By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
A single bubble in an enormous block of cosmic cheese… — Brian Greene
A rather bizarre analogy for New York City came to me the other day. It's based in that strange realm of mindfucking known as theoretical physics. One of the more bizarre things that theoretical physicists have come up with—but perhaps less bizarre than the idea that reality as we all know it is essentially a hologram—is the hypothesis that there are an infinite number of inflating bubbles coming into existence in an infinite stretch of spacetime. Furthermore, each of bubbles constitutes its own universe, one with which the other bubble universes cannot come into contact. The renowned physicist Brian Greene likened it to an infinite expanse of Swiss cheese.
In an odd way, this is how New York operates. True, the space here is finite and the bubbles do come into contact with one another. Furthermore, individuals from one bubble can jump to another. However, the idea of a series of small enclaves all existing within the giant umbrella of New York is a pretty accurate depiction of the city. This is especially true in areas like the Lower East Side and the East Village. The forces of gentrification, which have so virulently sought to transform all of Lower Manhattan, have been particularly strong here. Although there continues to be several relics that have been spared by the successive waves of increasingly wealthy people coming into the neighborhoods—consequently increasing rent for residents and businesses alike—I've found myself feeling oddly nostalgic about the areas, as they were my stomping grounds back when I still lived in Manhattan. This was not during the 70's or the 80's or even the 90's. It was the early and middle years of the 00's.
On my first trip to New York back in 1999, I was told not to go beneath 14th Street on the eastside of Manhattan. As you walk further east and the Avenue numbers go down, I remember being told, the blocks gets worse. Once you run out of numbers, you really get into trouble—then you start into the alphabet. Avenue A, I was warned, stood for adventurous. B was brave. C was courageous. D, the last avenue before the FDR and the East River, was dead. Go south of 1st Street and you could wind up succumbing to such a fate without getting too far from Second Avenue. For a kid from suburban Detroit who had been taught to fear the charred hellscape of the inner city, this was gospel.
Until I moved here, of course. My first real apartment was on 1st Avenue six blocks south of 14th Street (I had lived in dorms prior to this). We moved into the place in the summer of 2003. There was an Irish sports bar downstairs and a restaurant that specialized in organic and vegetarian fare across the street. There were still blocks that one knew to avoid, especially the dreaded Avenue D. The East Village of the 80's, however, was long gone. So, too, was the Alphabet City of the 90's. Many people, however, didn't seem to notice. In fact, people even today still don't discern just how much the area has changed.
Iggy's Keltic Lounge
Perhaps the old reputation of the area has become so ingrained in most people's minds that they haven't bothered to even observe what the East Village is like now. A walk down Saint Mark's Place is no longer an opportunity to see how the other side lives; it is an eastward march of shitty souvenir stores, Korean restaurants and sushi joints. True, there are still groups of transient anarchists begging for money to partake in the consumerism that they profess to abhor, and you can still get a bong or maybe even a tattoo, but that's about it. The revolution has been commercialized, and it has been for well over a decade. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the grungy East Village now would be like going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair circa 1986. The times have changed.
The entirety of the Lower East Side has fared more or less the same. However, there are those few little bubbles that continue to exist. They're not dangerous. In fact, they're essentially the same kinds of places I used to visit when I first moved here back in 2001, and before I took part in the exodus to Brooklyn in 2005.
Iggy's Keltic Lounge (132 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side) is perhaps the best example. It's an unpretentious space that harbors no pilgrims in search of the authentic, perhaps because those who drink at Iggy's know that anything priding itself as an authentic facet of the New York landscape becomes a caricature—an entity devoid of authenticity. It's not an institution by any means (it opened in 1999), though it does predate most of the bars contained within the quadrangle of the river, Houston, Allen and Delancey, an area that now has one of the largest bars per block ratios in the city. What Iggy's provides is an aesthetic of nonchalance, abundant bathroom graffiti, pints of Sierra Nevada for $3 during happy hour, and a few crazy bartenders who become friendly when you treat them like buddies who are grabbing you a beer from the fridge as opposed to people who should be trying to get as many tips as they possibly can in a frenetic blur of appendages and glass.
Iggy's is the type of place that's ignored, perhaps even eschewed, by the newer clusters of bar hoppers who have come to dominate the Lower East Side—people who make more than $80k a year, work too many hours, hate their jobs, fear commitments, drink too much and think too little. They don't notice it because it's not a hip bar parading as a dive. It's just a bar with a small group of regulars and a huge contingency of occasionals. You'll run into yuppies, hipsters, a few punks, some college kids, people who used to live nearby or used to know someone who lived nearby. You may even meet a group from Long Island or Brooklyn or Jersey or Staten Island, a few friends who have stopped in for a pint before they reluctantly head to an apartment party or a fancy dinner or some event taking place in a cocktail lounge that tries to preserve the neighborhood's Jewish history by doing something banal like serving kosher wine or having some vegan, faux-pastrami abomination on the menu. They're meeting their friend at whatever this location happens to be (they want to be supportive, after all), but all they really wanted was a place to get a few beers.
And that's all Iggy's really is. It's not trying to be anything more, and it couldn't be anything else if it tried. It lacks a scene, unless one counts the bartenders' friends, and isn't a local bar because it seems to exist independently of the neighborhood because it's in a neighborhood in which and to which few people and bars really can belong. Iggy's is a bubble from a different era, one that will continue to persevere so long as it never tries to fit in with the fads and ephemera by which it is surrounded.