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
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.