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Defend Cafe Neo!!
On the rise of the Neo Heads and the destruction of the neighborhood
A post in two parts today, kicking off with an update on the ongoing fight to save Cafe Neo and then some observations from my time in the great city of Philadelphia.
First, a palate cleanser:
Chef’s kiss to whoever did that. Please come forward and announce yourself gloriously to the world. This newsletter is ready and waiting should you choose to do so! Teehee.
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RISE OF THE NEO HEADS
Millbury Street has long been a hub of Worcester nightlife. There’s the Hotel Vernon. Steel & Wire (formerly Nick’s). Electric Haze. 3Gs Sports Bar. The Nines... etc. etc. If you live in or around Worcester and you’re the the type of person who likes to go out drinking there’s a good chance you’ve spent some time on Millbury Street. I myself have spent probably too much time there. It might be the closest thing Worcester has to the sort of “nightlife district” seen in real cities. Right there in the middle of that district it is Cafe Neo, a bar known for chaotic nightly karaoke sessions and the eccentricity of its owner, Panagiotis Tsigas, a man who wears tiny sunglasses at night and labors over some of the most elaborate and unique cocktails on offer in the city. Even on the busiest nights he does not sacrifice attention to detail for volume of sale and while that might sometimes be annoying you do have to hand it to him. He is an artist with a cocktail glass and he bows to no one. A night at Cafe Neo might involve staring at him for 10 minutes trying to get a beer while he artfully places his maraschino cherries and it might involve a drunk 21-year-old girl scream-singing Taylor Swift and it might involve literally pushing your way to the exit. A lot of people I know love it and a lot of people hate it. But everyone knows it. On that fact alone Cafe Neo deserves a place in the pantheon of great Worcester bars. The fact that for 23 of the bar’s 25-year run, Tsigas has served a free Thanksgiving meal to those in need adds an extra dollop of that sauce. It’s the sort of thing that endears a business to the community. Makes it a beloved institution.
But like so many places lately, Cafe Neo is dangerously close to disappearing forever, and the reasons why are frustrating as they are familiar. The place has been there for 25 years but the landlord now wants to terminate the lease. According to a Facebook post from Tsigas last October, the landlord wants to convert the space into apartments, seeing a need for more residential units close to Polar Park. Tsigas said he tried to buy the building in 2019 but the construction of Polar Park changed the landlord’s mind, and now he’s in danger of losing the location without a solid plan to relocate.
Unlike most other places however Cafe Neo has resolved to put up a fight. A big public fight on multiple fronts, from social media to the License Commission to the Worcester County Superior Court. Tsigas has rallied the Neo Heads. They are motivated, engaged, and if they must go down they’re going down swinging. In a Facebook post a few days ago about the License Commission hearing this morning, Tsigas wrote “I need five thousand people to show up, Peacefully.” Talk about a sentence that goes hard. Peacefully.
The existence of a standing Neo Head army was apparent at the hearing this morning. It might not have been 5,000 but it was certainly a lot of people. As Tsigas took to the microphone alongside his attorney, big choruses of “WOOO”s and cheers from the hallway were loud enough so as to be picked up on the stream I was watching. Loud enough at one point to interrupt the hearing for a short moment.
As the meeting turned to the Cafe Neo issue, the last on the agenda, License Commission Chairman Walter Shea asked “is everyone in the audience here for Cafe Neo?” and when the crowd confirmed, he just said “my goodness gracious,” as if to himself. The License Commission is apparently not used to big crowds.
Cafe Neo was called to appear before the commission by way of a “notice of non-renewal of lease” and it stood to have its liquor license revoked. Standing next to Tsigas at the mic, Robert White, the lawyer representing Cafe Neo, requested that the commission extend the hearing until early March. The business is looking for a court injunction to bar the eviction, he said, at least temporarily, and they should have that injunction by the March meeting and they expect the case to take at least a few months to reach a resolution. If the License Commission decided to take away the liquor license on Jan. 31, when the bar’s lease technically expires, White said “there will be irreparable harm caused to Cafe Neo and essentially it will put them out of business.” The commission agreed to honor White’s request and in doing so they lended Tsigas a key bit of leverage in his fight against the landlord. He can continue to operate the bar while the court fight rages on. With that, the meeting came to a close.
“My goodness gracious,” Shea said again, as the throngs of Neo Heads left the chamber with the outcome they wanted. “I’ve never seen this place clear out so quickly.”
Cafe Neo filed a suit against the landlord in Worcester Superior Court last November. In an 11-page complaint, Tsigas’s attorney asks the court for an injunction against eviction while the lawsuit makes its way through the process and for compensation from Chang for the hardship leveled of Tsigas.
The complaint paints a stark picture of a landlord who suddenly and without explanation reneged on a promise.
Tsigas and Chang go way back, according to the complaint. Indeed, Tsigas used to own the 97 Millbury Street building before selling it to Chang in 2008 for $230,000. Part of the sale agreement was that Tsigas would lease the Cafe Neo space from Chang. Apparently, Tsigas tried to repurchase the property from Chang in 2019 but Chang wouldn’t sell it.
The end of the lease looming, Tsigas sought a new location for the bar “with enough lead time to relocate before the lease expired.” That was in 2020 and he got as far as getting quotes for a remodel at 202 Millbury Street and started the process of getting licenses for the new location. Then the pandemic hit and everything was on hold. But in the spring of 2022, Chang learned that Tsigas was looking for a new location and convinced Tsigas to stay by promising a lease renewal, according to the complaint. However, he said it was “too early” to actually sign a lease renewal. So the offer stood as a promise. Accepting the promise, Tsigas dropped plans for the new location. But then in October, Chang took the promise back. No lease renewal. Instead, a formal notice of non-renewal from Chang’s attorney.
“Had (Chang) not represented that (he) intended to renew the lease, (Tsigas) would have had ample time to complete the renovations at 202 Millbury Street and move Cafe Neo to the new location without serious business interruption,” the complaint reads.
According to Tsigas’s suit, all this amounts to something called “promissory estoppel.” At the license commission meeting this morning, Tsigas lawyer, Robert White, described the charge this way: when someone makes “a certain type of promise, that causes someone to reasonably rely on a promise” then they take back that promise, that’s called “promissory estoppel.” When flakiness rises to the level of criminality is how I’d put it.
This charge comes alongside three others: “negligent misrepresentation,” “intentional misrepresentation,” and violation of a chapter of state law on unfair trade practices. On this last count, Tsigas’s attorneys make an interesting assertion: It wasn’t just that Chang reneged on the promise, the reneging was “intended to interfere with (Cafe Neo’s) business and give (I.T.C. Realty) and its agents a competitive advantage in replacing Cafe Neo with another Cafe at the location."
Taking back a promise as big as offering a lease renewal is one thing. But this suggests Chang made and then took back the promise as part of a scheme to do Cafe Neo dirty. That’s a whole other thing entirely.
Who would do such a thing? Who is this guy? Well, for starters, he’s a real estate guy. And one of a particular modus operandi.
Ignatius Chang owns quite a few properties it turns out. Twenty in Worcester, by my count, and perhaps more elsewhere. It’s sort of hard to figure out as the ownership of these properties is spread over at least six vaguely named companies. There’s I.T.C. Realty, the company named in the lawsuit. But I.T.C. only holds the deed to two properties: Cafe Neo’s building at 97 Millbury and another at 304 Shrewsbury Street. The other 18 properties are held by five companies: ITC Realty Trust, NLC Properties, DJC Properties, D&N Properties and MLC Worcester. Chang owns all of them but it takes a good amount of digging to figure that out. There’s no website where Chang proudly lists his property holdings. This is not a business with any sort of physical or digital storefront. To get a full picture of Chang’s holdings, you need to search the Worcester County Registry of Deeds database and then cross reference it with the Secretary of State’s corporation filing database. Painstaking. It’s the same process I used to dig into the the Frens’ rental empire. Remember them? The Franklin couple who own 267 Mill Street and took all the tenants to court last year after the building collapsed on them and left them without a home. The Frens tried to play the “woe is me, the small landlord” card in the wake of the collapse, without revealing they own some 50 rental properties locally via a number of holding companies. Though Chang owns fewer properties than the Frens, the way in which they operate—open a lot of LLCs and transfer ownership of properties between them and take out a dizzying array of mortgages on and against these properties—is very similar. There’s a word for it in the common vernacular and it starts with “slum” and ends with “lord.” The opacity of it may not be by design per se but it does suggest a certain ambivalence about one’s reputation as a property owner and landlord. There is no publicly facing brand to maintain here. No risk to the company’s reputation in playing dirty games because there is no company. Now a person managing a real estate portfolio in that way… is that the kind of person who would lie to a tenant in an effort to undercut them? I suppose that’s up to the court to decide.
In an answer to the complaint filed by Chang’s attorneys on Dec. 19, he denies he ever promised to renew the lease. So the whole case appears to hinge on that little ‘he said she said.’ Did Chang promise to renew the lease or did he not? While Tsigas offers a full narrative around the assertion Chang promised a lease renewal, Chang’s lawyers merely denied the claim in curt language and without counter-narrative.
“I.T.C. denies that Mr. Chang ever promised to renew the lease,” the attorneys said in their answer to the complaint.
Since Chang’s attorneys responded to the complaint, there hasn’t been any action on the lawsuit, at least none recorded in the online docket. Tsigas attorney said at the License Commission hearing that they expect to have a hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction barring eviction, but so far it seems a hearing has not yet been set.
Definitely something to follow in the months ahead. It would be a crying shame if Cafe Neo were to go the way of so many other bars and restaurants in the area. Yet another indictment of the larger economic development plan around Polar Park as one which runs completely contrary to the health and vitality of the neighborhoods around it. City Hall getting in the way of the city.
At the very least, the March 9 License Commission meeting is going to be one to watch.
SAVE CHINATOWN NO ARENA
Now, a very related lesson learned from my time in Philadelphia this past weekend—a city that I often call “Big Worcester” and I don’t know if that’s fair really but it feels fair. There is a certain sort of attitude that Philly people have toward Philly that Worcester people have toward Worcester. Yeah it’s a shithole but it’s my shithole and while I’ll bitch about its obvious problems all day you sir cannot.
I was down in Big Worcester last weekend with my girlfriend while she did her thing at the staggeringly massive tattoo convention that takes place there every year. The convention was at the Philadelphia Convention Center, which is right in the heart of the city and right next to Chinatown. We were staying at an Airbnb apartment on a fifth floor walkup on the northwestern border of the neighborhood.
Pulling off the highway and into Chinatown on Thursday afternoon, a wheatpaste flyer on the side of a brick building caught my eye. This is what it looked like:
And I thought huh that’s interesting, I’ll have to look into that. After a little reading I realized there was indeed an interesting story behind that flyer. It’s a story about capital and development and the “urban renewal” ethos and city politics and the power that regional sports franchises hold over city politics and gentrification and displacement and the power a well-organized community has to resist all of these things which all boil down to “growth.”
Good old growth. The holy grail of City Hall. The unknowable artifact that must be praised and must never be blasphemed. The great controller of the fates for American Cities, or so we hear from just about any city official, politician or pundit for whom cities are a concern. I went long on “growth” in my last newsletter in case you missed it:
“Growth at all costs” is the prevailing logic in most City Halls across the country and has been for a long, long time. Political cultures around this mindset have been calcifying since at least Reagan. City Halls like Worcester are manifestations of that icky word “Neoliberalism” which has been rendered meaningless by Twitter save to demonstrate the person saying it is obnoxious. City governments in the neoliberal order are made to pursue growth at all costs in competition with each other. As an example, it was very scary for City Hall to consider that the WooSox might instead choose New Bedford for their Massachusetts bedfellow and that led to a sweeter deal for our new home team. But for us as a city? We’re $160 million in the hole on the most expensive project of its kind and we’ve effectively killed the adjacent Canal District which was the only area in Worcester approximating a real city neighborhood that people move to cities for but by Jove we beat New Bedford! We are ~on the map~ and New Bedford is not. What map, you ask? A map you have to own a hedge fund to look at.
In Philadelphia, there’s currently a proposal that’s not unlike Polar Park promises to inject a “blighted” and “declining” area with lots and lots of growth. The 76ers, the city’s NBA basketball team, wants to relocate their stadium from the Wells Fargo Center to downtown Philadelphia, mere feet away from the main entrance to the city’s Chinatown. They want to replace the Fashion District mall, which is failing as all malls are, with a $1.3 billion arena, and they want to have it done by 2031. The project is backed by a trio of billionaires: Sixers managing partners Josh Harris and David Blitzer and also David Adelman, the CEO of Campus Apartments. The initial announcement last July hit all the boxes of “bringing energy” with a “world class sports and entertainment arena” but not without first holding a “robust community engagement process.”
“We are going to have our own Madison Square Garden,” but newer, with a “world-class team in a new shiny arena,” Adelman told The Inquirer before Thursday’s planned announcement.
Here’s what I learned: Philadelphia’s Chinatown does not give a fuck about growth. Admirably so. That’s quite clear from even the cursory research I’ve done on this neighborhood and large developments proposed for it over the years. Philly’s Chinatown does not concede the basic premise that “growth is good,” let alone “necessary.” It’s not under any illusion that a rising tide lifts all boats. It does not buy the developers’ go-to mantra of “revitalization.” It cannot be swayed by developers’ promises of “community benefit.” All of this is a matter of historical record. The neighborhood has successfully fought off a number of high-profile and well-financed proposals over the years. Each battle is indicative of a sort of uniquely clear-eyed and uncompromising mindset. The community leaders and activists and business people in this neighborhood seem to intuit, in a way that’s lightyears ahead of most of Worcester, that they build their neighborhood. They are what makes their neighborhood great. They have the vision. They know what their neighborhood needs. The developers pushing massive monoliths to “growth” with the backing of hedge funds and billionaires and the city’s political class have no place in that vision. They are at best unaware and unconcerned with that vision. They are at worst actively hostile toward it. Either way, they cannot be trusted to value the neighborhood in the way its residents do. Statements to the contrary ring hollow, and Philly’s Chinatown is quick to call that hollowness out. Just look at this quote from one of the activists, Steven Zhu, president of the Chinese Restaurant Association of Greater Philadelphia:
"This community has been around here for 150 years. We are not stupid. We know that this is a land grab. We know that billionaire developers' interest is taking our land and erasing our community.”
All this is probably the reason Philly’s Chinatown is still around. When so many other Chinatowns have died—destroyed by neighborhood-shattering development projects and market forces and real estate speculation—Philly’s is still there. It’s not hard to draw a thru line between its staunch opposition to large scale development and the strength of its urban fabric. It’s still organic. It draws outside visitors, like me this past weekend, on the strength of its inherent vitality but it does not exist for the outsider’s benefit. It is not a marketing tool or tourist trap or something that puts the “city on the map.” Not by design. Not under the tenets of the urban renewal ethos. It’s something else. It’s necessary and community-sustaining and a product of the generations of people who willed it into being. In other words, it’s real. It is a real city neighborhood. There’s something about it which is worth defending to the people who live there. That thing cannot be defined in market terms. And the people defending it have correctly identified that the enemy of that thing is growth. Growth places no value on “real.” Growth does not understand what a “neighborhood” means to the people in it. Growth does not understand what an “urban fabric” is—how carefully it is laid and how fragile it is to maintain and how easily it is fractured and upended. Growth does not understand the self-defense mechanisms marginalized communities form within that urban fabric. The unofficial safety nets where the state fails to provide them. Growth kills those things without even knowing it. Growth just doesn’t care.
Worcester, now squarely under the Sauron’s Eye of growth for the first time in decades, could stand to learn a thing or two from Philly’s Chinatown. Worcester has that “thing” that Philly’s Chinatown has, but it’s in great danger. And there’s a failure to recognize it as such.
Where Worcester bent over backwards to sell the company store to a minor league baseball team and all the accompanying real estate speculation, Chinatown is gearing up for yet another fight against it.
Philly’s Chinatown knows what it has in a way I wish we would. We don’t have to start from the premise that growth is good. Tragically few people in this city understand that and meanwhile we’re losing what makes this place special. Imagine a world in which the Neo Heads who came out in droves to the License Commission meeting this morning saw the bar’s struggle as part of a larger one.
That’s what’s happening in Chinatown. Earlier this month, the community got together to form a formal committee: the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena. It’s made up of more than 40 local community organizations, non-profits and business groups, and it has support from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, a national civil rights-focused law firm. They’ve surveyed local businesses and got 90 out of 100 to sign on to an anti-arena petition.
The coalition forms ahead of an important pressure point, as the developers are trying to get zoning approval from City Hall by June.
So we see here the beginning stages of Chinatown organizing against a project they believe to be detrimental to their neighborhood. Should they pull it off and stop the project, it would be far from the first time. In 2009, they axed plans for a casino, and back in the early 2000s, they fought off a similar proposal to put a Phillies stadium in Chinatown. And it goes a lot deeper than that. From the urban renewal heyday of the 1960s, Chinatown has fought against highway expansions, the convention center, a federal prison proposal, and an earlier casino proposal. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
For 150 years, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has served that exact purpose to each generation of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community: for new immigrants, a familiar home and safe haven from discrimination and isolation through community, culture, and language, and a strong connection to and immersion in the heritage and roots for each generation after that. And for 150 years, the Chinatown community has fought for its life as big development project after project has targeted the neighborhood, threatening not only its existence but its unique authenticity — most recently with the 76ers’ proposal for a new arena in the neighborhood. Today, it’s one of the few remaining communities of color and low-income communities in Philadelphia’s downtown core, and one of few authentic Chinatowns left in the country.
“It’s [because of] a history and legacy of fight,” said Wei, cofounder of Asian Americans United. “Traditional arts and culture, and reclamation of culture and community, are underpinnings for how we fight.”
More recently, Chinatown has rezoned parts of the neighborhood to keep out big developments and high rises and a local community development corporation like the ones we have in Worcester has increased the availability of affordable housing stock within the neighborhood’s boundaries.
It’s really a shining example of a neighborhood’s ability to exercise its agency in defense of itself against much more powerful and well financed forces. And it’s one I think Worcester would do well to learn from.
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Best of luck to the ladies over at Hurricane Betty’s!
Thank you for all the great feedback from this monster of a post last week.
And to close us out I’d just like to say rest in peace to community organizer and man-about-town and bonafide fashionista Michael Foley, who died suddenly several days ago. If you knew him, and I’m sure many of you do, you knew what an outsized presence Michael carried around with him. I’m currently working on a little tribute to him for later this week or next, and I’d really appreciate you sharing a Michael Foley story or a memory if you have one to share. Send me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just reply to this post like an email if you’re reading in your inbox. And there’s this event coming up also.
Thank you for reading! Talk soon!