell Square." Ludlow Street between Stanton and Rivington is a mecca of nightlife, with roving bands of 20-somethings pinballing between bars on either side of the street.

For some the night has just begun. For others it's winding down, or should be, as evidenced by a puddle of vomit in the gutter. One woman dressed in a frog suit tries to climb the barbed-wire fence into the Banksy painting on Ludlow before a friend convinces her to come down. A man in a white polo shirt stumble-walks against traffic, trying to hail a cab. The street is packed with a constant convoy of taxis and the sidewalks are clogged with smokers or those waiting in line to get into one of the more popular bars.

One Ludlow Street resident unlocking the door to her apartment says the noise doesn't trouble her, but adds that she lives in a rear-facing unit. "I know the noise bothers the people that live right above the street," she says.

The name Hell Square comes from Curbed founder Lockhart Steele, and according to the definition on the real estate website, it's to be taken literally "especially during evening hours." It encompasses the roughly nine square blocks bordered by East Houston and Delancey Street between Allen and Essex Street.

For Diem Boyd, who lives on Rivington between Essex and Ludlow - what she calls the entrance to hell - the party-centric scene has become such a detriment to her quality of life that she founded the LES Dwellers in 2012, a group dedicated to fighting what they see as the proliferation of clubs, bars and rowdy nightlife in the area that they call home.

Since then, the Dwellers have worked with Community Board 3 in tandem, if not always in harmony, on State Liquor Authority licensing applications. A September meeting of the board's SLA Licensing Committee resulted in an angry confrontation between committee member David McWater - who owns bars in Manhattan outside of the board's territory - and members of the Dwellers. McWater cited friction with the group as a factor to his resignation later that month.

In comments to Our Town Downtown, board manager Susan Stetzer said the Dwellers' suspension is an effort to get the group to operate in a transparent and collaborative manner as per the board's guidelines for block associations. CB3 declined an opportunity to discuss the issue further.

For Boyd, 43, who has lived in the area for 25 years, her group has every right to petition the SLA to advance its agenda. She called the reasons for her Dwellers' suspension "a seemingly arbitrary and capricious decision."

Boyd said the suspension poses no threat to the viability of the Dwellers. "We are soldiering on as we always have," said Boyd. "We will not compromise on our mission."

According to the their website, the Dwellers are made up of Lower East Siders who are fighting against the "continual increase of violence, noise, illegal activity, drugs, health and sanitation issues, disrespectful crowds, and lack of consumer diversity in our community" that resulted from the concentration of nightlife in Hell Square.

The website gathers user-submitted video of drunken brawls and other misdeeds by the rowdy crowds that frequent the neighborhood. The Dwellers claim that Hell Square is home to 38 bars that are open until 4 a.m. and whose side effects include fights, massive littering, morning puke puddles and an unreasonable amount of late-night noise.

One of the Dwellers' main issues is that bars who habitually break the terms of their liquor license or are found to be serving alcohol to minors receive no punishment and continually have their licenses renewed. In an interview, Boyd encouraged an investigation to determine whether CB3 is engaging in a sort of spot-zoning for bars: keeping the most rambunctious in a certain part of the LES while discouraging their formation in others. According to Boyd, for this and other reasons, the Dwellers decided to work independently of the board.

"We're not prohibitionists, we're not saying no bars, we're saying you should follow the law," Boyd said. "If you don't you should be shut down."

Back in Hell Square, a group of young women in three-inch heels wobble into traffic trying to cross Essex Street. One LES resident having a smoke outside of Sons of Essex - one of the more low-key bars in the area - says the scene gets pretty wild around 3 or 4 a.m. outside of places like Fat Baby on Rivington Street, with people stumbling out of the bars and puking against walls and in the street.

Tension between the Dwellers and CB3 isn't likely to end anytime soon. Both groups appear to be at an impasse, as the Dwellers show no sign of tiring and CB3's suspension runs through the end of December. Meanwhile, hordes of thirsty young revelers will continue to frequent this beehive of bars on the Lower East Side, oblivious to the war being waged over their right to lift a pint or two - or 10.

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