By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Canal Bar (270 3rd Avenue, Gowanus) looks like it belongs in Detroit. This is not an insult by any means, just an observation. It reminds me of the city that I visited only a few dozen times throughout my formative years, even though I lived approximately six miles north of 8 Mile, the street that separates the suburbs from the Motor City. Perhaps this reminiscence is targeted exclusively at Comet Bar, which, although only a few blocks away from Comerica Park and Woodward Avenue, is indicative of the Detroit that so many love and fear. Then again, there are numerous other Detroit area dives that look and feel a lot like Canal Bar. Perhaps it's the colored Christmas lights and the way that patrons take football too seriously—I'm not entirely sure.
Nestled in a small portion of Gowanus that pops in and out of existence in about two blocks, Canal Bar claims to be the area's oldest bar. From what I can tell, this is true because the nearby Glory Social Club, a mobster relic from the twenties, isn't technically a bar. Instead, it's a place for a few rambling octogenarians to spend their summers lazing around on hideous patio furniture and smoking massive stogies. I have no idea what they do during the winter months, as the social club is still a Members only establishment, and I have never met anyone who has managed to get inside.
Though Canal Bar may be the oldest bar in Gowanus, it is a relatively new place. It opened its doors in 2005, a few years before the rush to open up shop in the neighborhood began, and it likes to wear this somewhat pretentious fact on its sleeve. This is not to say the bar is filled with pretentious people—quite the opposite. I've had quite a number of good nights there—getting drunk on buckets of High Life in the back with old friends beneath the fig tree, dipping our feet in the kiddie pool as we talk politics and philosophy and revolution and all of the other things that come up as you soak in the moonlight and try your best not to smoke too much because the nearest bodega isn't all that near, and you're hungry for conversation with these guys you've known for far too long, guys who live on separate continents now, both in actuality and metaphorically, guys to whom you'll give your last cigarette even if you know that means you'll have to take that unfortunate walk over to 4th Avenue beneath flickering sodium streetlights, and then back, beneath the same streetlights buzzing like cicadas; and then through the less than crowded bar as you give the obligatory nod to the bartender who hasn't bothered to ask you your name even if you know he wants to since you've been camped out in the backyard since well before his shift began; and then the open door and the stairs and the greetings from the guy manning the grill who doles out free burgers and sausages to anyone who returns the favor with a few words, as he's lonely or generous or wants an excuse to escape from his house and his wife, who we'll say is named Gina, for a few hours.
If you feel as though it is attempting to assert itself as a neighborhood staple, you're not far off.
Gowanus, prior to the push to gentrify it, was a lot like Detroit or even The Zone as described in Gravity's Rainbow. For me, it was the embodiment of the urban hellscape that looked like the setting for a "Just Say No" PSA from the early nineties. It was the type of place that kids from the suburbs were taught to fear, as 3rd Avenue, its main thoroughfare, was a kind of Via Dolorosa. Amidst the clusters of row houses there were shuttered commercial spaces and abandoned light industrial buildings; the sidewalks served as an artery for prostitutes and vagrants and junkies and every kind of tough motherfucker you didn't want to come across even in the middle of the day. It wasn't like the Village back when the Village had an edge—it was like how Flint or Utica or Toledo is now. Okay…it wasn't as bad as Toledo, but the point is that it was Brooklyn's own little piece of the Rust Belt. And like the Rust Belt, there was, at one point in time, the belief that Gowanus could be transformed into something completely new. This was, of course, prior to the time that people realized it was close enough to Manhattan to be a viable candidate for rapid gentrification.
Like so many of us who have come to New York looking for a place to call home, Canal Bar wants to become part of the city's narrative. It is not hoping to gloss over the fact that it didn't exist for the terrible times, nor does it disingenuously mourn their passing. It seeks both to fit in and have its autonomous history prior to the move—hence the bar's obvious affection for the Chicago Bears—which means it readily admits to being an outsider while striving to be an authentic locus within its adopted home. It defines itself by both its difference and its sameness. In other words, it is exactly the same as many domestic immigrants who move to Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. It is tastefully grungy, not cheap, friendly, and willing to admit that it is not a Brooklyn native, even if it is a quintessential part of the landscape.
Canal Bar represents one of the facets of the new Brooklyn. It is the unwilling force behind gentrification instead of the oblivious force of gentrification—one that manifests itself in the form of vegan cafés and custom cocktail lounges that service grad students who will one day grow up to be the latte-drinking liberals who are used as fodder by reactionary demagogues hoping to agitate class animosities without knowing that they are only proving Marx and Engels right (perhaps in a bizarre form of chirality). Hence the reason Canal Bar looks the way it does. It's the new in the fashion of the old; however, in its attempt to replicate its surroundings, it alters them. It is, in a way, a metaphor of the Brooklyn that so many of us domestic émigrés inhabit.