New York

Saying Goodbye to Grassroots Tavern

For four decades the St. Marks watering hole was something like Cheers for locals, misfits and the resistance alike

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Normally I am fascinated by the constant mutations of St. Marks Place. When I met a friend for our last pitcher at the soon-to-be-shuttered Grassroots Tavern in late December 2017, I was convinced the world was ending.

As we walked down the block to 20 St. Marks Place, I tried to count the neighborhood’s incarnations —the spot that served food via vending machines now sells hot pot; the Papaya Dog has shut down, but that space used to house a karaoke bar, anyway; the head shop I got my piercings from in the tenth grade is still going strong — but I got dizzy and confused. This was the street that ate a 7-Eleven. Survival was a struggle here, and somehow that was exciting. When I was applying to college, I was asked which historical figure I’d like to have dinner with, and I wrote an essay about eating falafel with Andy Warhol on the steps of the Chipotle that had previously been his Electric Circus. I predicted that he would share my affection for St. Marks’ confused commercialization.

In that context, Grassroots’ presence seemed a bit inscrutable. As its name might suggest, it has always been tied to activism. The Villager writes that the bar’s owner, Jim Stratton, who also founded the Downtown Independent Democrats, had hoped to create an inclusive space in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, with East Village residents crowded into tiny apartments, Stratton envisioned Grassroots to function like your living room. For over four decades it welcomed radicals, students, and the broke from throughout the city. It wasn’t trendy or corporate. It was huge, covered in graffiti, and sold $7 pitchers. It was timeless in the face of St. Marks’ perpetual evolution. On December 31, 2017, it ceased to exist. Stratton and co-owner Douglas Bunton, refusing to raise their prices to accommodate a rising rent, shuttered Grassroots for good. In its place, Bob Precious, owner of Murray Hill’s The Ginger Man, has applied for a liquor license to operate a new bar.

I started going to Grassroots some time around Occupy Wall Street, which is how a lot of young people seemed to find it. Grassroots is where I learned that my best friend from high school, Hristo, was plotting a move to Syria that would eventually become a Voice cover story. It’s where I got into heated debates with my anarchist friends about love, intersectionality, and the grunt work of revolution. It’s where I met strangers who became friends as we mourned Heather Heyer’s death. It’s also where my former colleagues and I gathered when we heard the Voice would end its print edition.

In my last moments with Grassroots, I wondered if there was anything I could learn from the closing of my favorite bar. 2017 was, after all, a year that trampled some of us at breakneck speed. Suddenly, it was acceptable for white liberals to wonder, more vocally than before, if I was worthy of inclusion in the workplace and in higher education. Diversity was the enemy of progressive causes. I found myself having to argue that Nazism was morally corrupt to willfully obtuse antagonists posing as rationalists. Women reopened countless traumas, only to be lectured about sex panics after a few companies fired prominent men in lieu of enacting structural change. Gothamist and DNAinfo, whose daily reporting largely made local, grassroots organizing possible, were demolished altogether. Surely this was all a portent of a doomed 2018.

“We can never set foot in the new bar,” I declared petulantly, after Hristo and I rehashed the year’s injustices. “We’ll be crotchety New Yorkers talking about what this place used to be,” he agreed. “We’re so old,” I said, but really we are 25. Sometimes I wonder if kids who grew up in New York age faster than transplants. So many of us have had to let go of the places we loved over and over, whether they’ve been demolished or reshaped entirely. The Fort Greene Hristo and I grew up with in high school is gone. It seems like we’ve lived several lifetimes watching scaffolding go up, mourning a landmark, and remarking on all the high-rises. When we tried to describe walking through Fort Greene in 2017, all we could say was, “Have you seen those 30-year-olds riding scooters to work?” In the face of gentrification, we are infirm.

Then, saying goodbye to Grassroots, I tried to milk some lesson from St. Marks, as if it had taken on a zen mastery of the New York minute. How could I live through all these impossible changes? When I peered into empty shop windows, there was no reply. C.O. Moed of My Private Coney knew exactly why the place seemed impenetrable. “St. Marks is — well, maybe it’s not dead, but it’s deadened. Maybe it’s been Botoxed,” she told Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York before lamenting, “I feel erased.” I feel that way too. 

Grassroots felt safe until the end, though. I felt safe when I spun out about fascists hoarding bitcoins and no one looked at me like I was crazy. Instead, Possum, the bartender’s dog, came up to play. During our last drink, Hristo and I wracked our brains for solutions to problems that were much bigger than us. Between long pauses, we decided we had no choice but to believe in people. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was more than I had been able to process under the avalanche of tweets and news alerts and reminders that everyone was using retinol cream but me.

2017 was an uninhabitable year as a woman of color, a writer, and a New Yorker. I watched helplessly as white supremacist groups expanded influence online and in public, as financial interests neutered local reporting, as the city got more expensive and more broken. Everything about 2017 seemed to be rejecting me. Grassroots reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that there was still a place in this city I could call my own.

It’s easy to imagine Grassroots’ closing as another blow to my sense of community. But I’m heartened by Stratton and Bunton’s decision to stay true to their vision. They offered cheap drinks for good people in an expensive city for as long as they could. It’s a reminder to put people before places. There will surely be more closures, forced or otherwise, to come. Hank’s Saloon has already announced it will be closing at the end of this year.

Though it seems like there’s nothing left for us, that’s never true. There are so many pockets of this city we make homes out of. In 2018, I hope we can all find one another.

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