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 the 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.

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.

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."

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.

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.