By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
For in this long digression which I accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill — Laurence Sterne
Becoming a new neighborhood bar is never easy. It’s essentially like starting a tradition. It’s especially hard when a neighborhood staple changes hands, the space gets renovated, and the name out front goes from Smolen Bar & Grill to Mary’s (708 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn). Smolen had existed for many years, and at one time served as the local watering hole for the longshoremen who used to populate the area. These were the types of guys whose idea of a pissing contest was to see who could throw the best punch at brick walls at the back, the types who drank hard, fought hard, and probably died hard. The woman who ran the place, Mary, had their respect, though. She put up sheetrock along the walls to keep the men from breaking their knuckles, and made every ogre who managed to get his fist through it reimburse her for the repair. She had the façade redone with smaller windows to keep these same men from hurling one another onto Fifth Avenue during bar fights. Most locals feared the place, though, in time, it became tame enough for people who just wanted to take down a few cheap shots with their pilsner before heading on to classier bars or more rowdy apartment parties.
Mary used to run that bar, and that’s really the key word here. Used to. The area used to be filled with longshoremen, with degenerates and people for whom the light of day was a scourge to be avoided if not damned. It used to be a rough working class neighborhood. Not any longer. Though there may be a serial groper or gang of gropers roaming the streets at night, this weird nexus of neighborhoods (Sunset Park, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope) has become home to a lot of bars, just about all of them content to be nothing more than neighborhood bars. True, they don’t have a history, which consequently precludes them from being dives, but they aren’t trying to cater to anyone besides people who like to drink (Vin Rouge, the wine bar that used to be up the block, stuck around for about two years; it has been replaced by the more accommodating South).
There aren’t very many parts of Brooklyn or Queens where this isn’t the case. It is a different city. Crime rates, even if manipulated, are down. Old establishments are being left to generations who don’t want to bother either keeping tradition or renovating, as was the case, evidently, with Smolen. Subway service may still suck, but straphangers are rarely subjected to anything more menacing than the occasional evangelical or piss-soaked waif. For better or worse, gentrification and, far more importantly, the change in the economic landscape of the country (a paucity of industrial jobs, a profusion of finance jobs that are situated in urban centers like New York, maybe even the explosion of beer culture in America) have changed the city. For those prone to dietrologia, the type of paranoia that makes one believe that Sharia Law will soon replace the U.S. Constitution, or that there is no such thing as subduction (I’m not making this up), fingers pretty quickly get pointed in the direction of young white kids like myself, and new bars like Mary’s.
I don’t think I’d be too bothered by this if the majority of these people weren’t white kids who live in the area that is being gentrified, and have no qualms as they talk about the good old days that they never experienced (though they have seen virtually every No Wave film available at the totally Indie movie store that opened up down the block a few months back). What these people think of as character or personality is really nothing more than a projection of their own nostalgie de la boue, something that is wholly divorced from the stated reason behind their contempt—i.e. they do not want to see the working class displaced due to exponential increases in property taxes or rents. For them, Shiva is more a monster than a god.
Regardless, this is one of the demographics to which Mary’s wants to cater—most longtime residents already have a bar at which they are regulars. It’s a shame that a lot of the recent arrivals to the area will look askance at the bar as they pass by, and that it may be a long time before they walk in and realize that it’s exactly what a neighborhood bar should be—the only problem is that no one has really made it their home yet.
For starters, a neighborhood is defined by the people who occupy it. A neighborhood bar, consequently, is defined by the neighborhood. It is meant to be a place for people who live in the area, not tourists or the early half of the happy hour crowd (the early half drinks by work; the late half by home). Opening your doors doesn’t even guarantee the curiosity of a neighborhood, which can often prove quick to condemn and reluctant to embrace. But that was the first thing that I really liked about Mary’s: the door is always open, provided it’s past noon.
My girlfriend and I stopped in a few nights ago to see what the place was like. No surprise, there weren’t too many people in there. The bartender/owner was nice, though. She explained that the name was in honor of the Mary who used to keep the longshoremen who had once occupied the space in check, that the bowls of snack mix on the bar were homemade, and then went into the difficulties of picking out a draft selection since there are so many good American beers to choose from. We then carved a pumpkin (it’s the one in back with the bottle of Original Sin crammed in its mouth). Not exactly the most exciting night of my life, but proof to me that this bar had been established in order to give people in the neighborhood a place to go for a beer and a conversation, and not much else. It’s supposed to be a tavern, a pub, a bar.
And that’s what’s important about a neighborhood place. With the exception of the pool table, it’s not particularly unique, but it is certainly nice (restored tin ceiling, wraparound bar, extensive bathroom graffiti). Not that this is going to be huge draw. There are certainly more than a few bars within walking distance that are very similar to Mary’s, but this place has something that is very rare to see in a bar: a totally blank slate. Bars, like people, are defined by their context, by the way in which they interact with their environment and with the people in this environment. To see one in a nascent state, its context vague and malleable, makes you realize that the only thing that serves to make a bar a success (beyond some kind of gimmick) is the people inside of it. Hopefully Mary’s manages to get some more in the future besides me.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.