Street noise is a very real issue in large swathes of Manhattan and I think it’s perfectly understandable that people prefer not to have lively nightlife scenes located directly outside their windows. So when I read Sarah Laskow’s long and excellent account of liquor license battles in the East Village, I’m not-unsympathetic to the incumbent residents’ concerns. But as she observes at the end, there’s a real cost to this attitude:
At the meeting with Kao, the locals gave him the same reason for opposing him that they had given Warren, when he wanted to open a burger bar in the space: according to the current license, the only type of business that should be selling liquor at 200 Ave. A is a bookshop. With rent set at $10,000 in the East Village Party District, that’s as unlikely as it sounds.
The broader issue, as she explains, is that cities are driven by agglomeration:
Academics have a word for what the neighborhood has become: a nightscape. Bars and restaurants were once peripheral to the main drag’s primary economic drivers: supermarkets, coffeehouses, boutique shops, record stores. But in post-industrial cities, nightlife has grown into an industry in its own right. As in any industry, shop owners tend to cluster. A century ago, that meant the creation of a Garment District. Now it means the creation of a Party District.
Basically the East Village really “wants” to be full of nightlife establishments just like Qiaotou, China wants button factories. Restricting the creation of new button factories in Qiatou will help incumbent button makers (and alleviate neighborhood concerns about factory smoot) but it’s hard to call a bar scene into existence that way. Similarly, making it hard to open a new bar in the East Village isn’t going to create a button factory. It’s going to create an underutilized space. That means somewhat more unemployment in the city, somewhat less tax revenue in the city, and thus at the margin higher tax rates and fewer social services for everyone.
Meanwhile, as a policy analyst living in a different city the right way to look at the neighborhood concerns is this. Will another bar on the block make living on that block worse? I have no reason to doubt it. But it’s not like there’s some excessive quantity of affordable housing in Manhattan. If a given block becomes less desirable to live on, that just means someone else will live there. In equilibrium, we’re looking at lower housing costs and higher employment rates.
The bigger question here is about levels of governance. Insofar as you empower residents of my building in DC to make the decision, we will attempt to regulate the food service establishments on our block so as to minimize late-night noise. After all, the service sector jobs lost in the process aren’t the jobs that we do while as homeowners we bear the losses of reduced property values on the block. And to simply disempower us, as a block, would be arbitrary and unfair. But empowering each and every block leads to highly inefficient outcomes with the bulk of the pain felt by low-income people and there’s no obvious reason of justice to think this kind of hyper-local empowerment is more legitimate than taking a broader view would be.