By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots minus one
— Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Upper Eastside is the last place in New York City where one would expect to find a world-class dive bar, but, oddly enough, elitist Manhattan neighborhoods have a knack for hanging on to more than just their diamonds and pearls. They are oddities, these dives, but they possess a particular tenacity when they are situated in the wealthiest parts of Manhattan. They are recognized as staples, as part of the tapestry that makes up the neighborhood. (If one were to make a tired quilt metaphor, these dives would be the patches with cigarette burns on them, the ones that creepy aunts created during the creepier years of their already creepy lives, the ones that everyone looks to with equal parts disgust and amusement.) They have been in the same location for decades, and are accepted among even the most uptight residents in the area. Unless threatened with questionable eviction notices, it is unlikely that too many of them will ever go away.
Once upon a time it wasn't particularly strange for nicer neighborhoods in Manhattan to have commercial spaces that were not all occupied by high-end retail stores and snooty restaurants. In fact, some of the windows that one once walked past in Gramercy and Chelsea looked in on the bizarre—or, at the very least, shops that would not qualify as boutiques or purveyors of high fashion. However, the nouveau riche and younger trust funders of today, the people who are moving into neighborhoods close to Union Square or the Williamsburg Bridge, seem far less accepting of any aberrations to the brand names they have come to know and revere. It is even becoming common for residential buildings in New York City to be constructed with separate entrances for rich people and poor people. This is not a distinction between the residents' entrance and the service entrance; it is the distinction between those who pay market price for their apartments, and those who receive state subsidies to live both in a neighborhood with decent schools and in a building that isn't falling apart. The city's rich don't want to go Galt; they just want the rest of us to go the fuck away. Failing that, they don't want to see us, hear us, or smell us.
Unfortunately, for them, Manhattan has always been a hub for eccentrics and artists, as well as purveyors of goods that no sensible person seems to have any use for, let alone any desire to purchase. And while some stores such as these were, are and always will be fronts, many of these ostensibly useless stores are what make Manhattan so unique. Not long ago, it was one of the main distinctions between the streets in Manhattan and the streets in the outer boroughs. While the latter once contained dozens of nearly identical shops (salon, barber shop, bodega, nail salon, bodega, barber shop, liquor store, bodega…), the former had these hidden gems that satisfied such a tiny niche that it seemed as though Manhattan was the only place where they could even exist. Most of them were local favorites, though some were so unique and cool that no one ever talked about them (as the observer effect would undermine the very qualities that made said establishment cool in the first place), and they eventually became too cool to stay in business.
What has become rather ironic is that these places can still exist in the Upper East- and Westsides of Manhattan. They are oddities, but, as I mentioned before, they are part of the character of the neighborhood. The buildings they occupy are safe.
Lower Manhattan, western Queens and just about all of Brooklyn, on the other hand, are currently cowering beneath a profusion of dust and scaffolding, waiting to see what will be the result of the thousands of development projects currently going on. It's not just that new establishments are replacing old ones; it's that the old buildings are being demolished in order to make way for new ones. The former is not a new phenomenon; it is something about which I have written for several years now, and just about every blogger, journalist and photographer in New York has published their two cents on the subject. What is new is that we are seeing an accelerated gentrification, one in which the middle stages seem to have disappeared. The yuppies and condos are supposed to come after the daring and hip restaurants, not before.
While no rational person should expect any city to remain in a state of stasis, there is something to be said about the rate at which much of New York is being developed. Much of Brooklyn doesn't even look like Brooklyn anymore. Again, this is not because of the new stores that are opening up, or that the initial white people moving into areas that have been predominately black or brown for decades are not privileged and somewhat meek college students out looking for cheap rent on an apartment, but epicurean yuppies out looking for a steal on a condo. It is because the very buildings and cultural landmarks that have made many neighborhoods unique are being torn down to make way for sterile condos that look as though they were modeled after the dystopian architecture described in Yvegeny Zamyatin's We. Instead of housing people who have had their humanity stolen away from them, however, these buildings house people who have received humanities degrees from liberal arts schools in the northeast.
Perhaps this is why neighborhoods like the Upper Eastside still manages to excite and to surprise in a way that much of gentrified Brooklyn does not and cannot any longer. While one will certainly encounter the incredibly rich and the incredibly obnoxious, one will also come across dozens of lunatics, eccentrics and people who just don't seem to belong within a few steps of Tiffany's or Bergdorf Goodman. Thanks to the number of rent-controlled apartments north of Midtown, these weirdos aren't commuters—they're locals. Furthermore, many of these individuals have favorite hangouts that include park benches, bagel shops (such as Tal Bagels) and, of course, dive bars like the 77-year-old Subway Inn (143 E. 60th Street, Manhattan).
I first came across the Subway Inn after a group of friends and I had gone to a Hot Chip show in Central Park. The subways were mobbed, and we figured it would be for the best to wait out the rush in a bar. While there are hundreds of places in the Upper Eastside to get a drink, the majority of them are either restaurants serving glasses of flat Chianti for $15 a glass or extremely douchy sports bars that charge $8 a pint for Budweiser (and refer to it as "Bud Heavy").
The Subway Inn was different. Though it stands in the shadow of Bloomingdale's (across the street from the service and delivery entrances), we realized this very quickly. It was not just the décor, which was not retro or hip or ironic; rather, it was the iconography of an earlier age. There was no pretention about it. The black and white tiles on the floor were not harkening back to the classic, 1950s bars that used to serve the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote—these were the actual tiles that generated such associations. The booths did not possess a sad elegance for any other reason besides the fact that they looked both sad and elegant.
This was the bar to which other bars were compared; it was as though we had walked out of the rain and into one of Plato's allegories. We were standing in the single most authentic New York City dive bar still in existence.
Which is why I was so upset when I heard recently that the Subway Inn will be closing its doors soon (how soon is a subject of some debate). Like so many of the best dive bars in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, the Subway Inn is not being pushed out to make way for a purveyor of haute cuisine; the entire building it occupies is about to be torn down and replaced. The developer, World-wide Group (a name which brings to mind a PowerPoint presentation on the subject of grayscale), has not released any details concerning the project that will soon replace the majority of the north side of East 60th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. Anyone who has lived her long enough, however, can already picture the soulless, glass monstrosity that will soon stand on the gravesite of perhaps the last great dive in Lenox Hill.