When a Bar Dies

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Wrenching the old payphone off the wall should have been harder. A man who’d been pouring beer ten feet away for better than twenty years muscled a pry bar between a cinder block and the black metal box, and the relic heaved forward with a crunching groan, its broken attachments hanging like mangled arms. Two grey cords strained from the wall, like some last-ditch plea to let the phone stay where it’s been for, God, longer than anyone can remember. The bar opened in 1945. “Sometime after that” often ended discussions about the origins of things.

I was in the carcass of The Back Fence, a saloon on Bleecker Street in the Village. It was the afternoon of Sunday, September 29, 2013, a few days after it poured its last official beer given an ill-timed tangle with the city’s department of health. The bar had long been set to close on September 30, but the health-department troubles spurred the owner to go dark early. Perhaps most hurtfully to long-time regulars and employees, it meant canceling the goodbye shindig planned for the final weekend.

On that final Sunday, the lack of closure was palpable. Sullen staffers with dirty hands slowly emptied the bar of its decorative trappings. Some were auctioned. Outside, people seeking a free souvenir tore brown fence posts off of the exterior wall, leaving a hockey smile that confirmed you were now passing an empty building. A dead venue. A neighborhood watering hole that was there for 68 years, with live music every night, but is now shuttered and gutted. Soon to be another restaurant, another yogurt place, yet another bank. Something other than the irreplaceable nightspot it was.

It’s not mourned alone. The area has seen several notable bar deaths in recent years. Odessa, an East Village bar for 50 years, died a few days after The Back Fence taped its sparse goodbye note on its door window. Milady’s on Prince Street in SoHo, a dive bar alleged to be about as old as The Back Fence, closed in January 2014. Kenny’s Castaways, a few feet west of The Back Fence, closed in 2012. The Stoned Crow keeled over in 2010. Chumley’s locked its doors in 2007 and will likely never serve another pint. CBGB, perhaps the most prominent death, died in late 2006.

That’s just looking back. As a resident of the Village, I don’t much care to look forward. If you need ennui, visit a blog that’s dedicated to memorable New York places that have gone extinct: vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com.

Some of these bars, like Chumley’s (which suffered a ceiling collapse), died quickly. The Back Fence did not. Rather, its last two years felt like a protracted version of that afternoon of amateur demolition. The death throes were painful to watch, especially when it’s your local, but they were unremarkable.

It was a tired tune. The long lease was up, and the rent went from barely-doable-now to absurd. The owners couldn’t cover the new monthly nut. Not with this bar. Not in this Village. Some say business started to wane about five years ago, though others claim the slide began well before the financial crisis. I first noticed it in 2008. The sardine-can crowds on Friday and Saturday started to thin, stopped hitting the occupancy max, stopped bulging at the front doors. More people balked at the five-dollar cover after scanning the room. You could see it.

It was a gradual balding of the twenty- and thirty-something bridge-and-tunnel boozers, the ones who wave bills fresh from the ATM and whoop reliably to the opening riff of Sweet Home Alabama. Soon, when the bouncers kept removing the stools on weekends at dusk (to let bellies cram against the bar), it seemed like nostalgic wishful thinking. Weeknights were often crypt-like. It wasn’t unusual for two or three quiet sippers to have the bar to themselves.

Tips eroded. There was less vomit outside. Staffers had more time to cut fruit and do shots with customers. They texted. They did a lot of texting. They searched for answers, like you do when a job you don’t want to lose is ending.

“It’s because we lost the Wall Street guys,” some offered. “They used to come in here with expense accounts, run up astronomical tabs and they’d make your week. That’s gone now.”

Sure, the missing suits probably played a part. But there was also an uncomfortable element that nobody wanted to talk about: the bar likely wasn’t appealing to the young set like it once did. It was that fickle chemistry of being a place where people wanted to be—that invisible inch between being a grungy, iconic, cool dive bar with an unsigned wonder wailing classic rock songs and a dusty, empty beer joint with a lone cover-song veteran trying to beckon people in. Maybe too many young eyeballs pressed against the windows and started seeing the latter. They couldn’t see history, what made the bar more than it seemed in that glance. They kept walking.

Many found what they were looking for. One block away, at the corner of Sullivan Street, Thunder Jackson’s is packed every weekend and does fairly well on weeknights. It’s a youthful, painfully-trying-to-be-hip bar, circa 2009. A place that looks like it was assembled action-movie style with every trope that supposedly appeals to Generation-Yers with Lena-Dunham eyeliner and untucked Hugo Boss button-downs. It has pumping Top-40 music and countless televisions. Decent wings and burgers. Young female servers run about in tight, revealing garb, and seemingly change every month rather than every decade.

In short, Thunder Jackson’s is everything that The Back Fence wasn’t.

The Back Fence was a bar for people who wanted to see live music and get drunk. Peanut shells piled on the floor (at least until the Health Department got far more uppity about vermin two years ago). The journeyman bartenders could be curmudgeonly, uninterested in conversation. Short with any alcohol novice who asked for guidance when ordering a drink. It had small, dirty bathrooms and an unassuming coat of crud in the McSorley’s spirit. No dancing (“we don’t have a cabaret license”). Crap wine. No leg and precious little cleavage behind the bar.

But Kerouac and Ginsberg allegedly got stupid here. Lou Reed and Richie Havens played on that pitiful wart of a stage. The liquor pours were generous and the peanuts were free.

It was a take-it-or-leave-it dive bar. A refuge for the parched and lonely.

The kind that many New Yorkers still love.

Just not enough.

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