December 14, 2018, 2:38

A Gentrification Story with a Happy Ending |

A Gentrification Story with a Happy Ending |

My mother-in-law, Grecia Solano, immigrated to the United States from
the Dominican Republic, in the late nineteen-sixties. For the past forty
years, she has lived in an apartment in Washington Heights, where she
enjoys a view of the Hudson River and the western tower of the George
Washington Bridge from her living-room window. Grecia was a cleaning
lady at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center (now part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital) for a quarter century, retiring just a
couple of years ago. She worked nights, so she had few opportunities to
go out, but sometimes she found her way to Coogan’s, an Irish bar and
restaurant that opened in 1985, on Broadway at 169th Street. “There was
never a problem in that bar,” she told me—a reference to the shady
activities that were common in many of the other drinking establishments
in the Heights during the difficult years of the late nineteen-eighties
and nineties.

On any given night at Coogan’s, Grecia’s fellow drinkers and diners
might have included the doctors whose offices she’d vacuumed earlier
that week; off-duty cops from the Thirty-third Precinct; a team of
middle-distance runners still sweating from a workout at the nearby
Armory track; Charlie Rangel, the longtime congressman for northern
Manhattan, and Denny Farrell, the legendary local assemblyman; the
friends and families of patients undergoing treatment at the hospital;
and dozens of locals drawn by the bar’s reputation for being welcoming
to all. Over the years, Coogan’s has hosted plays, art shows, book
launches, karaoke nights, and birthday parties, weddings, and office
bashes of every stripe. (When Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, was
named one of three Nobel laureates in chemistry, last year, he
celebrated with his staff at Coogan’s.) The bar’s signature event is the
Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K race. Originally conceived as a means of
taking back neighborhood streets from gangs and drug dealers, the race
is now managed by New York Road Runners; last year, more than four
thousand people participated.

Like so many other parts of New York City, Washington Heights has been
undergoing rapid change in the past decade. A neighborhood that was once
so hostile that the hospital considered relocating is now home to rising
rents and intense real-estate development. A striking symbol of this
change recently opened two doors south of Grecia’s apartment. From the
rubble of a six-story town house owned by Columbia University, the
fifteen-story Vagelos Education Center was erected
in 2016. A postmodern structure designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and
Gensler, it looks, from a distance, like a giant slice of layer cake.
The local news outlets the Manhattan Times and the Uptown Collective
have chronicled every step of the ongoing transformation. Almost an
entire block of storefronts on Broadway has been cleared out by New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a nearby apartment building has been
vacant for years. “Rumor has it that there are big plans for that
stretch of Broadway,” Carolina Pichardo, a freelance reporter and
longtime resident of the area, told me.

That wave of change finally swept up Coogan’s. As Jim Dwyer reported,
in the Times, on January 9th, the bar’s landlord, Royal Charter (the
real-estate division of New York-Presbyterian), raised the rent by forty
thousand dollars a month, forcing the proprietors of Coogan’s to
announce that the bar would close at the end of May. The increase was so
extreme that it could not be misconstrued as a negotiating ploy. Royal
Charter wanted Coogan’s out. The response from the neighborhood was
swift and overwhelming. A Facebook petition garnered more than fifteen
thousand signatures in a matter of hours. Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted
about the closure to his two million followers. Local activists began
planning rallies. Radio and TV outlets reported the news. Congressman
Adriano Espaillat and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer quickly
got involved. “Coogan’s has been instrumental in efforts to revitalize
our community and invested in Washington Heights when no one else
would,” Espaillat said. Three days later, the hospital bowed to this
collective pressure and averted a public-relations disaster by negotiating a new lease for the bar. That night, there was a spontaneous celebration, which was
attended by Espaillat, Miranda, his father, Luis, and many others. It
was a rare good-news gentrification story.

I was out of town when these dramatic events unfolded, and I missed the
victory party. However, when a dear friend suffers a near-death
experience, it behooves one to pay one’s respects. I hastily arranged a
lunch at the bar with Robert W. Snyder, the author of a history of Washington Heights, and Led Black, the editor of the Uptown Collective. We were joined by the
triumvirate that has run Coogan’s for the past three decades: David
Hunt, Peter Walsh, and Tess O’Connor McDade. All three are of Irish
ancestry. Collectively, they represent more than a century of experience
in the bar-and-restaurant trade in New York City. The unexpected stay of
execution had left them stunned and jubilant. For more than three hours,
they shared stories about the past and reflected on their mutually
beneficial relationship with the local community.

Hunt grew up in Inwood, graduated from Fordham, and worked in bars in
Greenwich Village from the nineteen-sixties. Walsh had served in the
Army during the Vietnam War and earned a master’s degree in theatre and
literature from Trinity College Dublin before getting into the business
by buying a stake in an East Side saloon. McDade, who has a degree in
hospitality management, immigrated to New York from Northern Ireland and
met Walsh while both were working at a nonprofit organization. According
to Hunt, the hospital “had contacted approximately a hundred and twenty
restaurateurs [about managing Coogan’s] before they got to dealing
with us.”

At that time, the neighborhood was synonymous with urban blight. Because
of the crack epidemic, New York had the highest murder rate in the
country and the Heights was the epicenter of violent crime in the city.
The initial mission of Coogan’s was solely to give the staff and
patients of the hospital a safe place to dine and unwind, but the new
proprietors soon expanded the bar’s business model. The idea of limiting
their customer base was ridiculous, Hunt said, “because so many of the
people who work in the medical center are also residents of Washington
Heights. So we really reached out and got involved in the community.”
They took guidance from a number of women who were active in the area,
including Ivy Fairchild, the director of community affairs at the

Walsh articulated what he saw at the guiding principles of managing a
good neighborhood bar, all of which derive from the Irish country pub.
“It has a fireplace so you can get warmed up. You find out the pig
prices and the wheat prices from your neighbor two miles down the road
who you only see at the pub. You also find out where the British
soldiers are. You come in for warmth; you come in for information; you
come for social interaction; you come for the celebration; and you come
for the wake. It’s the whole package. That’s what we do here.”

Coogan’s was “the first real bar for a lot of Dominicans,” Black said.
“The other bars up here were basically drug dens. Liquor might be sold
there, but a lot of other shit happened.” I heard this again and again
from the local residents I spoke with—that Coogan’s was a unlike any
other establishment in northern Manhattan. “We didn’t allow the drug
dealers in. We knew who they were,” Walsh said. Hunt concurred. “We told
them, ‘This is not your place. We don’t want you. We don’t want your
business.’ ”

During the Washington Heights riots, in July of 1992, which were sparked
by the fatal shooting of a local resident by a police officer, Coogan’s
stayed open around the clock, in part to prevent looting of the
restaurant but also to provide a safe place for local residents and law
enforcement to eat and rest. One evening, Walsh introduced the local
police commander Nick Estavillo to the City Council member Guillermo
Linares, who was dining there. A deal was worked out in the bar’s back
room, and the rioting stopped the next day.

Hunt, Walsh, and McDade had known the fate Coogan’s was facing for
about two months before the Times story broke the news to the
community. They were resigned. “We had met with each of our staff
members,” McDade said. “They had cried and we had cried. It was done.”
They started giving away the bar’s Christmas decorations to charities.
Walsh sold his apartment and prepared to move. All three began looking
for new jobs even as they tried to find work for the members of their
staff. “People think we have a pension,” Hunt said. “We don’t. We have a
cash register. When that cash register stops, our income stops.”

The scale of the response to the news of their impending closure
astonished them all. “The neighborhood came to us,” Walsh said. “Here we
are, a group of Irish immigrants being saved by the newer immigrants
that the President of the United States is trying to keep out of the
country. We were saved by these people. The children of immigrants
being defended by today’s immigrants: Dominican, Haitian, Caribbean,
African. It’s thrilling.”

The details of the agreement with the hospital have not been disclosed;
all three owners have signed confidentiality agreements. “The terms were
favorable,” Hunt said. When I asked what they planned to do with their
new lease on life, McDade replied, “We need to sit together and figure
out our plans. More of the same, but we need to step it up.” Walsh said,
“We have to be more concerned about what’s going on with our neighbors
and with New York and our country. We’ve got to be even more involved

Most immediately, they planned to lend their support to another small
business facing the same threat they just survived. Galicia Restaurant,
three blocks north of Coogan’s on Broadway, announced last week that it
would be forced to close after thirty years because its landlord had
tripled the rent. At a rally for the restaurant on Sunday, Walsh
addressed the crowd, expressing the sentiments of many longtime
residents of Washington Heights. “Small businesses solve problems,” he
said. “We fought the battles back in ’85 and before. We’ve made this
neighborhood attractive for families. And now they want to take it away
from us.”


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