The Bowery, McCarren Park, Atlantic Yards: Every hot-investment neighborhood has at least one hallowed bar clutching to survival despite the encroaching shadows of big development. Question is, how long can these old establishments hang on?
Mars Bar (25 East 1st Street), a lone dive bar dwarfed by the new Bowery residences with wi-fi terraces, has become the East Village’s seventh wonder of the world: a 1980s vestige of the neighborhood’s dirtier, cheaper—and culturally exalted—-years. The bar’s $5.25 top-shelf drinks are certainly a throwback, as are the scrawled musings of patrons on the wall (the finest: “Whitey Loves Brunch,” “You died in my heart at Marz Bar,” and the short but effective, “Kill You”). Lord knows any other place would have slapped a coat of white paint on that or gutted it for the exposed-brick wet dream. It would be a serious blow to lose a place like this to Sculpture for Living II—those infamous Mars toilets and their fragrant bouquet notwithstanding. Fortunately, Mars won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, thanks to what employee Daniel Coursey—in characteristic Mars Bar fashion—vaguely refers to as a “long-standing agreement” the owner has with the city. “It’s here as long as the owner is alive, and that will be for some time.”
Over in Greenpoint, bar proprietor Steve E. claims it’s too early to tell what impact the ground-raising in McCarren Park will have on the area: “There’s a lot of business going up, but it hasn’t been finished yet.” His 26-year-old sports tavern, Turkey’s Nest (94 Bedford Avenue), sits two blocks away from a luxe condo still under construction, yet advertisements for one building, IKON, boasts of “rock star residences” where (ostensibly) celebrity dwellers can “avoid the paparazzi” with gated private parking. Luckily, this will be the last of the tower takeovers, as zoning laws have slammed down a maximum height for building around McCarren Park—a fact that developers are none too subtle about including in the sell. “The first and last ultra-luxury residences of its kind,” gloats posters for the Aurora, and “Warning: It is now illegal to get this high.” (Pretty rad ad you got there.) To round the corner and head into Steve’s bar is to enter a different world: land of the Styrofoam cups of beer, ’70s faux-wood-paneled walls, proudly displayed handmade turkey robot, Super Bowl raffle tally with names of first-name-basis regulars, and patrons killing off young virtual Bambis on the Big Buck Hunter arcade game in back. For now, Steve claims business is great and the neighborhood has only gotten safer as a result of the all the changes.
In Prospect Heights, Freddy’s (485 Dean Street) lies, according to manager Donald O’Finn, “in the footprint” of Bruce Ratner’s megalomaniac development. Eight or so years ago this Prohibition-era cop bar was charmingly reborn and redecorated by O’Finn and friends with a mass of thrift-store tchotchkes, books stuck into built-in shelves, and televisions screening O’Finn’s videos (reformatted old film and TV clips). In addition to sponsoring its own in-house literary magazine and providing a space for community activist groups like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, Freddy’s hosts some of the city’s most original readings and performances: Sing and Win a Ham, and the much praised Cringe Reading Night of teenage diary excerpts. What will become of this place once Ratner’s fantasy is fully realized? “Last I heard, we were destined to become an escalator,” says O’Finn. “Which is kind of ironic.”