New York, I Love You But You Killed the Art Bar


I moved to New York ten years ago this month because I wanted people to drink with. I liked the idea of living in a city where I would be able to wander down any street and find a decent bar with a few interesting patrons. So within weeks of making New York City my home, the bars I drank in became the map I used to get anywhere from my first apartment deep in Greenpoint. But recently, like some strange omen, many of the bars I frequented a decade ago have closed up shop for good. I hear that ten years here makes you an official New Yorker — but the city sure does have a funny way of ushering me into its ranks. Yet I suppose that is also very apt, considering that becoming a real citizen of the the Big Apple means that I officially have reason to complain about how great our dear city used to be.

This summer was a bad one for a certain kind of bar that catered to a certain kind of person. Let’s call it the death of the art bar, the latest casualty of an underdeveloped haven for artists’ metamorphosis into a glossy, engineered destination. There are bars like this in places like Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, and just about every other town where the local newspaper has published a version of the “What’s with all the hipsters moving in?” piece over the last few years. The kind of bar I’m talking about is one devoid of artisanal cocktails that use fancy ingredients, one that lacks faux Midwestern basement décor — deer antlers, lots of reclaimed wood, vintage beer tap handles — and may or may not have had bands play there on a strictly informal basis from time to time. This year, and in the last few months in particular, a small stretch of New York City lost a lot of these bars. Could this be a warning to people all across the country that weird, little watering holes are becoming a thing of the past?

Photo via EV Grieve

Once you get below 14th Street, New York is filled with punk-rock landmarks. Odessa Café and Bar, which closes its original space this month (the newer restaurant next door at 119 Ave. A will remain open), might not be considered holy ground to rock fans in the same way as the former CBGB space that is now occupied by a John Varvatos store designed to look like it’s still a rock club, but it is difficult to imagine punk and hardcore without its existence. It was the place where the members of Black Flag first met with Henry Rollins, who had taken off from his ice cream shop gig in Washington, DC to come to New York and become the band’s new lead singer. I knew that bit of punk-rock history having read Rollins memoir, Get in the Van, but it didn’t dawn on me that it was the same place as I sat at Odessa’s bar my first night in New York. Two nights later, as I found myself at Odessa yet again while tagging along with a few people I haven’t heard from since the Bush 2 presidency, still not totally comfortable with exploring the drinking establishments of my new city by myself, somebody mentioned that bit of Black Flag trivia to me, and I felt something like reverence for that dirty bar.

Odessa isn’t technically on the Lower East Side, but since it was located a few blocks from where that neighborhood starts and the East Village ends, it feels like an appropriate spot to start a walking tour of the former places where the weirdos — myself included — went to drink. Take a five-minute walk to the east, to another spot that borders both neighborhoods, and you’ll see the apartments that were put up where the notorious Mars Bar once scared most passersby. It’s a place that’s seared into the memories of everyone who drank there, be it once or several times, in a way best summed up by this posthumous Yelp review: “I know Mars Bar is no longer in existence but the smell of coke farts, body odor and well liquor will forever remain in my nose.” Mars Bar was the best only because it was the absolute worst. It was a crummy place where people went to get smashed and act crummy, where people went when there was really nowhere better to go, and where I actually made a few friends who I remain close with to this day. It was hardly the most solid structure, both in terms of the little money it probably made in comparison to the newer, bigger, and cleaner bars around it that welcomed the less adventurous, but somehow its closing in 2011 feels like an unlikely but symbolic first domino to fall.

“While the gentrification of the east side is documented to the point of being tiresome, it may be about to reach its tipping point.” That quote isn’t about New York, although it could very well apply to the area in question. Rather, that quote is from an article that looks at how an Austin, TX neighborhood might be reaching its tipping point, not because “[t]he grassy knoll that used to host the Don’t Mess With Texas event during SXSW is now a giant hole awaiting foundation for a large apartment building. The Tejano bars that once lined the street with neon Pearl Beer signs in the windows, are gone. At Whisler’s, the newest addition to East Sixth, you can now sip $12 cocktails under the watchful gaze of Cesar Chavez, whose painted portrait serves as a constant reminder that up until very recently, this was a very different neighborhood.” But the reason a friend from Austin shared that link isn’t because of another bar opening up or someplace that sells luxury baby strollers that cost a year’s worth of some locals’ rent; it’s because the piece announced something that many city dwellers see as a fate worse than death:

The Austin Chronicle is reporting that the 1.8 acre tract of land that was the home of the now shuttered Nuevo Leon restaurant has been purchased by WPC LLC, a subsidiary of Walton Enterprises which is, you guessed it, the owner of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a lot of things to a lot of people: good deals to some, the devil to others. It is where people who want low prices go to shop, and it’s where people who don’t want to support a company that treats its employees terribly and puts small, local stores out of business tend to avoid like the plague. It’s the type of place many of us hope never to have to set foot inside of again once we’ve moved to a big city. The Lower East Side has had its own share of places that, while not as reviled as the late Sam Walton’s empire, are routinely blamed for hastening the neighborhood’s downfall: the aforementioned CBGB, which now sells clothes to guys who can afford to dress like rich rock stars; the Whole Foods on Bowery; the Bowery Hotel (rooms cost an average of over $500 per night); and a handful of expensive boutiques. But the difference between Austin and the Lower East Side in 2013 is that New York’s problem is no longer about what gets built in the neighborhood — it’s about what gets destroyed. Once a neighborhood reaches the level of over-saturation that’s afflicted the Lower East Side, one in which big chain stores and expensive restaurants take over what the little guys built up, it becomes totally unrecognizable. And although it’s natural that individual places to drink come and go no matter what the neighborhood’s situation, this summer felt like the penultimate sequence in The Godfather, where Michael Corleone wipes out all of his enemies in one swipe.

“Since opening in 1989, the artsy 200-person spot was as likely to host Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke, Elliott Smith or Josh Hartnett as it was local plumbers and students,” the Daily News said of Max Fish, another beloved Lower East Side art bar that closed last month. Its owner, Ulli Rimkus, told the paper she could no longer make ends meet by selling cheap drinks in the now-desirable neighborhood. When the bar opened, her rent was $2000 a month, but had gone up to $16,000 by the time it shut its doors this summer. Max Fish rang up its last beers almost exactly a month to the day after another Ludlow spot that had also been open for two decades, Motor City Bar, threw one last wild party before its final last call. A week later, on Broome Street, Lolita Bar’s bartenders slung its last drinks before locking up for good.

Motor City’s last party (Via Time Out New York)

I drank in those bars many times. I raised beers at Max Fish with people who have since passed away, people who have moved out of the city, and people I met once or twice and now see Facebook posts from that make me wonder, “How do I know him again?” I threw literary parties at Lolita, DJed at Motor City with friends who have since left New York for warmer places, and have a multitude of memories — some of which I can recall with crystal clarity, others more shrouded in a drunken haze — created in and because of those bars. They are the places that I think of as the best and worst one-night stands of my life; evenings that ran into mornings where I drank and laughed, and others when I felt like I would die of alcohol poisoning in the Motor City bathroom and end up some weird Manhattan urban legend. After a misspent early 20s, those bars are where I grew up.

But beyond nostalgia, there is something bigger about the rash of bars in a particular New York neighborhood closing that signals the end of another era, one in which the Lower East Side — or any other city’s equivalent to it — played host to a cohort of offbeat people who set up shop, served people drinks, and ended up forming a community. I don’t want to use the term “pioneers,” because American cities, and particularly the Lower East Side, have always been home to wave after wave of different people with adventurous spirits. Maybe they’re not as fashionable as new residents are today, but freshly arrived Irish men, women, and children; African Americans; Puerto Ricans; and my own Jewish immigrant ancestors all called the LES neighborhood home. I don’t see the founders of these bars as settlers or visionaries, but I’m assuming they also didn’t foresee million-dollar condos and expensive restaurants popping up along Ludlow.

But I do see these now-closed bars as the hallmarks of a generation of people who moved back to the city a few decades after their own parents or grandparents left it for the serenity and predictability of the suburbs. The opening of those bars in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and their eventual closing around 20 years later, perfectly sums up the past two decades of urban growth and the process that is gentrification. Every major city has one or two examples like this, from Austin to Chicago. Still, the sequence of Lower East Side bar closings, and the inevitable opening of establishments catering to a clientele that can afford $16 cocktails “inspired by” recipes from some Prohibition-era libations manual, serves as a depressing cautionary tale of how fast a neighborhood can lose its heart, and how nostalgic bastards like myself can quickly find themselves out of place in places we once knew, lost without the bars that served as landmarks to help us find our way.