Archive for the ‘Bars of New York’ Category

Fire truck outside Freddy's Bar and Grill

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.

Oak Bar with Decoration inside Freddy's Bar and Grill

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.

Upside down bar signs in Freddy's Bar and Grill

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 . . .

Bartender standing on bar taking pictures inside Freddy's Bar and Grill

More bars of New York:

Mars Bar

Nancy Whiskey Bar


Drinking Saturday Afternoon

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Bar#3: Nancy Whiskey Bar

Mars Bar

Mars Bar, East Village, NYC

If the Mars bar wasn’t the first bar I went to in New York, it was close. It was the fall of 1989. I had a friend who lived down 3rd street, a few doors away from the Hell’s Angels clubhouse and a few blocks away from the desolation zone that, a few years earlier, had been the fabled early 80’s Alphabet City (documented in Lech Kowalski’s ‘Story of a Junkie‘), and he took me round.

I’d just come off a couple of years squatting in London, and a couple years before that hanging around the hardcore scene in Montreal and Vancouver, and the Mars was very familiar. The walls were covered in graffiti and shock art, a Rolling Rock and a healthy shot of JD cost about two bucks, the jukebox was stocked with all the British punk/ hardcore and New York noise bands I liked. Best of all, it had the rollicking open-ness of the East Village bars of the late 80’s. You’d sit at the bar, have a drink, and talk to just about anyone – musicians, art school chicks, junkies, dealers, some old lady from up the street who’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life – even out and out hicks rolling into town for the night. People’s open-ness came from confidence, and a desire to make contact. The brick windows allowed for a good view of the circus outside. After London’s self-concious cliquiness, and Canada’s faux British snobbery and insecurity, the Mars and all NY bars like it were indeed a liberation.

After the first couple of years in New York, I didn’t go down so much. I quit drinking for awhile, which probably had something to do with it – the Mars wasn’t the kind of bar you’d hang around without a drink. But year after year, it remained, even after the area cleaned up, even after the condos moved in, like a pool that remains after the tide’s gone out. I went down once in awhile, but figured it would disappear or be taken over by kids like all the other grungy bars I used to go to in the day.

Little did I think it would not only survive, but become an icon, written about in the New York Times as ‘the grimy dive where tourists go in search of authentic punks and authentic punks start drinking at mid-day.”


Condos across the street Condos across the street from the Mars Bar.

I went back a couple of weeks ago, inspired partly by a post in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and my recent desire to trace my own past in the Village. The bar was as filthy as ever, the walls covered in graffiti and the same shock art, but it felt comfortable, like a decrepit living room. Fruit flies hovered around the toilet in the closet-width bathroom. The walls were still covered in graffiti and shock art. Boxes of bottled beer were stacked behind the bar and there was still no draught. A sign over the bar read: ‘If you can read this, go the fuck home.’ The bartender, surprisingly, had not attitude – in fact she was almost excessively polite.

On first glance, the clientele was something like it would have been a decade or so ago, when I’d last been in. Some big guys with big beards and ponytails who looked like hipster farmers were punching music into the jukebox while the woman they were with kept falling off her bar stool. A black couple hovered around the bar, the woman alternately talking to her man and into her cellphone. Some huge Italian looking guy came in, flopped down on a padded office chair in the corner and said to everyone and no one in particular, “How ya doing? Haven’ a good day?” He seemed familiar with the bartender and a few old guys along the bar, like he was a regular – and when he didn’t order a drink I wondered if he owned the place.

A girl was sitting at the bar. Early 20’s, maybe European, maybe American – I couldn’t hear her accent. She had peroxide blonde hair, shiny black Doctor Marten’s, and hi-tech tattoos beneath her slick leather jacket and from the way she looked over the bar with an odd mixture of ownership and pride, I figured she must have worked pretty hard to reach her perch at this scarred and storied bar, dressed up in her new outfit . . .

I didn’t stay too long. It felt too self-conscious,  too much like the past, a reminder of how little of the world I knew in my own early 20’s survives.

Then again, maybe the old place still has some life. Or something: A post from Slum Goddess

Nice shots from Gog Log: No Worries, Saturday night at the Mars Bar

The East Village is Dead mural outside Mars Bar Mural outside Mars Bar

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Outside of Nancy Whiskey Bar

Nancy Whiskey Bar on a sunny day

See first of the series Bars of New York here: Farrell’s

Nancy Whiskey Bar is located just off the Canal Street A train, in an odd zone between Tribeca, Soho, and Chinatown. I used to go for happy hour when I worked in the area because they had one of the best around – 2$ a pint – and a couple of tables where you could sit on the little patio and watch rush hour go by. The regulars were an curious assortment of off-duty cops from a nearby precint, college kids, and out and out drunks, and fluctuated with shift workers from the nearby Post Office and the AT%T building. The bar had a pinball machine, a shuffleboard, Irish and American flags over the faux wooden roof behind the bar, and an old tin ceiling, painted brown and so low in the terrace in the back you almost had to stoop over.

But the best thing about the bar, aside from happy hour, were the bartenders who, on a good night, provided pure entertainment. I can’t remember them all now – there were a few – but the one that stands out was Barry, an Irish guy who’d been in the States for years. One night, when I went in with a friend, he was wearing a Toronto Maple Leaf t-shirt. I’d just come back from Toronto so I asked if he was a Leafs fan. He looked at me askance: “No, no – it was the only clean shirt I had around . . .”

Me being Canadian did get us a free round. We paid for the next then he stopped taking our money. A stack of bills sitting by the old metal cash register kept falling onto the floor and when we pointed them out, he’d waved us off. “Ah, never mind, I’ll get them later.” Some suits had been playing shuffleboard and one of them came over. He’d left his card behind the bar to run a tab and wanted to know how much the drinks were, so he knew how much he’d spent.

“It depends.”

“It depends?”

“Sure. I’ll see at the end of the night how much you’ve drunk then I’ll know how much your drinks are!”

The guy looked perplexed, then evidently putting Barry down as a character, went back to his friends without his bill or his card. When the guy’s back was turned, Barry gave him the finger, hissing “Fucking yuppie pricks!”.

Interior of Nancy Whiskey Bar

Interior, Nancy Whiskey Bar (from Andrew Karcie, New York magazine)

We stayed five hours. Two blonde girls sat down and ordered some wine. They told him they were from the Midwest somewhere and had dropped in by accident. He drained one wine bottle then when that one was emptied, he opened another. I didn’t see him take any money. Before their glasses were finished, he kept topping them up, and when I talked to them one hour in, they were both totally drunk. He rummaged around behind the hard liqour bottles and found two more dusty bottles of red. “We don’t get many orders of wine in here, I’m afraid,” then topped up the girls again. They went behind the bar and took turns posing with Barry and one of the wine bottles he’d retrieved. By the time they left, three hours in, they could barely stand up and he had to call them a car service. About halfway in, he started filling our pint glasses the same way, grabbing them when they were half-finished and filling them up and when we called for our tab we were nervous about how much it was going to be. He said:

“How much do you want it to be?”


“How does twenty bucks sound?”

Twenty bucks sounded fine. I think we had a shot for the road and tipped him another thirty or fourty or so. We were both hammered.

I went back a few more times but, like a lot of dive bars, it could only occasionally – and by chance – approach that kind of levity. It was on a circuit that included the Old Town, the Ear Inn, and a couple of others which had since been taken over. Nancy was such a dive, I was sure it would never be gentrified but the other night when I went back, the college kids were out in force, and I got the sense from the absence of anyone over the age of 25 that this was the norm. The shuffleboard was still there, along with the paraphernalia along the bar (a sign, probably there before Barry: “Hiring – but no Irish!”), but it had the feel of a college bar. I asked the bartender, a blonde woman I’d seen before, if Barry was still around.

“Nope. He was let go. A couple years ago now.”

I can’t imagine what his relationship was with the owners, but he was part of a New York that’s likely passed, when bartenders could get away with passing out free drinks to customers they liked, and you repaid their generosity not only with a healthy tip, but by coming back again and again for the show they put on, the atmosphere they generated.

A couple of reviews: New York magazine gives it 10 out of 10

Addendum: In case you don’t check the messages – a reader writes that Barry is still tending bar at Hudson Yards, 35th and 10th, Wednesdays through Saturdays.

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Old-time sign over Farrell's Bar and Grill

Old-time sign over Farrell's Bar and Grill

 Visited Farall’s, just south of Prospect Park on 8th Ave . . . 

Farrall’s has been around since 1933, a holdover from the days when Park Slope was an Irish neighborhood. Not so long ago, it was the haunt of Irish New York luminaries like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hammill. I’d walked by but never gone in.  From the outside it looks like any old time New York bar – long wooden bar, big glass windows. I’d heard it had been taken over by cops and firemen who were generally hostile  to anyone not one of the above but on that Sunday afternoon it was almost empty. Two men behind the bar – one young, one old, the older guy talking about how a rich mayor like Bloomberg could never be good for the New York working man. 

People came and went, some hipster types like me, or youngish couples grabbing styrofoam cups of beer with the plastic lids at the bar then going back outside, presumably to enjoy the sunny afternoon in the park. I started talking to the old guy. When I said I was from Canada, he said he used to go to Montreal in the 50’s and early 60’s, back when “everyone stayed up all night, every night” reminding of that part of my birth city’s history when the NY jazzmen went up to play in the clubs, when the strip shows, the gambling joints,  made Montreal the decadent – and deeply corrupt – outpost of New York and Boston, indeed the entire northeast.  He told me Farell’s used to be the haunt of a lot of Mohawk Indians, down from Khanawakhe, the same Mohawks who came down for almost  a century to work as high steel ironworkers, whose lack of fear of heights was legendary – some 500 Mowhawks, I’ve read, worked on the World Trade Center (In looking up basic info on the Mohawk ironworkers, I found this excellent post about the Mohawks by undercoverblackman including a link to a radio interview with one of the ironworkers and some great comments with more stories). 

Flag of the Mohawk Warrior Society

Flag of the Mohawk Warrior Society

The bartender said they used to live in the area. “They had to spend a certain amount of time on the reserve to keep their treaty status so they’d just declare their neighborhood in Brooklyn a ‘reseravation’ and claim their treaty status that way. They liked to drink beer – some of them even drank beer before they went up to work – but they couldn’t touch hard liqour, they’d go crazy and you wouldn’t even recognize ’em.” He said they all went back to Khanawakhe (just south of Montreal) in the summer of 1990 when the Mohawks in Khanawakhe and neighboring Khanasatakhe faced down first the Quebec police force, then the Canadian Army. In that long hot summer, they blockaded the Mercier Bridge, cutting off 6000 suburban Montrealers from downtown, inspiring blockades by native Indians across Canada. Since I was raised in western Canada and saw first hand the desperation of native life, the Mohawks had my full sympathy, and I was glad the Canadian Indians had rallied together and put Canada on notice. When I came back to Montreal that fall, the city felt like it had been occupied, with army helicopters and APV’s buzzing around, heading for the two reserves – each less than five thousand people  – south and east of the city. 

The barman intimated that the Mohawks hadn’t been around for awhile and I didn’t ask what had happened. In Joseph Mitchell’s  excellent essay ‘Mohawks In High Steel’ he mentions that they were centered in the Gowanus region, in the area now called Boerum Hill, but perhaps some lived around Park Slope as well. The links with the Irish go way back – many Mohawks have Irish features, with square faces and even freckles, a legacy of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Iroqouis Confedaracy was strong enough to play off the French, British, and the Americans, when their relative prosperity made them attractive enough that many Irish immigrants simply went native. St. Catherine Tekakwitha, the only native American Catholic saint, comes from Khanawakhe. Yet I wonder what happened to these legendary Mohawk ironworkers, why they didn”t come down anymore, especially since unemployment on the Mohawk reserves, I’ve ehard, has shot up in recent years . . . 

And it’s funny, in the ever-changing tableua that is Brooklyn, America’s clearing house, to see these links with a past that has been swept away.

Mohawk Warriors at the blockade during standoff.

Mohawk Warriors at the blockade during standoff.

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Bar-hopping in Manhattan used to be one of my favorite things to do in the city. A lot of other people from in and around New York seemed to feel the same way and sitting at the bar of one or the other of the old time New York bars – the Old Town up on 18th, the Ear Inn on Prince, or Milady’s, the last dive bar in Soho, you could always count on meeting people – two suburbanite dudes in from Pennsylvania, a retired Irishman back to see all the places he used to go when he tended bar when he was a barman in the city, a couple of crazy New York girls knocking back daquiris. The city felt like some enormous train station, with everyone pausing for a quick drink before moving on somewhere else, and walking through the Manhattan streets on the way to a new bar, it was a great feeling to check out all the pretty women, to flirt and feel connected to the city.

Alas, the city feels more dead somehow – no one seems to look at anyone else on the street. Perhaps it’s the time of year, but on Saturday I felt like I could have been in Toronto – or London. I went to the Old Town but it was full of doughy-looking folks in baseball caps in for the Kentucky Derby, so I walked through the West Village, through Washington Square Park where the performance space has been closed off for an indefinite time for refurbishment, the park bisected by metal gates, and into Soho. There was no real feeling in the air, and it seemed like the whole city had been taken over by these doughy, bland people, just like London has been taken over by yuppies.

At Milady’s on Prince, I got a bit of that old New York feeling. The crowds pouring in and out, everyone along the bar already drunk. The barmaids were wearing big plastic cowboy hats, – and the crowd around the bar was already drunk, while  the barmaid ran around mixing mint juleps – a Kentucky special apparently – in metal cups. When the Derby came on everyone started cheering for Big Brown, the local favorite, and a big guy in front of me kept yelling, ‘C’mon you fuck!” over and over.

The whole thing was over in two minutes. Some poor horse collapsed at the end of the race and some officials came out and shot it. I found out later the horse had broken it’s front legs and there was nothing to be done but put it out of it’s misery.

As the crowd began filing out, the guy who had been yelling at the screen prepared to leave with his friend, calling the barmaid over.

Guy: “How much do we owe you?”

Barmaid: “You already paid!”

Guy and his friend, suspicious: “You sure?”

Barmaid: “Sure I’m sure! The tab came to $35 and you gave me 60 bucks!”


Guy and his friend: “Are you sure we paid?”

. . . . and so on . . .

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