In Which I Wonder About the Future of the LES

Today I fawned over a collection of old New York imagery from the late 1800’s through the end of the last century that The Museum of the City of New York recently released, wondering what corner bar now stands where an old city tenement had endured. The cache of images left me feeling wistful about the latest on the Lower East Side’s kill list, as it was recently announced that on top of Max Fish and Pink Pony’s imminent closings, Mars Bar will shutter in 2011 as well. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was famous for her outspoken 1963 New York Times article on the demolition of the original Penn Station in favor of Madison Square Garden, called “How to Kill a City.” She wrote: “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” It’s hard to be both a New York nostalgist and also feel positive about change and progress in the city, but are the cookie-cutter developments set to replace Mars Bar things that we really want?

image (Via Curbed). The current plan in place for Mars Bar is a 12-story, 60-unit building by BFC Partners (shown above), who have solidified relocation agreements with the current Second Avenue residents, though they have not yet negotiated such a contract with Mars Bar. Plans may include a 2-year closure for the ramshackle bar, only to reopen as a glossy version of its former self.

While many have expressed concern for such a loss, one person gung-ho for the development is owner Hank Penza, who told the Times: “They won’t choke me, I didn’t get off the boat yesterday with a pound of spaghetti in my hand,” noting that he was likely to “ultimately get a space that’s three to four times the size.”

When explaining the lure of Mars Bar, Nate Freeman of the New York Observer states it best: It’s a bit of a sore thumb on Second Avenue. Mars Bar is garish and gross; it’s on a street that’s so clean you could have a blanket-less picnic with your tofu from Whole Foods, which is conveniently located right next door. Mars Bar is loud, dirty, and full of unapologetic malcontents, seemingly of another age; outside people pass by, quickly and looking down, on their way to buy a bottle of Riesling and some organic kale for the night’s salad. Mars Bar serves up cheap whiskey and cancer; directly around the corner, Daniel Boulud serves up House-Made Pappardelle “Gourguignon” at DBGB. Mars Bar is not a nice place, and this is what makes Mars Bar one of the best.

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It’s one of those places I made sure to pass while walking with people who had never been south of 14th Street (or to New York in general) so I could get a decent read of them by their reaction (usually either “What a cool building,” or “Is this a safe area?”). Many people could never understand what a perceived eyesore like Mars Bar could mean to a neighborhood, but the loss seems more about the principle—a hallmark of change that belongs to every generation, whether they’ll learn from it or not. Demolishing Penn Station in 1963 proved to be so traumatic to New Yorkers that a preservationist spirit overpowered the modernist aesthetic of the time inspiring Mayor Robert Wagner to sign the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law, creating the Landmarks Preservation Commission we know today.

I’m not saying that Mars Bar should be preserved; I’m not one of those people who claims that the Lower East Side is dead, either. There is no comparison between tearing down one of the greatest Beaux Arts buildings in New York and shuttering a few crumbling venues—but a collection of these institutions add up and amount to the overall feeling that pervades a neighborhood, and ultimately, a city. I’m just wondering if we can experience hindsight, if the ongoing battle between preservation and modernity will once again influence how proactively New Yorkers become involved in envisioning the future of their ideal city, like they were once inspired to do (post-Penn Station projects that were halted by concerned New Yorkers included a parking lot in the middle of Central Park, and plans to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have paved over Greenwich Village and what is now SoHo). As one blogger writes in regard to the supposed modernity of Penn Station reconstructed all those years ago: “I’d like to go back in time, drag the architects into the present, and ask them: what, you thought we would all be wearing George Jetson jumpsuits, queuing patiently for the Atomic Express? The reality is a waiting room with insufficient signage, a great hall that isn’t, and a Hudson News thronged with balding guys, ties askew, furtively paging through battered porn mags.”

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