Life After (Near) Death

Rarely do bars on the brink of death get a second chance. What happens when the outpouring of grief changes their fate?

By the afternoon of Friday, January 10, Neir’s Tavern bandwagoners were coming out of the woodwork. That morning, news had broken wide that the Queens tavern—which has, under one name or another, held down a quiet corner of the Woodhaven neighborhood since 1829—would be closing at the end of the weekend, the victim of a rent hike.

Young people spilled out of taxis, staring up at the modest two-story building. Older couples who hadn’t been back for years idled by the bar, recalling dates they’d had decades before. One man remembered the time he worked as a pin-setter for the bowling alleys that once operated here. Each group wanted to enter the veritable time machine, named for a German immigrant who bought the bar in 1898, that had served drinks to everyone from Mae West to the cast of Goodfellas. The mood of a jazz funeral prevailed, life-affirming yet melancholy.

Such visitors show up regularly today, nearly two months after a hasty negotiation that rescued Neir’s. On the same Friday that patrons gathered to say farewell, local councilman Robert Holden and the tavern’s landlord, at the urging of an unusually engaged Mayor Bill de Blasio, hammered out a new lease. (Neir’s owner Loycent Gordon arguably set those wheels in motion with a Friday-morning Hail Mary call to WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.)

“Lots of people with documents and photos from the old days in their hands [showed up],” says Gordon, the Queens fireman who has owned Neir’s since 2009. “Saving Neir’s brought a lot of people back, saying, ‘What can we do?’”

What can they do? And, whatever it is they do, will it be enough? New York is not kind to the old, and old bars are no exception. Recent years have seen the closing of Mars Bar, Hank’s Saloon and Chumley’s, among others. Long-standing watering holes are regularly threatened by the exigencies of a merciless real-estate market that no longer supports independent and mom-and-pop businesses.

Most of these stories end the same way: The bar, unable to meet an exorbitant rent hike, shutters. A lucky few on death row, however, get a last-minute reprieve. In 2018, Coogan’s—a sprawling, multiroom Irish pub on the corner of 169th Street and Broadway, and a fixture in Washington Heights for three decades—was looking at its last days. Its landlord, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, wanted $60,000 a month, a 200 percent increase in rent. Only the sudden intervention of a few local luminaries, including Adriano Espaillat, congressman from New York’s 13th Congressional District, and Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, a neighborhood native, saved the day.

“It changed the world for us,” says David Hunt, one of the owners of Coogan’s. “I’ve known Lin’s father, Luis, forever. He booked Lin’s 25th birthday party there. He and his wife used to come in all the time before he was a big success.” The effects of such a media blitz were good in the short term. New people checked out the place, says Hunt, and former regulars returned. “That was January of 2018. We had a fabulous January, February, March, April. We got so much publicity on it, that a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought of Coogan’s in a while.’ They came back.”

Gordon has witnessed the same phenomenon at Neir’s in recent weeks. But he knows that such sentimental patronage will not last, and that it can’t be the foundation of an ongoing business plan. “What happens is, we get so complacent with everyday struggles,” he explains.

New York is not kind to the old, and old bars are no exception.

Everyday life gets in the way of good intentions and plans to go to Neir’s; beloved places get shifted to the back burner again and again. A calamity like the bar’s near-closure brings people back momentarily, but the aftermath of the crisis presents new challenges. “The issue is, are we going to go back to what we were? How do you sustain that? We can’t say we’re closing every day,” says Gordon.

For him, the elusive goal of prolonged commercial stability means getting people who always intend to visit the old bar, but never do, to make the effort; it also means establishing the perception of Neir’s as not only a neighborhood bar, but as a city landmark, along the lines of, say, McSorley’s Old Ale House and Old Town Bar. Those two are actually younger than Neir’s, but benefit from being in Manhattan. An advantage Neir’s has is that it’s already viewed as a cornerstone of the community.

Bridget Bartolini, a fellow Queens resident and founder of the Five Boro Story Project, a social program that aims to bring New Yorkers together through live storytelling, says she appreciates Neir’s engagement with the community. “This place, they have so much they offer besides alcohol,” says Bartolini, who doesn’t drink, citing an upcoming documentary screening and the regular Shine Box comedy night, named for a line in Goodfellas.

At Coogan’s, meanwhile, such community outreach has always been part of David Hunt’s business plan. “Some have described us as the Washington Heights community center,” he says, adding jokingly: “We find it a better policy than promoting the latest craft beer.”

Stick around Coogan’s long enough, and you’ll witness the tavern’s role as old-fashioned connection point. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hunt was going over details for a fundraiser for families of people with HIV in the Dominican Republic. He was puzzling over how to secure the attendance of Espaillat when the congressman himself walked in, and accepted the invitation.

Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, and a regular customer who recalls seeing two Nobel Prize winners having lunch at the bar, says he uses Coogan’s as his second office. “People come to visit me, we come here for lunch or dinner and talk.” When asked, however, if he noticed a lot of new faces since the bar’s near-closure, he admitted he hadn’t.

“Business has been okay,” says Hunt with a shrug. “It could always be better. We’re keeping our heads above water. This is a big boat to float.”

Because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Hunt could not disclose the terms of his new lease, but he seems content with the reprieve, and seems to regard the extension as a possible home stretch. “It will get me to retirement age,” he said. “We will be in a much better position when we leave than we would have been in 2018.”

Over at Neir’s, the new lease runs for five years, with an option to renew for an additional five, plus a first right of refusal should the building go up for sale. That agreement, Gordon points out, will get Neir’s to its 200th anniversary. In the meantime, every new customer and every round of drinks is an extension of the bar’s lifeline.

“See that?” said Gordon, pointing to a reporter’s newly arrived glass of beer. “There’s 190 years and 30 seconds.”

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