Long Live New York City’s Lucy’s

Long Live New York City’s Lucy’s

I love dive bars. There’s nothing better than sitting alone in a dark, cavernous, smelly old saloon on an afternoon, eating stale popcorn and drinking cheap beer. It may sound like hell to some, but to me, it’s Valhalla. The only problem nowadays is actually finding a dive bar to spend that afternoon in.

Real dive bars are becoming a rare commodity. There’s a lot we can blame for this, but mostly it has to do with gentrification. You see, dive bars didn’t start as dive bars, they started out merely as bars. But often they’re found in areas where the rent is cheap and the neighborhood a bit rough. Over the years, because the bar served cut-rate booze and no-frills snacks, it attracted a more grinder-type clientele, the kind that doesn’t a have hedge-fund or wallet stuffed with cash.

But eventually, the city catches up to the low-rent districts. And as the cost of real estate goes up, the grinder-joints can’t afford either the rent or the property taxes, and they eventually close down.

That’s what just happened in NYC’s East Village where, on February 29, the famous dive bar, Lucy’s, put the closed sign in the window and locked up for the last time.

Before it was called Lucy’s, the small bar was known as Blanche’s tavern, a small, dimly lit bar catering to neighborhood locals (so in other words, exactly like the bar that replaced it). In 1981 Blanche’s staff was joined by a sweet, quiet, Polish immigrant named Ludwika “Lucy” Mickevicius, who began as a bartender but then eventually took it over completely in 1987. Though it has always legally been “Blanche’s Bar”, it’s been known as Lucy’s for almost four decades now.

Pass through the black-painted façade and you’d find a small, dark tavern with two pool tables and red leatherette bar stools. They served the basics – beer and whiskey – and the drinks were cheap and strong. Lucy, perched at the end of the bar next to an old cash register, was always a delight, and much more like your aunt than your bartender.

During the day you’d find the locals, people who’d spent their lives in the neighborhood and grew up going to Lucy’s. At the end of the day, and especially on the weekends, the crowd changed, and it became filled with young partiers out on the town, making Lucy’s their last stop of the night. This was the kind of place you met your friends before going out, and you took your date before heading home (like Four Walls’ own CEO, who took his now wife there after their first date).

But to both crowds Lucy’s was special; here they were all locals in one way or another.

I’ve been asked in the past to describe just what makes someplace a dive bar. If you look through old photos of Lucy’s, you’ll find it – all of it. For starters there’s no cocktail program here – she could make an old fashioned or a margarita, but good luck getting a negroni or Sazerac. She didn’t make her own bitters, didn’t freeze crystal clear ice, and didn’t really serve top shelf. But what she had was always good enough.

There’s also bric-a-brac, and lots of it. It’s pinned to the walls, hanging from the ceiling, crowding the back bar. And the substance of this clutter ranges – old holiday décor that never seems to come down (Halloween balloons next to Christmas lights), handwritten signs commemorating something long forgotten, and old photos of nobody you’d ever know. And when something got put up, it stayed up.

Lastly, there are the two ultimate signs of a good dive – these must be included over everything else – they must only take cash and they must not have a website. Both of these applied to Lucy’s as well.

Sadly though, nothing good lasts forever, and Lucy’s succumbed to the one thing that always seems to kill the neighborhood dive bar – rent. The building that houses Lucy’s was bought in December and the monthly cost of the space tripled, from $8,000 to $25,000 per month. Lucy simply couldn’t afford this, so she was evicted. It’s sad, and for some it’s tragic, but it’s become depressingly common today.

Who’s to say what will occupy the place in the near future, but I have a pretty good idea. It’ll probably be a bank or a boutique, or perhaps a chain café or coffee place.

Eventually the whole block will be like that.

I was asked one time at a conference what was one piece of advice I’d give bar owners, and it was this: own your building. I stand by that.

What happened to Lucy’s has been happening all over New York City, as one neighborhood after another “transitions” (the euphemism for “gentrifies”). Old places that once housed neighborhood locals have disappeared, making room for new, flashy joints. I guess some call this progress.

For my part, after seeing this happen over and over, I’ll just grit my teeth and start looking for another small, dark bar to spend an afternoon at. If you know of any, let me know.

But until then, here’s to Lucy’s!

- Clinton R. Lanier