Richard Ocejo on what bars tell us about gentrification in downtown Manhattan

The idea of bars as windows for understanding how cities change over time is an important claim in my new book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City. I studied the growth and impacts of nightlife scenes in the downtown Manhattan areas of the East Village, Lower East Side, and Bowery for four years, and in that time came to know a lot of bars quite well. I cover a lot of history in the book, and show how intertwined bars and nightlife have been with key changes and events in these neighborhoods.

Each of the following bars represents a different era in the history of downtown Manhattan, covering the mid-nineteenth century to today. I refer to each directly or indirectly in the book. Anyone interested in learning more about where these neighborhoods have been and what they are like now could use this list to guide them.

1) McSorley’s Old Ale House, 15 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Having opened in 1McSorley854 (or so they claim), the oldest bar in continuous operation in New York City (or so they claim) was immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker for staunchly adhering to tradition—in 1940. The praise is no different today in tourists’ guidebooks: sawdust floors, assorted tsotchkes with inch-thick dust, stoic servers, and only two drink choices (ale, light or dark) make McSorley’s an “authentic” example of old New York. It opened at a time when working-class Irish immigrants lived in what is now the East Village. It became a simple neighborhood bar, and today McSorley’s lends downtown a historic authenticity from the distant past with a mix of regulars and visitors from around the world.

2) Milano’s Bar, 51 East Houston Street, New York, NY

The last of the “Bowery bars,” I heavily feature Milano’s, where I began my research, in a chapter on the history of the notorious Bowery, New York City’s former Skid Row. The bar opened in 1924, at a time when Little Italy was a vibrant ethnic enclave, and not the Italian-themed tourist attraction it is today. Over the decades homeless men from the nearby Bowery and its flophouses populated the bar. It was one of many dozens of such establishments downtown, until reinvestment in the area starting in the 1980s led to their decline. By the time I started studying it, in 2004, Milano’s had a mix of homeless men, regulars in their 30s-50s who moved to the area when it started gentrifying, and young newcomers in their 20s interested in checking out an authentic New York “dive bar.” Grittier than McSorley’s, Milano’s survives because of this balanced clientele, and because of a preservationist owner who did not want to see it changed or closed.

3) Blue and Gold Tavern, 79 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Another downtowBlue and Goldn “dive bar,” Blue and Gold has a different history from Milano’s. It opened in the 1960s for the neighborhood’s incoming Ukrainian population (the name refers to the national flag). When I spoke with owners who opened bars at the start of gentrification, they said the only bars open at the time were Ukrainian or Puerto Rican, and their owners mostly kept to themselves and their own communities. These and a few other post-war groups (such as Chinese) represent the last wave of immigrants to move to downtown neighborhoods. As the Ukrainian population has faded, Blue and Gold remains a neighborhood bar for some, and a remarkably cheap throwback for visiting revelers.

4) 2A, 25 Avenue A, New York, NY

While not very creatively-named (it is located at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue A), 2A signified downtown’s gentrification in the 1980s. Bars like 2A were new places that accommodated the area’s new residents, such as artists, musicians, and students, as both patrons and bartenders. Taking advantage of low rents and inexpensive startup costs, these bars drew in these newcomers who were in need of local hangouts, and tried to exclude the neighborhood’s seedier elements, such as drug addicts and the homeless. The bars that succeeded, like 2A, remain in business today. With two floors and large windows overlooking a highly changed street, 2A still accommodates creative pursuits with regular DJs, film nights, and comedy shows.

5) Continental, 25 3rd Avenue, New York, NY

Among the many arts scenes and activities that thrived in downtown Manhattan, punk rock left one of the largest impressions in popular culture. Most famously, the club CBGB spawned such world-famous acts as the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie. Many of these artists lived, worked, and performed downtown. Continental opened in 1991 as another small venue that catered to alternative music genres. It became best known for housing hardcore rock bands. By 2006, with advanced gentrification in effect, neither small clubs for up-and-coming talent in non-mainstream genres nor young musicians honing their sound could afford to exist in downtown Manhattan. The owner changed formats from rock club to a dive-themed bar, with fake wood paneling and ridiculously low-priced drink deals ($10 for 5 shots of any liquor). Continental is now a destination for visiting revelers and college students looking for a cheap start to their night, a cheap end to their night, or simply a cheap night out.

6) Death & Co., 433 East 6th Street, New York, NY

Finally, we comeDeath & Co to an example of the latest wave of bars that have opened in downtown Manhattan and helped make it a new upscale destination. Unlike the owners of 2A and Continental, people who wanted to open a bar downtown in the 2000s must deal with high rents, more intense competition, and a need stand out among the rest. These owners, however, are less likely to live in the neighborhood, more likely to have access to investment capital, and more likely to have grand ideas and concepts for their bars. Opened in 2007, Death & Co. is a specialized cocktail bar and part of a renaissance of classic cocktails that have swept through downtown and across the city. The backbar is well-curated, the drinks are well-crafted (and pricey), and the experience is designed to be uniquely separate from the history of the neighborhood. They succeed in attracting downtown’s latest wave of hip, young, and increasingly wealthy residents and visitors in search of stylish consumption.


This is a guest post by Richard Ocejo, assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

bookjacket

Upscaling Downtown
From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City
Richard E. Ocejo

Book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox


Princeton University Press senior designer Jason Alejandro created this book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox. (The catchy song in the background is the aptly named “Weekend in the City” by Silent Partner.)

8-7 Atlas of Cities Atlas of Cities
Edited by Paul Knox

 

In the News: Ghaziani Goes Global with ‘There Goes the Gayborhood?’

8-6 AminGayborhoods. Rising Rents. De-Gaying. ‘Straightening.’

What does it all mean?

Princeton University Press author and associate professor of Sociology Amin Ghaziani has dedicated his life’s work to defining these terms and to bringing the study of sexuality to the forefront of sociology. Naturally, the intent of his latest book, There Goes the Gayborhood? is no different.

In many respects, the book is an ode to the enclaves which have historically acted as havens of support, providing community and allowing those with common sociopolitical goals to coalesce in their quest for equality, meanwhile striking rich friendships and developing culturally vibrant and economically robust neighborhoods.

Throughout the book, Ghaziani analyzes deep demographic data looking for trends of same-sex and straight households moving in and out of traditionally gay neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Castro district, Chicago’s Boystown, and New York’s Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods. His findings show that gay neighborhoods are becoming decidedly less “gay”—the number of gay men who live in gay neighborhoods has declined eight per cent while the number of lesbians has dropped 13 per cent in the last 10 years. He also found that other areas of the country are becoming more diverse with same-sex reported households in 93% of the counties in America.

The amount of media attention to Ghaziani’s book, and particularly to his unique sociological diagnosis of this issue, has been nearly as overwhelming as his findings. Mainstream media outlets like Time Magazine,  Yahoo! News, Chicago NPR’s “Morning Shift,” Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” and Huffington Post: Live, and the Chicago Tribune, among others, have responded accordingly to the radical realization of “straightening.” Salon has also paid due diligence to the dilemma, asking, “[A]s demographics shift, is it a sign of acceptance of a community – or the dilution of it? Is it possible, as the New York Times so damningly put it, that “gay neighborhoods face the prospect of becoming passe?””


“Gay neighborhoods have been crucial to the struggle for freedom, and have produced globally important contributions, from politics to poetry to music and fashion,” Ghaziani says. “[I]t is critical that we continue to find meaningful ways to preserve these culturally important spaces.”


Fortunately, Ghaziani’s own commentary in the Advocate rejects the claim that ‘gayborhoods’ are growing increasingly obsolete, no longer a necessary comfort to the gay community. He says that, “[t]here is a fine line between acceptance and the closet, just as there is between integration into the mainstream and the cultural loss of what makes gay people unique.” Although LGBT individuals have become “incorporated into the societal mainstream,” there’s no reason to dismiss such an integral and distinctive feature of the gay community.

And that’s not all the coverage. Not even close. The book has received recognition from French and German news outlets as well, in addition to an array of exclusively gay media sites like Pink News (Europe’s largest gay news service), Towleroad, and Joe.My.God, and we’re sure that the buck won’t stop there.

Even with this blitz of interest, though, it’s important to bear in mind the essence of Ghaziani’s argument: he is fundamentally fighting for these communities and seeking ways to preserve them without naively denying the realities of urban change. All neighborhoods change, of course, and gayborhoods are no exception. But they are evolving in unique ways as the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

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Amin Ghaziani is the author of:

TGTG There Goes the Gayborhood? by Amin Ghaziani
Hardcover | 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691158792 | 360 pp. | 6 x 9 | 5 halftones. 2 line illus. 15 tables. 6 maps.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850174 | Reviews Table of Contents  Introduction[PDF]