Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Loss of Mars

Last week we learned that Mars Bar, the East Village dive, long a haven for punks and outcasts, will be replaced by a 12-story prison-block of an apartment building. The pangs of loss have been reverberating through the city, among the bar's regulars and non-regulars alike. This is a big one. It brings with it a larger feeling of defeat. The East Village has lost so much of itself in recent years, but Mars Bar feels symbolic, as if it contains all of those losses in one final blow.

As the glass tide of luxury has risen around it, the bar remained a symbol of defiance and hope, a sign that the bastards could not grind us all down. We went inside for a drink and felt, ourselves, like holdouts, survivors, undefeated. Just walking past that corner and seeing the painted riot of Mars Bar could boost your soul. It was as if that crumbling little corner was giving a big "fuck you" finger to all the shiny towers rising around it, and all the shiny people swarming in, radically changing the culture of this historically anarchistic neighborhood.

Mars Bar seemed, at times, like the old East Village's last stand.

Just within the past decade, before the Bowery tsunami washed in, Mars Bar existed in a different world. The two blocks bound like two halves of a book by the spine of First Street, between Second Ave and Bowery, were quiet, ramshackle blocks dotted with cultural touchstones. Empty lots overflowed with weeds and graffiti. Brick buildings held the secrets of deep history and eccentric residents.

Everettsville: Looking east along 1st St. in 2002

Same view today

Standing at the intersection of 1st and Bowery, looking to Mars Bar one block east, you had CBGB and the Amato Opera House to your left. On your right, you had feminist author Kate Millett's home, formerly McGurk's Suicide Hall.

Then, in 2003 NYU opened their Second Street residence in the parking lot next to the Amato Opera House. The lot had been used by singers to practice--you could listen to the arias as you walked by. The new building stopped that and blocked the Amato's mural. At the time, the opera's co-director was frustrated about the dorm, but hopeful it might bring positive change. She said to NYUNews, "Maybe the empty store lots will become delis, and the store fronts will be brighter."

But there were no delis coming.

Amato mural, my photos, circa 1994

In 2004, after a three-year fight from the feminist activist, the city evicted Kate Millett and the Avalon Communities' Bowery complex leveled old McGurk's to put up an enormous, block-long glass box. Said Millett at the time of her eviction, "It’s going to do in the neighborhood."

She was right.

Niznoz: McGurk's in 2005

Same view today

With NYU and Avalon now flanking these two blocks, the interiors quickly collapsed. Everything fell like dominoes. In 2006, venerable CBGB closed its doors, and a John Varvatos boutique opened in the space in April 2008.

In 2007, the Avalon announced their plans to turn Extra Place into a slice of the Parisian Left Bank and today their scheme is proceeding, with artisanal chocolate shops and the like. Said Cheetah Chrome to the Post. "If that alley could talk, it's seen it all. All of Manhattan has lost its soul to money lords."

Everettsville: Extra Place 2002

Extra Place today

A second giant box went up on the northeast corner of 1st St. and Bowery--it holds a Chase Bank--and a third went into the northwest corner of 1st St. and 2nd Ave., across from Mars Bar. Hamptons boutique Blue & Cream opened in the Avalon and started selling $140 Bowery hoodies. After a claim of trademark infringement from a lawyer for the storied punk club from which he co-opted the name, celebu-chef Daniel Boulud opened "DBGB" in that same glass box--the Voice called this move "dancing on the ashes" of CBGB.

In January 2009, the Amato Opera House announced its closure after 60 years. The owners of a chain of bars plan to move in with a giant restaurant and possible theater. And now Mars Bar, the last Mohican, will fall for another ticky-tacky glass box.

All of this happened in only 7 years. These photos by Everettsville (see more) are not from the distant, blighted 1970s--they are from 2002. When people talk about how the city is "always changing," I tell them this story, the story of a historic, culturally relevant neighborhood sold down the river, demolished to the roots, and rebuilt into an unrecognizable playground for people passing through with money to burn. All in less than a single decade.

Everettsville: Looking west on 1st St. in 2002

Same view today

Of course, the city's leaders have been chomping at the bit for 40 years, since the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Plan was originally hatched as The Alternate Plan to Robert Moses' slum clearance designs.

In 1970 the New York Times described the plan: "Bleak storefronts, where derelicts sag and sleep in doorways, crumbling tenements and ancient office buildings will eventually be supplanted by more than 1,000 apartments for low- and middle-income families." Somehow, between the radicalism of yesterday and the consumerism of today, the plan went from mainly supporting the poor and middle-class to providing luxury homes, hotels, shopping, and dining for the wealthy. It was a project designed, in the words of the Times, "to restore a measure of dignity to an area that over the decades has become the motif of alcoholic degradation and futility in the city."

But where is our dignity now? A new kind of futility has taken hold and we are degraded when our symbols of hope are ripped away from us. Are we really still responding to Robert Moses? He would have bulldozed Cooper Square and the Bowery in one fell swoop. Now it's going down, agonizingly, piece by piece.

When Mars Bar is demolished, it will be Moses' ghost swinging that wrecking ball, a coup de grace as he delivers the death blow to the world we once knew.

See deeper into Mars Bar history here


JM said...

Moses had some pretty lousy ideas, but Bloomberg is right up there with him. Bloomberg doesn't have the more positive legacy of Long Island beaches and a few decent parkways to soften his disastrous record.

I guess we should have known, and some people did: you elect a billionaire as mayor, and he reshapes the city as a billionaire would like to see it. That he did it with such speed and with such ineffective resistance (those two are related, btw) shows how easily we 'average' people can be swept aside by near-dictatorial leaders. The whole country could learn a lesson here, but I'm sure it won't.

It's just horrid.

JM said...

One more thing. Bloomberg had a lot of help, and I don't mean the developers. I mean the long-time owners of a lot of buildings and parcels of land who just decided to cash in and screw everyone else. That's how the capitalist system works, so no surprise there, I suppose. Still, there should be a roll call of the greedy bastards who sold out history, and in record time.

Anonymous said...

I still have a bag of Morning Glory seeds from the vines that grew on the fence around the 1st & Bowery lot.

Anonymous said...

Prefer vacant lots, crack, fiscal disarray, squeegie men, burned out buildings, junkies and muggings?

Bullsh1t ... "old NY character" my ass.

Bowery Boogie said...

Holy shit, this is sad. Great roundup of the last 7 years, though.

The terrible thing is, they're not done ruining the block.

Anonymous said...

While it is sad to see the East Village that I knew go. But I don’t blame Bloomberg or landlords (as much). Yes, it is a product of capitalism. It’s also a change of socio-economic patterns. The problem that NYC is experiencing, is/has happened all over the world of high-tourist destination cities. Moscow, London, Paris… where ever there is money this will happen. What you have is changing views for NYC. There were 20 years where people labeled NYC a big “bad” city. I have relatives that haven’t been back to the city and still think it’s the wild west, a crazy place to go where you don’t take the subways or stay out past 10pm and especially not outside of midtown. Most people who are 60 yrs old now, remember the 1970s as a 25 year old & have a hard time letting go of that image. The old view is gone amongst people in the 20s now and there has been a suburban invasion as a result. Add that to the changing tastes. Go to Smith’s Bar in Hell’s Kitchen, you wont see anyone under 25 in there generally. It’s not money that has whitewashed the East Village. It’s a product of the city becoming safe, cleaning up its image and mostly due to what the youth wants today. People who are 24 generally prefer pristine bathrooms, clean walls, no graffiti. It’s all about image today. “Dive” bars were about conversation and good music. Popular bars now adays are about loud music, DJs playing the top 40 and table service. This is where the money is. Yes, I miss/will miss places like Mars Bar, Down the Hatch (let’s face the music on that one too), Korova Milk Bar, Liquid Lounge, Open Air Lounge, the prerenovated Beauty Bar…. But I also understand my age and that it’s not my generation anymore. Times change, spending habits change. We’d all love the old B. Altmans, Gimbels dept stores to be open still but let’s face it. It’s rare that places of business to survive 20 years since they would have to change and adapt to the new 20 somethings that they survived to do business with. So maybe when Mars Bar returns, it will be able to retain some nostalgia and cater to the 24 monied crowd a bit more as well. Without adaptation, a business would only be lucky to survive….

Jill said...

The speed with which this all has happened is legendary. When I think back to my own childhood of the 70's things felt relatively stable, progress was slow and steady, not a hurricane of activity. You had time to get used to it and adjust. I remember they built that tall glass residential building next to the 59th Street bridge, the Roosevelt Island tram and the Citibank building, and it was BIG news.

My 17 year old son, growing up in the aughts in the East Village, has seen so much change to his neighborhood that I've actually heard him lament the past and feel nostalgia for things gone that he associates with his earlier childhood.

Captain Bringdown said...

You gotta know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

Folks, walking away time arrived years ago; it's running time now.

Anonymous said...

Just north of where the Bowery ends and becomes third ave, between 6th and 7th, there was a Marble and Granite building that faced McSorley's. My 86 year old Aunt used to tell me with tears in her eyes that this was her old church (to me, I always thought it was an old bank). This was demolished around 2008 or 2009, and a huge Glass high rise now stands in its place. Sooner or later I suspect McSorleys will succumb to this same, despicable fate. Whats next??? Tearing down Macy's or the Empire State Building for over priced apartments and high end fashion boutiques?????

Margarita said...

What is really sad is that there are many in this city who see this as progress--those shiny glass and steel boxes are an improvement. I left NYC for 15 years to live abroad and came back to a city that has been whitewashed and Disnified beyond recognition. I could no longer afford my old neighborhood (Chelsea), so am in Hell's Kitchen. But even Hell's Kitchen is more Heck's Kitchen these days--nothing gritty left but the name, and truly middle class folk like myself struggle to live here. And as I said, many feel this is a good thing. It keeps Manhattan for the "right kind". Unutterably sad. I'm not truly a class warrior, but I'd like to be able to live in the city my family has been living in since 1883. But as a college professor, I barely make enough money by myself. I recognize that this is human "progress," but at what cost humanity?

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Good post, Jeremiah.

What's most disturbing to me is not Change in general, but the fact that businesses/blocks/neighborhoods are being replaced with Nothing. The luxury glass tower blocks offer nothing culturally valuable to the city. It's not as if these 'run-down' areas are being improved and replaced with new things - they're being erased and replaced with nothingness.

How can this city remain a tourist destination if there is nothing to be found here that can't already be found in the suburbs of Anytown, USA?

Before I lived in NY, my parents would make trips here and return with amazing photos and stories. Everything about NYC was over the top: the art, the drama, the spectacle, the seediness, the glitz, the opportunities...I remember my mom showing me a picture of a florist whose storefront was stuffed with flowers sculpted into dogs. We'd never seen anything like that - only in New York!

I can't think of anything that is "only in New York" any more. Eventually, people will smarten up and ask why they're paying so much to live in or visit a city that has nothing to offer and they will stop coming.

fredo said...

Mars Bar is a truly authentic and unique NY experience. The single stall bathroom is legendary in its squalor. The layers of filth and graffiti on the bar and walls combine to form an incredible history of decades of drug fueled debauchery. It is also a truly democratic experience - literally anyone can walk in off the street and be served a drink.

Maybe we (the people) could team up to buy the entire bar brick by brick and reconstruct it somewhere as an art piece and/or functioning bar.

Bowery Boy said...

Wow, what a terrific post.

I don't know if such changes can be stopped... not sure if we really want to stop them. But the people who live in the area should have a right to help shape the changes. 12 stories is just to high for the small about of low-income housing that this will provide, and that could have been a community negotiation. But if owners of the spaces, like the Mars Bar guy, keep this to themselves, then he tied our political hands until it's to late to organize. That's not right.

everettsville said...

I'm glad you were able to take the "now" photos. I knew then that I was taking "then" photos and that someday there would be "now" photos to contrast them. I'm kinda sorry that "now" is now though.

Jason said...

Don't ever believe a building project that proposes housing for low to middle income people. It's a straight up bait and switch.

Marty Wombacher said...

I think the Dead End sign says it all.

Anonymous said...

Just move on.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Heck's Kitchen! salvaged morning glory seeds from a vacant lot now lost. the memory of flowers in the shape of dogs. 17-year-olds who yearn for the old days. Mars Bar recreated, brick by brick, as an art installation.

there's poetry in these comments.

Jeremiah Moss said...

and thanks again to everettsville for the amazing before pictures. it really shows how mind-boggling the changes are, in such a short span of time.

laura said...

never heard of this "mars bar" what ever. & i would never wish for derelicts or junkies like you people do. (unhealthy). i have a history that goes back before your cool drug addicts, hispanic invasion. which turned the LES into a neglected hole. (all the things your generation moved to new york to look at/& identify. most of you are from surburban envirements or very sheltered. so, i find some of these comments offensive. my grandmother lived on ave B & 9th w/her parents. my grandfather- ludlow st, w/his brothers. grandparents on my fathers side were on e.14th street. the building is still there, my father was born there. 1/2 the kids on the block went to jail. (see film "once upon a time in america"). my mothers side of family got out of LES- 105 yrs ago, as even then it was considered a bad place to live. my mothers father & his 3 brothers moved upstate as well. everyone one ended up in brooklyn. cleaner than avenue B, there were diseases there. the true crime here is not the bar. its demolishing most of the old buildings. they could have restored/renovated. except theres 1000 x's more $ in sky scrapers. there is no zoning in the east village. some of you are off about this bloomburg being a "billionaire", as thats not the CAUSE of this. its his values that created this, not his $. the new buildings are really ugly, looks like upper 2nd & 3rd 80s/90s. i understand midtown (offices/corporate apts) but i do not like it. i remember when it was almost all 5 story walk ups. the EV will be another commercial district, will resemble 3rd ave beginning 59th street. (that was a lovely area). what if the buildings were well kept in the EV? do you think this may have happend anyway? most likely, its world wide. yes tourists will continue to visit. most people are morons, airfare is cheap. but as long as NYC has its museums, you will have some good visitors. meanwhile the rest will shop the "outlet" stores.

Dan said...

*Stands and applauds*

laura said...

to add to my comment: i used to brag about how NY is a colonial city. how we respect tradition. as i said this is world wide, this is "one world" government. much of this $ is from off shore. i was naive to think that NYC would have some zoning, yes they build along the water- or midtown, but restore the rest. i was not aware of the magnitude till recently, have not been to NYC in 2 years. later i will tell the story of mecca, & what is going on in U.A.E. (the arab nations). anything is possible as its the SAME corporations who are in back of this. do not forget, walmart is a super power. banks are almost all one. i have said this before, & i know its not believable: NYC is very slow in demolishing & re building, compared to the rest of the world. if this was somewhere else, entire neigborhoods would be totaled in one swoop. (not just the poor) they even level mountains. take a deep breath.

Anonymous said...

Great contrast in the photos. I'm in the camp of ones who used to hang out on this block in the early mid 90's. Satellite records for hours, take a leak at the gas station(bowery hotel), pick up a shitty egg role from that joint btw 3rd and 4th on the eastside, then head south and east on 1st towards a buddies place. Same drill for years. It was past the 80's craziness, but I do remember those blocks in the 90's. Yeah, they weren't so nice. :) I forget which address, but wasn't 301/303? Bowery btw Houston and 1st the ramshakle building that was all boarded up and tagged save 301 Bowery? It was the lone remaining standing building for a period of time. I'm still trying to get my head around the concept that Save the Robots on B once existed only blocks from a store currently named blue and cream. Now that's contrast..Sadly these new contrasting individuals don't recognize people that have been here for a while and some of us ain't that old like late 30's old..and I have virtually nothing in common with 95% of the new inhabitants of the area. Does anyone else recognize this?

Map of the Sidewalk said...

"It is also a truly democratic experience - literally anyone can walk in off the street and be served a drink."

This point tends to get overlooked. Dive bars like Mars Bar aren't just cultural artifacts--although they sometimes are--but also places where people from different classes interact more than elsewhere. That kind of environment has a long history in New York but seems to be disappearing, at least in Manhattan.

Martin said...

I used to live in the East Village. I can't go back there any more cos the person who loved me lives there. He doesn't love me any more so turn in all into a museum, build one more glass box after another, tear down Mars!
You can tsunami the whole neighborhood as far as I'm concerned.... Selfish, I know, but I can't go back to the old East Village... and I'd rather now it not exist. just my tuppence.

Anonymous said...

I lived in the EV back in the early 80's. There were people sleeping in the vestibule, on the roof and on the upper landings of the building. I was paying almost $400.00 for apts. people say were $100.00 back in the day. I was working at a shit job and some not so shit ones. I never felt animosity for the homeless or the drug addicted people nor the "winos". I felt compassion. Matter of fact when I needed a quart of milk and went out late at night I felt secure that these people were watching my back.

Anonymous said...


"I can't think of anything that is "only in New York" any more."

Hey, we'll always have sidewalks slathered in dog shit.
That's something...

Crazy Eddie said...

"I can't think of anything that is "only in New York" any more."
Panhandling in the subways. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen”…….

jw said...

Hi Jeremiah,thanks for putting this together! I just wanted to share some other pictures from around the early 2000's which are here. Nothing groundbreaking but you might be interested. Will post more in the future.

Anonymous said...

I remember going into the restroom at Mars Bar circa 1989 or 90 and wondering how such an enormous swarm of flies could be thriving in late January. It was like something from the Amityville Horror. Truly the nastiest bathroom I have ever seen. Bless its heart.

Gardiner said...

Yes, that was surely one of the most horrible bathrooms in the city. But I feel like the men's room at CBGB's was worse. That toilet sitting up on that step like a true throne but with no stall whatsoever shielding it! Hilarious. I think I have a picture of an old friend half-passed out beside it.

Gardiner said...

In response to a certain anonymous commenter up top: Of course those who lament the end of this era don't necessarily prefer "vacant lots, crack, fiscal disarray, squeegie men ...". It isn't as simple as that. The fact is that for many of us the era that included those things was very important to us, and in some perverse way, those things were too. As a native of Tribeca in the 80's I just happen to have a fondness for the old rusty, wooden and grimy aspects of the city and all of the lazy spontaneity and unpredictability they engendered. It's what I know. Of course I'm aware of the consistent hypocrisy in my gripes. (My parents were some of the first to renovate a loft they got for a song and live like kings next to our rent-controlled neighbors). But it's hard not to love a home like New York. And when you love and remember a place a certain way it's impossible to avoid expressing angst and sadness at how it changes. And here's one major difference between New York and other cities: IT CHANGES SO MUCH MORE!!! Most people don't watch the home they know change and get demolished all the time. That fucks with your psyche. It's really really hard. And automatically more so for people who grew up here than for people who have just been here a long time. It's your childhood home and it hurts when things change.
And we happen to be at the end of a majorly depressed/blighted period in New York's lifespan (well the end was about 15 years ago honestly but we're still in the midst of it) that lasted 40 years. So for the people who stayed in NY after WWII and for the decades beyond, and for their offspring the way the city was then is how we remember it. It's not necessarily better than anything else. It's just our childhood. And we have to hold on to it as strongly as we can, if only as a memory.

Anonymous said...

It's been interesting to watch the neighborhood change. Not just it's structures, but the people as well. Does anyone not realize that "capitalism" is not the only issue at hand here? We live in a Capitalist society, the idea is to earn more, grow, and prepare more for the future.

I often miss the New York of the 70's and 80's, but then again the faces of those years are no longer either. Many of the blue collar and working class people finally had the opportunity to get out of the city and away from it's concentrated areas of drugs and violence.

Besides, this is a never ending cycle, the residents of the East Village in the 70's and 80's were not the same residents of the 40's and 50's, nor were the businesses the same. Adaptability and change is what future is, you don't have to agree, but what is a future if it is the same as the present?

RIP Mars Bar, there is a place in history with your name on it.

Chris W. said...

I moved to The East Village in December of 2002 just after college. I'm just glad to have experienced the tail end of it. I remember watching them close CBGB, and I knew it was the end of the end.

The one thing I miss the most is the people. Where did they go? The young artists, the sometimes insightful junkies, the interesting people of the world who seemed to converge upon that one place? I feel lucky, and yet I somehow doubt that there will ever be another place like that. So many memories...Sometimes I wish I could drop everything and move back, but I know it would never be the same.

Anonymous said...

I understand the pain of watching society move away from, the pain of change to your way of life, and the pain of lost relevancy. However, what i do not understand is the basis for arguing that a property owner can not do as he or she wishes with their property. Do you understand that there is always somebody on the other side of the trade - someone who is hurting because they can not prosper from their land. I work with a fellow who has three IMD tenants living in a building he owns, which is actually worth a few bucks. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and doesn't have much else going on in terms of income. Yet, this building he owns is absolutely worthless because there are three tenants who each pay nothing to live in prime tribeca who each want $1 million dollars to vacate. I am certain that these are nice people - but do they not realize the damage they are doing to the man who's family has owned this building for 85 years? Why does he have to suffer? Why can't he live the American dream? Listen, I get all of this, and NYC is definitely changed in the last 20 years, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The greatest thing however, about any city, is it's ability to change and evolve - to become what it wants to be. I just think that we should consider raising the level of the dialogue and not call every new building a sin and everyone who had part its construction a monster. In most cases, they are built by people like you, who have family, friends, and a way of life. I think you might consider walking a mile in their shoes - even if they refuse to walk a mile in yours.

Thank you