By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
If I had to be something, I wanted it to be was. — William Faulkner
My first day in New York City predated September 11th by approximately two weeks. I was just 18 at the time—thirsty, ambitious, oblivious. That two-week period was essentially the interim between childhood and adulthood, the end of which was most certainly a rude awakening. I mean that literally. The day will live in infamy because of the horrific events that transpired as the workday began, but I remember that morning for yet another reason—someone had decided to pull the fire alarm in my dorm not long after dawn. As I stood sleepily dazing at the rest of the inhabitants of the dorm, as well as the awakening city, I found myself enraged at the fact that I was on the street at such an hour, amused and still in awe of how blue the sky always seemed to be in New York City.
I don't mean this explicitly metaphorically. New York sees a lot of sunny days. This is certainly a departure from where I grew up. Michigan is not (in)famous for its rainy days like London or Seattle, but the cloud cover there is constant, oblique and varies from the color of stone to the hue of an old sock. It's the only place I've ever been where it can be as blindingly bright as the day after a blizzard and still completely overcast. On such days the clouds are an almost translucent white, akin in texture and tincture to fresh linen.
New York City may not be renown for its abundant sunshine, but, when compared to the low, pale ceiling above Detroit, it felt like Southern California for those first few weeks.
Constants begin as novelties. Furthermore, constants comprise a neighborhood, a town or a city. One can only feel at home when one feels surrounded by constants. This is true even in New York—a city that paradoxically prides itself on its past and its dynamism—and the ability to find something or someone to hold onto here ultimately determines how long a new resident will last. If one isn't anchored, they are bound to float away.
To say that New York has undergone a massive change since I first moved here would be an understatement. True, I wasn't here during the dark days, back when every person in the city had at least one mugging story, but I remember a far grittier East Village, as well as a large portion of the city that one was regularly told to avoid. Still, by 2001, New York City's rough nature was becoming a thing of the past. Whether one believes that it was due to the draconian policies of the NYPD under the Giuliani administration or the rapid gentrification of places like the Lower East Side and Alphabet City (a wave that would engulf a massive chunk of Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, Long Island City and approximately half of Brooklyn) doesn't matter. Violent crime was down and development projects were swallowing up entire blocks of dilapidated tenement buildings and landmarks such as the house in which Edgar Allen Poe had once resided. People were no longer afraid to ride the subway, even after midnight. However, these clearing skies would essentially mean that the New York that everyone had come to know for the past thirty years would be obliterated. And that's exactly what has happened, especially in the East Village.
Most of the East Village places that I used to haunt are now either gone in substance or gone in spirit. Raven went up in flames. The hookah lounge on Avenue C disappeared one day, probably due to at least a year of tax evasion on the part of the owners. The Second Avenue Deli moved to 33rd Street. The space it occupied is now a bank. Ma Kettle (bartender, bar namesake) died. The rusty explosion of church bells that used to jar me out of bed on Sunday mornings now jingles in a tone less offensive than a saccharine ring tone. Breakfast at Neptune is…well, still remarkably cheap.
International Bar (East Village)
To say that everything has changed would be foolish. While it's certainly different than it once was, there are still some staples. Veselka continues to serve some of the best Ukrainian food outside of Brighton Beach; Russo's still makes fresh mozzarella that melts in your mouth; the people at Kim's new location continue to impersonate Jack Black's character from High Fidelity with shocking accuracy. ("Yeah, we don't have…what was his name? Brad Mehldau—we don't really cater to the Top 40s crowd." I would have received the same routine had I inquired about a Ligeti or Xenakis recording.)
There is another constant in the East Village, and it's perhaps the only bar in the neighborhood that isn't trying to be ironic when serving cans of Genesee. The International Bar (120 1/2 1st Avenue, East Village) is the kind of place where one goes to bathe in the warm embrace of brick, wood and drowsy lighting; where one flees the sunlight during the day and the demands of the morning at night. It's narrow and cramped; the beer selection is unimaginative; the cocktails don't contain cucumbers or provincial aperitifs from provinces that no one can find on a map created after 1865. The daytime regulars still read the Village Voice. The nighttime regulars all look like they were in bands that were just about to break back when The Strokes were envied and imitated by every dude with a guitar under the age of 25.
In terms of East Village dives, International Bar is king.
However, it is not the original International Bar. People who believe that the East Village peaked in 2002 or 2003 in terms of edgy-but-not-dangerous nightlife will be quick to tell anyone within earshot of this fact. And they're right—it's not the same bar. Though it occupies most of the same space as the old one—which shut its doors the same year that I moved out from my place a few doors down—and possesses a similar spirit, it's a replica. True, it's an attempt at an earnest replica, but the minor aberrations from the original bar begin to be more discernible as one examines the bar's denizens with greater scrutiny. The chatty old men drinking and people-watching at the front window are also making cursory glances at the Times on their iPads. The sullen chick reading Proust at the bar is no longer a broke student from Hunter College—she's a French professor at NYU. The tattooed redhead and the bearded libertine out back bitching about work aren't on the bottom of their company's hierarchy; they are its two owners.
This would make the bar seem mildly pretentious if the rest of the East Village hadn't undergone a similar change over the past decade. It's a change I've seen, and it's one that I was instrumental in causing. However, people change over time, and places change, as well. The East Village became less dangerous, which brought in many of the bars that so many New Yorkers my age enjoyed during the first Bush administration. More bars followed. People with money started wanting to live in the area. Bars that catered to them opened up. Rent became more expensive. People like me moved out. Even fancier bars appeared. Condo buildings sprung up. This has been the trajectory of too many neighborhoods to mention. It seems arrogant to declare that a neighborhood should be frozen in a given year just to give broke people in their early twenties something to do at night, especially when we're ceasing to be broke people in our early twenties. We've become less-broke people in our thirties. The changes in the neighborhood aren't something I would endorse, as I loved the East Village of 2003, but to demand that it remain static is not only selfish, but completely delusional. New York City is constantly in a state of flux, and it always has been. This is the nature of cities.
We have to remember that something can appear as a constant if it changes at the same rate that we do. Even if it's different, it's still a relative constant, which—given the rate of gentrification in virtually every part of Manhattan—is the best that we can expect when nostalgia invites us out for a few drinks in the old neighborhood.