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 1854 (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 downtown “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 come 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.
From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City
Richard E. Ocejo