In my last column, I talked about how some good cheap draft-beer growlers might justify some of the tie-wearing lawyer types now hustling around the borders between Mount Vernon and the west side. After a little more thought, I am not so sure about that. Maybe I want to take it back.
Don't get me wrong, I still dig Taps and some of the other spots in the Mount Vernon Marketplace—specifically The Local Oyster and Cultured—but it is still not the glorious Lexington Market and it is, it seems, part of a trend at work in the neighborhood toward clean and bright and even white (decor, not patrons) bars.
We walked out to visit the new bar that has opened across from Iggie's in the old Fire House. It was a soft opening and a staffer asked if we were on the list (the bar was half empty). We said no and were turned away and the kind of smarmy guy at the door made a big show of giving my wife a yellow rose as he kicked us out. It was sexist and flirty and insincere and annoying. "Come back tomorrow," he said.
"Nah," I thought, looking over his shoulder. It is so damn fancy.
So we went to Flavor. The old Midtown Yacht Club was one of my favorite bars ever and I spent way too much time there. Sure, it was shabby. There was a period when you might stumble through the broken floor on the way to the bathroom . . . and bump into someone doing bumps. But everyone felt at home there. It was a beautiful place. The Midtown BBQ & Brew took the same space and turned it into a theme-park version of itself: an airport bar that isn't at the airport—and it's no surprise that it didn't last. But now, it has reached its destination and completed the transformation into an utterly bright and white-furnished hotel bar without a hotel. The owners seemed nice—and it's great that there is a lesbian lounge upstairs—but I can't imagine this place being successful. There were more employees than customers—why have a hostess standing outside at a bar?—and a draft beer that wasn't even a pint was too expensive. But more than that, it just felt uptight and unwelcoming—though I'm clearly not the target audience, so take my criticisms here with several grains of salt.
Poets, the new bar which is actually at a hotel, brought some of the best bar staff around: John Hill from the Yacht Club and John Hartzell from George's, with Tom Hamrick also from George's managing. But it's too white and too bright to do any serious drinking in there for my money, no matter how much I like talking to those folks and some of the neighborhood regulars who come by. To be fair, they actually do have to cater to tourists as these other joints don't. But Poets? A poet never hangs in a bar called Poets. It's like an artist wearing a Van Gogh T-shirt.
To round it out, there is Ceremony Coffee, which is part Apple store and part zendo and sells $4 toast and $10 poached egg. To get just a sense of how weird this is on Park Avenue, compare it with Blue Sky down the street, where you get coffee for barely more than a buck in a plastic-foam cup and egg sandwiches on white-bread toast. How much better really is the Ceremony stuff? And how much are we paying for the fancy decor at places like Flavor in that $6 beer? Because, in reality, this fancy new decor just isn't any fun.
This is all part of several larger cultural shifts. There have been all sorts of stories in the national press about the death of the neighborhood bar. And that does seem to be happening here—but of course it has happened dozens of times before. When I lived in Albuquerque in the 1990s, it seemed like all the great bars—Jack's, Penguin Lounge—had all closed by 2000. But still, when the Venice Tavern tweets about pumpkin beer, something is afoot.
And it isn't just bars. I'm in the middle of two books right now that tackle this in different cities. The great Luc Sante's new book "The Other Paris" argues that cities are not the playgrounds for the rich, which is what many major metropolises are pushing for, but were places where the poor could live, places with public space. "The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds."
Likewise, "City on Fire," the big novel of the season (written by Garth Risk Hallberg, who, for full disclosure, is an old buddy of mine and edited my work at the literary website The Millions), revels in the details of New York of the 1970s. In the prologue (the only part of the book set in the present), he writes: "Then again, it's a different city now, or people want different things. The bushes that screened hand-to-hand transactions in Union Square are gone, along with the payphones you'd use to dial your dealer. Yesterday afternoon, when I walked over there for a break, modern dancers were making a slo-mo commotion beneath the revitalized trees. Families sat orderly on blankets, in wine-colored light."
Sure, Sante didn't live in the old Paris and Hallberg wasn't sentient in 1976 and as we approach 300 murders for the year and people are living in drastic poverty, it is dangerous to romanticize such things. But nevertheless, it is important to look at cities that have already lost the things we are so quickly throwing aside to see that we might not want to be so quick to rush toward the bright and orderly future favored by developers.
All of this got me thinking a little bit about the manifesto that my friends and colleagues Rebekah Kirkman and Maura Callahan wrote for City Paper's Fall Arts Guide. One of the points of the manifesto called for DIY—or artist-run spaces—to get their shit together. I understand the larger point—and as someone trying to write about these galleries, it is endlessly frustrating when people don't show up at appointed hours—but I am a bit wary of "shit-togetherness" these days.
Getting your shit together is, for an old Gen X-er, one step away from the dreaded "selling out." I've been told that people don't care about that anymore—the terrible band Shark Week can shill for Geico and still be somewhat respected in the world of "indie" shit—but, I think it will matter, once everything has been sold out and there is nothing fun left. It's bad enough that the bars are going all corporate—or at least feeling like they are trying to be Apple/Chipotle crosses—and everybody has to be a brand. But artists should be the fucked-up dreamers, especially young artists. Let's let the DIY spaces stay a little shabby and oversleep some of their gallery hours occasionally. (I stayed far away from the online debates surrounding the manifesto, but I suspect some DIY artists were as upset as they were because they feel like they are getting a little too legit these days and they long for the more carefree times when it was fun—and full disclosure: I rent an office space in a DIY space Psychic Annex.)
In that same blurb, Callahan and Kirkman argued that these spaces should stop putting on events for their 20 friends. Again I often think that the opposite is happening: Artists who aren't ready—because they haven't shown enough work enough times to their 20 friends—are showing and the work is a waste of everyone's time. I spent years and years writing every day before I even so much as published anything in the college newspaper. Lauren Shusterich, the incomparable singer for Wildhoney, who is deservedly blowing up, spent a year playing in private in my living room with the Barnyard Sharks before deciding to jump all in and join a touring band and take over the fucking musical world. And it was worth it. She stepped out, as if fully formed, with some mad chops (she had also gone to Peabody for years before that, etc.).
I'd argue that most of the work we now value was created in very small, unnoticed corners, where they worried about making interesting work, not having fancy bright decor or regular hours or good promo teams. And then, when you're cool—whether it's Miss Tony or Daniel Higgs—people will come. We don't need to all try to be big and famous all the time, despite what our culture says. Small can be good, unpolished can be beautiful, obscurity is awesome. Believe me, when you are old, you will be happy if you were allowed to make most of your mistakes in private.
It's not to say that it is wrong to want more—ambition is great—but just as a warning against our general cultural tendency toward thinking everything should be a business/brand these days. And, of course, when you are talking about mainly white (people this time) spaces, the larger point of the manifesto about diversity holds (I'm not sure that it does if you really broaden artist-run spaces to include something like Young Moose's OTM store as DIY, but that is a whole different conversation). But still, I'd say, get a more diverse group of friends, rather than use promotion to broaden your circle.
And how, one may ask, do you get more diverse friends? You could start by hanging out at the kinds of neighborhood bars that are quickly disappearing and talking to the people you don't already know.