A couple weeks ago, a client called me and asked if Sutra, that First Avenue joint owned and operated by Ariel Palitz was a good buy. After an eight-year run, Ariel has decided to say goodbye and leaked the news to connected people. I told my guy it was a good buy. Ariel and I worked on the Nightlife Community thing when I was associated with the New York Nightlife Association. She is a member of the community board, CB3, and therefore sees nightlife from many angles. Community boards are manned and womaned by locals who have a local viewpoint of what should be happening in the neighborhood they live in. Bars and clubs and such are often with odds with new development and people who don’t want to live near these late-night attractions. The not-in-my-backyard crowd (NIMBY’s) wants to turn vibrant cultural neighborhoods into bedroom communities. The flipside of this, of course, is that NYC is a place that has always been know for these late-night places, to the point that it has been dubbed, "The City That Never Sleeps." Outside of my crowd, people actually do want to sleep. Another reason clubs and bars and restaurants need to thrive is that they support students, actors, artists, and that ilk who make this city a place to be. The balance of these two opposing forces lay with people like Ariel and unfortunately others not as openminded. Sutra is still open, still happening, still creating vibrancy and supporting people. It is worth a visit while Ariel finds the right person to take her place.
After a very long run, Sutra is for sale. Tell me about the history of the place.
Well, let me start by saying that Sutra is still very much open and moving and grooving. It is business as usual, and I continue to be very proud of everything we have been able to accomplish at Sutra for nearly eight years. From the very beginning, I set out to create a venue that stayed true to the New York underground DJ party vibe. It was also very important to me that we had an open-door policy that allowed Sutra to express the true diversity of the East Village. I knew that the best way for us to stay relevant was to stay talent and music-driven. I think that, for the most part, that is what Sutra is know for: great DJ’s, great music, great vibe. My programing goal was to create a common ground for diverse expression, to have every night showcase a different genre, from hip-hop to rock to Bollywood. Ultimately, it was to showcase New York culture. As it turned out, there was a very big part of New York culture that was being dramatically underserved in NY, the true old-school hip-hop-loving community. NY is the birthplace of hip-hop after all, so staying true to my love of great and talented DJs, I went after some of the greatest DJs in the world – the pioneers, the legends and creators of DJing that lived just minutes from Sutra. DJs like Kool Herc, Red Alert, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Premier, and of course Tony Touch. Together with Tony Touch, we created Toca Tuesdays, one of the longest-running and well-known weekly old-school hip-hop parties in New York. In my eyes, nothing could have fulfilled my intention of preserving New York culture more than to support these DJs and this culture. In the end, I think it is ultimately what Sutra will be remembered for.
And your reasons for selling?
In many ways, I think that now, in our eight year, Sutra is at the top of its game. We have the credibility and recognition to continue to get the world’s best DJs, such as DJ Scratch, Just Blaze, Questlove, Kenny Dope, and on and on. But it occurred to me recently that on a personal level I had to pursue other ventures and adventures. At my core, I am an entrepreneur and love to be challenged, and as challenging as it is to continually run a nightclub on a daily basis, in many ways it can become routine. About a year ago, I began my exit strategy and ultimately put Sutra on the market so that I could pursue other dreams, now that I have accomplished owning and running my own club. It has by far surpassed my wildest expectations, but life is short. Most people think I’m crazy to leave such a successful business, but my friends understand.
Do you have any hopes for who will buy the venue?
In a perfect world, I would be able to pass the baton to someone who loves New York and the scene as much as I do. Someone who would take the essence of what has been Sutra, elevate it, and carry it on. I feel that was what I did eight years ago when I took the space over. Sutra used to be used to be Bar XVI (16), and for seven years, it was famous in its own right for exactly the same thing; great DJs, great music, great vibe. Many of our DJs, like Evil Dee, used to have their own weekly party there back in the day. In a perfect world, someone will step up and I can pass this great legacy to them. And if not, First St. and First Ave. in NYC is probably the best address on Earth to have two 4am liquor licenses, two floors, in a near-250 capacity venue and its unbelievably up for grabs. Any takers?
What’s next for you?
I will always be a soldier for New York Nightlife and Culture Preservation and have recently started my own consulting company called Venue Advisors, LLC with Paul Seres, the president of the New York Nightlife Association, and Moses Comas, my business partner. My goal is to help other people open and run their own clubs. It is very important to me to share everything I have learned and to assist other people to reach this incredible dream. For me, its time to feel the excitement of starting something new. I’ve been working on a new venture for a couple of years and now is the time to make my move to develop it. I can’t reveal too much about it just yet, but it’s health-driven, with a dash of vice. I am also in the process right now of producing a short film documenting this long and amazing journey; it’s a love letter to Sutra.
The neighborhood has changed. You are a local community board member. Tell me where you think things are going down there.
It’s true. I have been a CB3 Community Board member on the State Liquor Authority (SLA) Committee for over three years, but I’m also a native New Yorker who grew up in the club scene and have also lived in this neighborhood for over 15 years. It has changed in more ways that no one who lives here now could ever imagine. Aside from the obvious gentrification that pushed out the diversity of large ethnic families and artists and musicians – and, yes, even a few drug dealers and prostitutes – what has changed the most is the great neighborhood feeling it used to have. Its true that due to a variety of reasons there has also been a proliferation of bars in the LES/EV and a decrease in diverse businesses for residents and even a decrease in one’s quality of life because of it. Even as a bar owner and resident, I can’t deny that. But a lot of the anger and blame for it has been unfairly targeted at the bar owners themselves for the perfect storm of errors that created it. Today, the community boards, city officials, and planners are putting a closer conscious effort to rebalance the community and to return it to that neighborhood feeling.
Do you think that progress is being made?
I do believe that a tide is turning and that the effort will ultimately pay off, as long as the angry protesters of the "No More Bar" movement, as well as other nightlife opposers, do not tip the scales back too far. There is an anti-nightlife agenda that is very unfairly targeting and criminalizing the industry, city-wide. Instead of appreciating and respecting the industry and its contribution to NY, "crackdowns" and overregulation has made it, in many cases, an impossible nightmare to operate a nightlife business. And now there is a slow and steady effort to scale back our famous NY 4am liquor license law to 2am, through stipulations – all this in an effort to take back the streets for residents. But the truth is that, in many ways, the New York nightlife culture and economy is what has made New York the best city to live in. Remember "The City That Never Sleeps" people?? We are the city where people come to live and party from all over the world, people who were too creative or strange to be accepted in their hometowns. They are the innovators, artists, and great thinkers that have put New York on top in almost every field. New York is, by all accounts, a place where the freaks come out at night to party and then lead the world during the day. Not to mention all the great waiter and bartending positions that have sustained many a movie star or doctor on the way up.
You are on a mission.
I didnt realize it when I first opened Sutra, but being in nightlife has a greater purpose than just parties. Preserving New York nightlife, in my opinion, is preserving and saving New York identity. Saving it from all the great restaurateurs and club owners from going to Vegas, Miami, LA, or even Europe and taking all the great, interesting, and brilliant people with them. As far as the East Village/LES goes, I don’t know if we will ever reclaim the great glory days of art, music, and bohemia, mixed with families and freaks, but I do know that striving to reclaim the balance between nightlife and community, mixed retail, and affordable rents, we can find our way back to a New York we recognize and love. That’s why I’m on the community board, to push back so that hopefully we all meet in the middle and not lose what makes us the greatest city in the world. Literally.
At a recent conference, I was asked why there are so few women in ownership positions in clubland…your take?
I’m not so sure that there are as few woman club owners as people think. I personally know dozens, and as a community board member, I see them apply all the time. But for sure, there are not as many as men. The bar business can be brutal and hardcore, no matter what gender you are. As a woman, I have used my charms to get me out of many bad situations that no man could ever wrangle his way out of. Not to mention, it’s amazing what you can get away with when you are being underestimated. In my eight years of owning Sutra, I have been faced with almost every scenario you can imagine and survived and thrived through them all. I dont think that there are less women nightlife owners because they cant hack it. I think its because there are so many other great ways to make a living that don’t require them to make as many sacrifices to their quality of life and to still have the ability to have it all. As much as I have loved owning a club in almost every way – the amazing people, the great parties, celebrating life everyday etc. – the truth is, to be a club owner, you to need to harden yourself to pull it off. There are so many takers, haters, liars, freaks, and crazies, not to mention the unbelievable scenarios that you have to deal with on a regular basis. All while you’re giving your all to keep your venue cool, relevant, and packed every night and, oh yeah, making money. Then your dealing with the police, the community, the city, the state, and all the government agencies surrounding and watching your every move, ready to close in on you for your slightest error. Why aren’t there as many women in nightlife? Maybe they’re just smarter. Either way, for me, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. One of the greatest gigs in the world and proud of it.
How did the emergence of hip Brooklyn change the crowds coming to the East Village/ LES?
I’m sure the fact that there are more cool local places to hang out in Brooklyn has made it more of a challenge to get Brooklynites to venture across the bridge. All New Yorkers prefer the comfort of their own hood, but I also know that New Yorkers will travel anywhere in any weather to experience something cool and unique. It does put a greater pressure on operators and promoters in the EV/LES to step up their game to make their venues worth going to. If they do, the people will come.