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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.”

Lordy.

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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The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

I’ve been down the last couple of weeks with the cold virus that seems to be sweeping the city. And what a virus – haven’t experienced anything like this in years. In the meantime:

From Patell and Waterman’s History of New York:

Hunkered Down in the East Village with Jeremiah Moss and EV Grieve.

Jeremiah Moss is the pseudonym behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and EV Grieve ditto for, well,  EV Grieve. They talked with P&W HONY blog host Brian Waterman about everything from selecting a blogging alter ego (Jeremiah Moss was originally a character from the writer’s unpulished novel), the ongoing gentrification of the East Village to the ‘East Village blogging mafia’. In particular, they talked about the changing demographic of people coming to New York, the East Village in particular, since 9-11. JM said:

“Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different . . . Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place”

The others concurred. I thought it was interesting that they feel the change set in after 9-11. In the East Village, the real shift, for me at least, began in the mid-90’s, when a whole new type of international affluent young person began to find the EV began to arrive in great numbers. In New York in general, I’d say the years after 9-11 weren’t too bad, preferable in many ways to the late 90’s, when a kind of hubris ruled, particularly amongst anyone connected to the dot.com world (for a reminder of just how awful that era could be, see ‘We Live In Public’ by Ondi Timnover).

Immediately after 9-11, pain, shock, brought New Yorkers together again – and scared off a lot of the kinds of people who have saturated it now. In February, 2003, 600,000 people marched against the Iraq War, coming out in minus 15 cold, with winds off the East River –  going up against a venomous lockstep media ready to label anyone who dissented from the Bush administration line a traitor.

In 2004, another half-million marched against the Republican convention in mid-town. That was a good time to be in New York. Again, there was a sense of solidarity in the streets, an energy and open-ness that hadn’t existed since just after 9-11. It was like a more genteel version of the New York I experienced when I first started coming here in the late 80’s. Even the East Village seemed to take a momentary respite from gentrification. If there were more white people with kids on Ave. A than ever before, they were a welcome change from the internationally trendy.

I’d say the latest big change in New York started happening in Bush’s second term. I came and went a lot during those years, and every time I came back, Manhattan seemed a little more affluent, a little more bland, even withdrawn, the bars I used to go to more expensive, familiar neighborhoods that much more homogenous, cellphone/ computer/ corporate culture that much more intrusive. By 2006 or so, the process seemed to have taken over everything else.

But if New York is about anything, it is change. In my limited (fifteen year) experience, the city seems to change direction every five years or so. Possibly, we’re at the end of one cycle now. I’d hoped that the big crash last year would put the breaks on gentrification, and bring back the city I’d loved, but that hasn’t happened yet, at least not in any obvious way.

What do you think, readers? What will the next cycle bring – in New York, London, Toronto, wherever?

Down Ludlow street

Down Ludlow street

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