East Village activist John Penley announced plans last week to show opposition to his beloved neighborhood’s new developments. His weapon of choice: skewered swine, which represents “right-wing Republican” Bruce Willis, the celebrity backer for a new wine bar on First Street. Penley, one of the area’s more vocal inhabitants, is scheming to roast a whole hog—like the ones that make your stomach lurch when you catch an accidental glance of them in Chinatown—that’s been awarded the pet name Bruce. “People love the idea,” says Penley, who plans to stage the protest during the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Tompkins Square Park riots, slated for August. “I know a few who’ve been calling from pay phones to ask Bowery Wine Company if they serve roasted pig.”
Co-owner Chris Sileo, on other hand, says all the calls have been in support of his new joint. “Ninety percent of the people have embraced us,” he says. “And it’s not like I’m not part of the Village. I grew up here—it’s where I’m from. My grandfather owned a bar in this neighborhood for 38 years.” He admits that the space is slick, but adds that you can still get a glass of wine and a panini with tax and tip for 20 bucks. (“We’re also giving weekly donations to the Bowery Food Mission,” he says. “We’re doing our part.”)
But what some call slick, others call sterile, and Penley would argue that nearly all of the neighborhood’s new establishments are the latter. Three other buzzworthy bars have opened in the past few weeks within blocks of BWC, and the East Village Yacht Club is gearing up to do the same. The former Navy sailor and photographer, who has lived here for almost 30 years, is a wealth of information regarding the nabe—and he knows just whom to blame.
“You can start with NYU,” Penley explains. “Whenever they open a new dorm in the city, corporate-type restaurants and bars immediately open around it. And the worst thing is that the students are one of the most obnoxious and visible groups in the neighborhood now. They tend to travel in packs—10 to 15 of ’em at a time—and they look alike and sound alike, without actually saying anything. It’s like a bunch of birds chattering.”
He gets more specific.
“I almost got in a physical fight with a gang of them not too long ago, congregating in front of the bodega on their way into Mama’s. They were taking up the entire sidewalk, making people walk around them, so I asked—very nicely—if they could please move closer to the building, at least. One of them pipes up: ‘Oh, so you own the sidewalk.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like: ‘Yes, I fucking do own the sidewalk, you little fuckers.’ I just started wailing on ’em, ran ’em off down the street. They’re temporary, you know? They have no interest or connection to the history of the East Village. If you asked them who Charlie Parker is, they’d probably tell you he sells cupcakes.” He pauses. “NYU unleashed a plague of dumb-kid locusts on the whole neighborhood.”
Of course, that hasn’t just happened in the past month. Penley’s friends—old-school artists, musicians, poets, and writers—got kicked out of their Bowery lofts long ago, taking with them some of the romantic ideals (and unpredictable parties) that twenty- and thirtysomethings still flock to New York to find. Taking up the Bowery’s spaces these days are a slew of new nightlife options. In the old Marion’s Marquee spot, Retreat’s owners opened Antik, a swanky lounge that doesn’t even have a bar, just cocktail waitresses slipping in and out from behind a curtain to quietly take orders. In the basement of that building, formerly home to M&R, now sits King’s Cross, an upscale pub that opened in March. And a few blocks south, the New Museum takes advantage of its convenient location to get in on the late-night museum action that’s become so popular. This Thursday, as part of the Get Weird experimental-music series, a power trio of downtown cool will take the stage as Fakey: Joe Williams of White Williams, Moses Archuleta of Deerhunter, and Matthew Papich of Ecstatic Sunshine.
And so things change, etc. But when photographer Clayton Patterson gets kicked out of the upscale John Varvatos retail shop for trying to snap a shot a week after it opened in the former CBGB space, it resonates. “This is a guy who’s one of the most famous documentarians in the history of the Lower East Side,” Penley says. “It just goes to show how connected they are to the neighborhood.”
Still, the stalwart continues to hold out, hoping that a worsening economy will force out some of the less hospitable tenants. And there are plenty of places that Penley will still go, like the Double Down Saloon. (“I like it because it looks so unwelcoming, you know? Even though it’s really not.”) Sophie’s, but not on the weekends. Bowery Poetry Club, occasionally. Atlas Café. Niagara. “Anywhere, really, where they know me well enough to give me free drinks,” he says.
If he sounds grumpy and out-of-touch, rest assured he’s not—Penley’s just concerned with quality control. We agreed on the Bowery’s only new bar worth going to: Bowery Electric, opened by Mike Stuto, Jesse Malin, and Johnny T (their combined lineage includes Hi-Fi, Black and White, and Coney Island High). Look for Hi-Fi’s weekend bouncer, Vincent, working the door on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—and befriend him. When I started to leave one night last week, he let me know that Spoon was on its way, following the band’s show at Terminal 5.
“That place is the one exception I’ll make to all this new shit moving in,” Penley says, singing Malin’s praises. “He’s part of the old-school neighborhood, you know. He’s one of our types—the outcasts and outlaws—but also just one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. And anything he does is just . . . it’s just cool, you know? He might be opening something in a gentrifying wasteland, but it’s still going to have some character.” (For the record, Malin is supportive of his new neighbor, Varvatos—his band, D Generation, is supposed to play the official opening of the retail shop on Thursday night along with Ian Hunter, Cheetah Chrome, and Alan Vega.)
For the places that won’t be receiving quite such a warm welcome from Penley, however, look out. “I’m going to buy some cases of cheap wine and have a free wine party—invite a bunch of the bums and the homeless and the squatters. Right out front of Bruce’s place,” Penley promises. “We’ll be there until the police run us off. Because, you know, there just isn’t any way of stopping it, unless the stock market crashes. That’s the only way we’ll even be able to continue living here.”