the last hoedown

hogs-heifers-shark-1

Sharing the blame for the loss of a neighborhood icon.

On a recent Monday in July, most restaurants in the Meatpacking District shuttered windows and doors to ward off one of the summer’s hottest days. Well-dressed clientele braving the heat preferred to dine inside, leaving the trendy neighborhood docile.

At the corner of West 13th and Washington streets, several tourists peered into the open doors of Hogs & Heifers Saloon, unsure whether to negotiate with the burly bouncer for admittance. The Allman Brothers’ “Rambling Man” blared into the street. Bumper stickers defending varied allegiances plastered the windows, providing a graffiti façade. Thousands of bras dangled from the rafters. A bartender cursed through a megaphone at a man dressed in khakis, specifically about the khakis. A motorcycle, upside down and defiant, hung perilously over the bathrooms. It was something different, a ghoulish cavern in a neighborhood of swanky restaurants and glass-fronted boutiques.

They decided to go for it.

After nearly twenty-three years in business, Hogs & Heifers will close its iconoclastic New York City location on August 23, which, for many people, myself included, means relinquishing the boast that we occasionally hang out in a biker bar. Owner Michelle Dell-Ramsey said she did not renew her lease with Thor Equities, which has purchased several properties in the district in recent years and owns the building that houses Hogs & Heifers. She said she could not afford the monthly rent of $60,000 that the developer is asking.

“When we opened in 1992 our rent was $3,000 a month. In 2014 our rent was $14,000. We’ve been in the process of trying to renegotiate for two years,” she said. “What New York is losing as a city is the eccentricity. This is one more example of a neighborhood no longer representative of an urban city. It’s a pseudo-urban city.”

The downfall of independent businesses such as Hogs & Heifers, with a New York City history and attitude, is not solely the fault of real estate developers. People like me share the blame. Growing up in western New York, I hoped to one day live in Manhattan, a mysterious island that I knew only through images that accompanied the opening theme song of “Saturday Night Live.” I wanted to be a part of that chaos, and my wife and I have endured the rents long enough to raise two sons here.

We’re fortunate to watch them grow up surrounded by the energy and novelty of the city’s people and culture. They recognize buildings and parks, and explain these landmarks to cousins as belonging to their hometown. My five-year-old’s enthusiasm for public transportation is unrivaled as he descends into a subterranean level of the Earth in hopes of finding his favorite train, the Number Five, approaching to whisk him off to a new neighborhood.

It’s not just the neighborhoods that became gentrified. I became gentrified as well.

But while I enjoy local bookshops, I still shop online for affordability. I claim to support diversity, but too often I rely on the ease of our local chain grocery store for sustenance instead of venturing into unknown neighborhoods and cuisines. I receive up to five alerts from GrubHub and Seamless each time I order a meal, able to track my food via text message and email throughout the entire cooking and delivery process. I’m not taking the full blame for the downfall of video rental stores, but as soon as I could afford a television that streamed Netflix, nothing could get me back into scanning the shelves for Saturday night entertainment. The best way to avoid the ire of Hogs & Heifers bartenders is not to wear khakis or plaid, and I often wear both, a city dad in a mass-produced uniform of whatever was on sale at J. Crew last weekend. The sad truth of the developers bulldozing historical buildings, shuttering businesses and throwing up condos: If I had the money, I’d probably be one of the tenants. It’s not just the neighborhoods that became gentrified. I became gentrified as well.

Earning more money, and having only two hours once a month while a babysitter watches the kids, means my wife and I will dine out at an established restaurant with excellent reviews, or take in a popular show, instead of patronizing a seedy hole in the wall that could truly use our support. I seem to always be late – for the park, for dinner, especially for work – which has me pulling my family past a musical street performer, or an artist selling crafts, or an ice cream truck, much to my son’s displeasure. These little interruptions are the entire reason we chose to live here.

When I first moved to New York, I lived in an illegal basement apartment in the West Village that flooded whenever it rained. If we could hear the water through the windowless living room, we knew we had less than a minute to move the electronics onto the furniture and spare the rugs. My roommate and I may have been poor, but thwarting a thunderstorm was high excitement at no cost. It was my visiting mother who discovered Hogs & Heifers, insisting she’d read about the bras on the wall and asked to be photographed in front of them before placing her order. We were promptly, and accurately, denounced as tourists via megaphone, and thrown out.

I continued to frequent the bar because it was one of the few places where I could afford beer. On cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon, I’ve celebrated bachelor parties and engagement announcements, holiday drinks and reunions with old friends. Since I moved my family to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my gentrified social life allows me fewer opportunities to visit, maybe a few times a year, and I’m quickly reminded what’s so important about old places. I don’t want my kids to frequent a biker honky-tonk on 13th Street, but I want eccentricities like that to exist when they are old enough to appreciate the meaning.

“The shame of it is that we are selling all of our historical buildings and neighborhoods to giant urban real estate developers so they can put up another Armani or Eileen Fisher,” Mrs. Dell-Ramsey said. “They are not looking for anything unique. They are looking for what is proven and tested.”

In the meantime, coming soon to the corner that Hogs & Heifers defined for two decades: an exquisite tapas restaurant, or a Paul Smith designer sock store to tie together the neighborhood. I hope someday I learn to spend my money on better things than socks.

– Jon Methven