Freddy’s Bar, in downtown Brooklyn, is fighting for its survival . . . .
Lately, the bar, and its manager Donald O’finn, have been very successful at getting media attention for the bars’ plight. Everyone from the New York Daily News (appropriately) to the New Yorker have all covered the bar’s fight against eminent domain, Bruce Rattner’s mechanism to seize the land below Freddie’s and the blocks aroud it for the Atlantic Yards Development. Even Fox News had them on for an interview.
I’ve known about Freddy’s since the early 90’s, when it was the local for workers from the Daily News Plant around the corner, though its been around much longer than that. I lived just up Dean and must have stopped in once or twice, but don’t remember much about it – it was very much a working man’s bar, a little anonymous, as busy in the morning as it was in the evening, with all the night workers and drivers coming off their shifts.
When the Daily News shipped out to Queens and, in what would be a foreshadowing of the Brooklyn to come, their former plant was converted into condos, I thought Freddy’s would close. But in what would be another foreshadowing, it was taken over by artist-entrepaneurs who buffed up the old oak bar, brought in bands to play in the back room and turned the bar into the artist/ boho space it continues to be today.
I started hanging out in the very late 90’s, when I still lived in Fort Greene. It was nice having a good bar in walking distance. In those pre-hipster days, there weren’t many bars in Brooklyn with found video loops broadcast on a TV over the bar, or that played the whole Velvet’s Banana album or the Ramones or 80’s British punk. The back room featured everything from hardcore to experimental jazz, and even if it wasn’t a ‘neighborhood’ bar in the sense that the black people up Dean, or the fireman and policeman from the adjacent fire and police stations, seemed to hang out there in any number, it still had the feel of a neighborhood bar. Donald O’finn’s found video loops, featuring everything from early cartoons to shlock horror and snippets from Bruce Lee films, were mesmerizing. A little too mesmerizing – if you went with a friend, your attention would inevitably turn toward the screen, and all conversation would stop.
I still go down occasionally. The bar, like the neighborhood around it, feels besieged and a little standoffish. Freddy’s is something of an icon now, voted best bar in Brooklyn by Time Out among others, and like all icons it has lost its casual feel. Donald Ofinn’s found video still beams from its perch at the front of the bar. For awhile last year, with the Atlantic Yards development at a standstill, I wondered if it would even go through – even the anti-Atlantic Yards/ Eminent Domain abuse clippings in the info box were looking a little worn – but a late November court decision in favor of Rattner has Freddy’s fight a new urgency. The scale of the proposed development is incredible (simulation from 2006) : what is essentially a section of mid-town Manhattan will be dropped in what had been a quiet, largely residential, neighborhood, making central Brooklyn largely unrecognizable.
On a Sunday afternoon before Xmas, Freddy’s held a special event to protest the coming storm. A fire had broken out a few buildings down and fire and police trucks were parked in front, though the fire had been contained with no visible damage by the time I arrived. TV, video and still cameras were present in great numbers, and Donald O’finn was interviewed many times inside the bar and out. “I’m just an artist . . . I’m the last person who should be doing this . . . ” He joked about the fire down the street. “We’ve been assured it was accidental . . .” A chain was put through the bar rail, handcuffs attached, and regulars duly handcuffed themselves to the bar while the cameras snapped and free rounds were handed out. A bartender jumped on the bar and took pictures of people taking pictures. Then more beers were drunk.
When I went down a few days ago, the neon beer signs in the window had been turned upside down. The bar, the chain, and the video along the bar rail were all there, though heavy machinery was edging closer, taking over a lot next door. Freddy survives, but for how much longer is uncertain . . .
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