By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare — Virginia Woolf
A recent article was published on the subject of Irish pubs in New York City—specifically on their disappearance. Another article appeared a few hours later, which was not as much corroboration, but more or less an edited version of the first one. Though this practice encapsulates the phenomena of echoing one opinion in order to establish specious consensus, it does reveals that the author(s), as well as many of the individuals interviewed on the subject, are of the opinion that it is a shame that many old school watering holes in expensive neighborhoods are closing. Furthermore, it's proof that the city is changing (not that even casual observers needed another one). On top of the rent increases, they provided another reason for the change: Young people aren't satisfied with the limited options that one typically finds at a pub. They expect kale salads and craft beers even when they walk into joints that were originally supposed to cater to blue-collar workers.
The first premise is true. A lot of bars aren't going to be able to come up an extra $20,000 a month when faced with a spike in the rent. This is not a problem for Irish pubs exclusively, of course. Any bar or restaurant that specializes in serving cheap food and beer is not going to be able to remain in business without doing one of two things: raising their prices, thereby ceasing to be cheap; or increasing the number of customers they have. The former will alienate regulars. The latter isn't possible for reasons largely ignored in the two virtually identical articles: That younger people don't visit the neighborhoods where many of these bars are closing down.
Most of the people moving into the neighborhoods discussed in the articles (which have also seen residential rents skyrocket) are not seeking out pedestrian fare and shots of Jameson. Hell's Kitchen, for example, has seen a lot of its Irish Pubs close their doors, but it has also seen a lot of its dive bars and diners do the same. Dive bars aren't charming to someone who just paid $1.8 million for a condo. Furthermore, someone who just shelled out that amount of money isn't going to be particularly young.
This is why the second premise is false. The hip neighborhoods in Manhattan are considerably older than they used to be because far less people under the age of thirty can afford to live there. The preponderance of younger people moving into New York City is, instead, going to Brooklyn or Queens. Furthermore, there are now enough bars in most of the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods attractive to this demographic that there is no reason to venture into Manhattan when going out. One doesn't have to enter a bar populated by an equal ratio of creeps and ornery old men to have a drink, nor does one have to suffer through an overly crowded place where getting a bartender's attention can take more than half an hour. Even the bridge and tunnel crowd, so universally disdained by much of the city's denizens, have started to fan out into the East Village, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and, due to the completion of the Barclay's Center, northern Park Slope.
In other words, the younger people to whom the author(s) of the article refer are not living in the neighborhoods where these bars are closing, not drinking in the neighborhoods where these bars are closing or not actually that young. Either way, the absence of kale on a Chelsea pub's menu has virtually nothing to do with the reason why there are no one under the age of thirty-five in many of the city's oldest Irish bars.
While there may be a decline in the number of pubs operating in the city, there is certainly no shortage. While in recent years I was partial to Brooklyn's PJ Hanley's, which closed allegedly for tax reasons as opposed to gentrification, the first pub I truly came to think of as a second home while in New York was also one of the best that I've ever come across: Molly's (287 3rd Avenue, Gramercy Park). And I came across it a lot, even before the smoking ban went into effect. Molly's was the first bar that ever served me a proper Guinness on tap, and it was where I was introduced to the black and tan. The burgers have appeared on a slew of top-10 lists from neophytes, grizzled locals and some of the city's biggest publications. The onion rings were so good that my friends and I used them as currency with regards to cigarettes, typically at an exchange rate of one-to-one, and on one occasion proved to be worth one of the 22-ounce bottles of malt liquor that a friend had in her refrigerator. I walked the ten blocks to her apartment with the single, cold onion ring, wrapped in a napkin and stuffed in my pocket, and delivered it to her, and then seriously reconsidered the deal upon my first sip of that beer.
While it does perennially feel like a tomb or a tenebrous inn from the pages of Swift (the sawdust on the floor only adds to this effect, as do the low ceilings), Molly's lacks the air of sour beer and desperation that one typically associates with Manhattan pubs. It is authentic without being either pretentious or purposefully squalid. Furthermore, this authentic Irish pub is doing just fine. True, it is not particularly cheap, but it's not grossly overpriced for Manhattan.
Perhaps this is what irked me so much when I read the article about the dying off of Manhattan's Irish pubs. There seems to be a belief that New York City is losing its authenticity when, in fact, the very nature of authenticity in the city is changing. Cities are not static, and there is no era that embodies the essence of a city more so than any other. 1960s New York was not more authentic than the New York of today. While it is upsetting to see many of the places that once seemed integral to the very essence of the city, it is also a process that happens whenever the demographics of a neighborhood change. What's truly upsetting, however, is not the disappearance of institutions, nor is it even the spurious lament. It is the fact that this lament takes aim and scolds a demographic that has very little or nothing to do with the changes taking place.