Editor’s note: Anmarie Soucie, a Lower East Side resident, lives near 169 Bar on East Broadway. These are her personal observations of the neighborhood standby.
In just nine short years as a Lower East Side/Chinatown resident, I’ve observed (and, it’s safe to say, been a part of) the rapid gentrification hitting the neighborhood; in particular, I mean the area surrounding Seward Park. Though it’s nice to see the positive changes, I for one am happy that some of my old stomping grounds are sticking around; and 169 Bar is doing just that.
As a local staple since I moved into the building nearly a decade ago, I’ve often wondered how 169 has been able to stand its ground while other businesses have come and gone.
I’ve seen neighbors come (Mission Chinese) and go (Wing Shoon). I’m sure I’ll grow nostalgic for 169 Bar one of these days, but I don’t believe those days will come anytime soon. And I’m glad.
It’s hard to find a spot to quench your thirst without draining your wallet. Even more so, it’s refreshing to me that the bar is a perfect reflection of New York City life – an epicenter that consistently attracts and socially integrates a crowd that is as quirky and varied as the place itself; from aging locals who may-or-may-not fall drunkenly off their bikes to fresh-faced hipsters who may-or-may-not have paid for that $3 beer in dimes and nickels.
Oh yes, many a reckless night I’ve spent inside those stale-smelling doors; just mentioning “169 Bar” often draws a knowing smile from total strangers. It’s an odd smile — one you’d give reminiscing about the love of your life, but only if that love of your life was also completely and totally insane. Mixed feelings, I guess, is what I’m saying.
And 169 Bar does have a history, if ya’ know what I mean. Since its birth back in 1916, the place has fed and boozed countless patrons, from swearing sailors to chain-smoking Chinese gangsters to a sordid spread of artists, bums, and PBR-swigging hipsters. It was appropriately labeled “The Bloody Bucket” during its 1950s heyday, when drunken sailors pummeled each other into a bloody pulp out in front of the bar.
In the 1990s, when the area was still fairly sketch, 169 was filled with lavish religious alters, panhandlers, and a wary-eyed Doberman chained to the bar. The Chinese mafia even set up shop there.
Though I would say it’s come a long way in terms of keeping violence to a minimum, the bar still carries its deviant former self like a badge of honor, serving “Bloody Bucket Mary’s” and keeping its decorum and vibe permanently on the cusp of its past sins. Post 1960s, it was owned by two Polish sisters who started as bartenders themselves back in the day (before one cozied up and married the owner, not only getting the bar, but the whole building in the deal).
Now you’ll find a leopard print pool table, a “Go-Go dance” stage and an oyster bar. The New Orleans-themed rec-room of sorts has been crooning out soul, jazz, and funk music until four in the morning since the current owner and Louisiana-native Charles Hanson took over in 2006. Hanson keeps the place teetering between seedy hip and quirky ragbag, with a pinch of Southern zest.
You tell me where else you can down a Colt 45 with your lobster mac-n-cheese at 2 a.m. while listening to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye?
One thing from its past has decided to stay — that weathered old sign stubbornly dangles at the foot of the Forward Building — a little landmark amid a row of tenements that spread out along East Broadway. The “169” sign (c. 1962) gleams every night outside my window and lights up the giant “Lawyer” sign on the building’s façade, leaving inebriated patrons and residents alike to wonder who the hell would set up a legal practice above a bar? Except there is no lawyer who lives in the apartment, and there hasn’t been one in over a decade.
If I were to personify 169 Bar, it would be as some born-and-bred Lower East Side/Chinatown native; a vivacious survivor — one of those neighborhood grandpappys-at-the-ready with stories that always start with, “Long story short,” and go on for hours; an old hoodlum gone straight, still standing, and even smiling. Digging around online, I tried to find recorded history of the place instead of just my own memories, things I’ve heard and been told. Look it up online and you’ll find hardly any of its 20th century self – but that’s just it; the bar’s stories have become memories and its memories, myths.
I suppose within its red brick walls and amidst the potted palms, lies its story.
It has endured bloody brawls and nightly decadence for nearly a century, and still it not only lives, but thrives. I’m amazed at how much the place has been a part of my story, and not in just a weird, lushy way, but a thousand times more than that. Sure, I’ve entertained dozens of friends and family members downstairs, showing it off as if it were the building’s decadent lobby, but I’ve also come to know the various staff members: bartenders who’ve ended up staying for years, Jeff, the fish who thought he was a puppy (R.I.P. Jeff), the neighborhood locals who’ve been popping their heads in for years, the ones who give you a wave, a hug, or a shot (oftentimes all three).
In barely a decade, I’ve been privy to the life of 169 Bar and all the debauchery and drama that comes with living life above it; it’s been the silliest, zaniest real-life sitcom played out on the street, while I sat in the windowsill and smoked cigarettes. Maybe I can’t bring the bar’s history to life through words, but once you step inside those little wooden doors, you’ll feel it, and you’ll know.
I know I’ll be curious what the next decade brings, and though I might not be around the ‘hood to see it, I’m sure I’ll always come back and pop my head in.