By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

A bathroom with a view catapults you to the super-luxury caliber, not just the everyday luxury class – New York City broker

Writing about New York City makes one confront the illusion of permanence. The city is always changing, not only in the sense that there are people flowing in and out of the five boroughs every day, but because the notion of what makes or defines a
Jay Fox
neighborhood changes, as well. Some streets change over time as one group gradually moves into the neighborhood and another gradually moves out. Sometimes the change is less subtle, and a class of people are given a swift boot by a towering wave of gentrification that manages to alter not only the makeup of the people in the area and the shops that line the streets, but the buildings in which they're situated, too.

However much there may be a desire to accept the former as normal and to reject the latter as some kind of scourge that can be defeated with think pieces and witty critiques on social media, the city has always been defined by movement, momentum and noise. Unfortunately, this means development. It's not only because the city opens its doors to immigrants seeking opportunity or provides sanctuary to young artists from the oceans of tedium on the other side of the Hudson; it's also because the city is on the bleeding edge of everything from fashion to tech to art. It is dynamic and permeating with kinetic energies, and this means that it both is forced to change perpetually and has to expand to accommodate all of those people who want to come here and call this place home.

This presents a problem for those who want to maintain some connection to their roots and the history of the city, and this is where the contradictions of New York City real estate rear their ugly heads. The city has a limited amount of space; a group of extremely wealthy property owners who have the resources to preserve their neighborhoods; and a group of not wealthy people who don't own their homes—and, consequently, can't preserve their neighborhoods should their landlords want to sell to developers. All this would be pretty volatile, but it becomes downright toxic when you add the final ingredient to this gentrification stew: A group of college-educated people who arrive in the city to pursue their dreams at the expense of displacing those poor people with whom they tend to sympathize and to the benefit of those developers whom they despise, but with whom they have to cooperate in order to live in a part of the city that they can afford. The result is that the townhouses in the rich neighborhoods are preserved, the poor people are displaced, the developers are enriched and those college-educated people eventually come to define the neighborhoods they've decided to call home. They eventually cement their foothold in these areas once they purchase the townhouses in the formerly poor or working-class areas because they've aged and become respectable people. They then fight for the streets to become landmarked, thereby making it harder for developers to get properties on said streets upzoned. This forces the gentrification process to expand into new markets.

However, before arriving at this final stage, the college-educated people in these “edgy” neighborhoods become increasingly respectable. Soon, the wild bars and clubs that once made the area so “edgy” begin accruing noise complaints because the suddenly respectable people seem incapable of making accommodations to allow life to happen outside of their windows when they want to sleep. Eventually, these places shut down or get priced out. They're replaced by galleries or rustic eateries that sell “hand crafted cocktails” and the shabby chic pretensions of farm-to-table living. Sure, the food is good, but the streets are ghostly by ten at night, and these types of neighborhoods begin to look less like they belong in the city that never sleeps and more like they should be in the suburb that has an early meeting. Traveling eastward along the path of the L train, one can see each stage of transition: From the quietude of the West Village, to the rather sober East Village, across the East River into the part of North Brooklyn that has seen most of its cool bars close, into the parts of east Williamsburg and western Bushwick where the process is now claiming cool casualties like Shea Stadium and Silent Barn, and finally into the eastern section of Bushwick where the effects of gentrification are starting to become easily discernible.

This process has another series of effects on the neighborhood, particularly in its later phases. First, the stabilized renters who had been living in the area for decades suddenly can’t afford to shop in their own neighborhood. Second, people who don't live in the area stop visiting for similar reasons: it is unaffordable. Consequently, the neighborhood ceases to have the draw it once did. This is what has happened to much of Lower Manhattan, the former the center for nightlife, music and art, and now there are only a handful of worthwhile places that have become icons against gentrification as opposed to the neighborhood joints they’d always been. Meanwhile, most of the newcomers are either generic lounges jam-packed with a cavalcade of bridge and tunnel shitshows or overpriced and bespoke bars overcrowded with bland yuppies who look like they got lost on their way to a shoot for a J. Crew catalog.

Eventually, you find yourself asking why you even bother traveling to these neighborhoods. This is particularly the case with Manhattan. It's an hour-plus subway ride in, an hour-plus subway ride back, and then you always end up having a nightcap once you’re back in your own neighborhood at the place where you've wanted to be since you got on the train to the City. And as you sit there nursing your pint or your whiskey, you realize that the allure of the City is gone, and that you really only wind up there because of work or some social function that you don’t really want to attend in the first place. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to frequent these neighborhoods only accelerates the rate at which the older places that once made areas so interesting close, only to be replaced by demure charcuterie houses or clubs that cater to the Santacon or finance bro crowd.

Look, I don't believe that New York City should be a museum. It cannot be. It is alive, and to be alive is to change. I am merely making the observation that Downtown has retained its low-rise aesthetic at the expense of its reputation for being home to the types of establishments that young artists like to frequent. Consequently, these types of places have moved to Brooklyn, which has made living in Brooklyn cool, where the process is now replicating itself. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few weeks over the course of the past decade or so has observed this, too. However, the integral point here is that Brooklyn's success is causing the nightlife scene in Lower Manhattan to wither. Lower Manhattan has lost its cachet as the city's nightlife hub, and people don't see a need to go to the City when they go out. This means there is no longer a single hub, and that entrepreneurs can open a new bar in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was previously considered almost exclusively residential and be successful.

I really want to stress this point. Up until about a decade ago, the first wave of gentrifier would move into a neighborhood that was devoid of these kinds of establishments. Eventually, a coffeehouse or a bar would show up, and this would announce the second stage of gentrification. Such a process would typically take a few years. Now, the gap between the arrival of the first wave of gentrifier and the opening of the types of establishments the group prefers to frequent is narrowing. One predates the other by just a few months or maybe a year because there is less risk involved in opening such an establishment since the group of gentrifiers now remains in their neighborhood when they go out instead of going into Manhattan. This gives the appearance of accelerated gentrification, but it's actually two simultaneous and distinct phenomena taking place (gentrification and the decentralizing of the city's nightlife), not just one. 

Holland Bar

However, there are still a few bars in Manhattan that are reminiscent of that old New York that people revere in a way, and they are the ones that cater to people who don't live in cool parts of Brooklyn. In fact, they cater to people who want to have a quick drink or two before catching their bus or train back to the suburbs or tenants who have managed to hang on to stabilized apartments in buildings that are just a few years from the wrecking ball. Some are Irish pubs in Midtown. Some are construction worker bars in the shadow of the World Trade Center or Hudson Yards. Some are commuter bars just a few blocks away from the bus station on Ninth Avenue. Holland Bar (532 9th Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen) exemplifies the latter group.

Holland Bar is the type of narrow, no-frills bar that reminds one of the types of watering holes that once upon a time used to be found throughout Manhattan. It consists of the five components one needs for a bar and little else. These are: booze, a chair, a bathroom, music, and a bartender. There’s a bar there, too, but you get the impression that little would change if it were composed of card tables and long scraps of tin.

For the most part, Holland Bar is where you go when you’re waiting for a bus or to escape the madness that tends to roll up and down the blocks bouncing between Port Authority and the methadone clinics and shelters off Eighth Avenue. It’s the type of place where you will inevitably find yourself in a long conversation about a single subject with an older man who doesn’t get to talk to a lot of people should you enter alone, where every hour sees the Zeppelin and AC/DC quota dutifully filled, where baseball games drag long into summer evenings, where you can sling bottles of Bud and shots of whiskey with ease while staring at the forest of dollars posted behind the bar (which are evidently there to wish the owner good luck), and ponder the identities of all of those who decided to give up a buck as a form of benediction.

From the assorted cast of characters, “Butt Slut,” “Irish Dave” and “MN Nice,” among others, you can tell that the bar has a diverse set of regulars and drop-ins, and you can also tell that it’s long been used as the type of place that one can escape to before the long commute home or the fancy Midtown dinner you’re obligated to attend. It’s something of a way station that allows you to collect yourself before you have to emerge into the commotion of Ninth Avenue and figure out the best way to get yourself home.

However, these types of places are vanishing at an alarming rate. And while I run the risk of being yet another singer in the sanctimonious choir belting out dirges for a New York City that hasn't existed in more than a decade, my point here is not to bemoan the loss of a punk rock venue or another place that broke creatives like myself like to frequent. It's about there being a need for places where any person can come and have a drink after a long day of work and before getting on a bus or a train home.

The larger point is that this is about having a tiny slice of space within a neighborhood that remains open to all. It's about the idea that every inch of this city does not need to cater to artists or the upwardly mobile or those who have reached the top of capitalism's food chain. It's about the idea that a city, New York City in particular, isn't supposed to be so stratified and tame and homogeneous that the only things distinguishing one neighborhood bar from another are the d├ęcor and the tap list, and that there's virtually no difference between the person sitting next to you and the reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

Ultimately, when this happens, New York City ceases to be dynamic or kinetic because everything is the same. It's places like Holland Bar that keep that from happening.

Jay Fox


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.