A History of Horse-Racing and Contention
A striped black-and-white awning hangs over the corner of the sidewalk, located at 87-48 78th Street. This awning has distinguished this restaurant in its 187 years of existence– arguably, the longest for any New York City restaurant in history. If one keeps up with local current events, they might have heard about Neir’s ongoing quest to be recognized as the city’s oldest bar, and its contention with the Manhattan pub McSorley’s Old House. Although McSorley still holds the title of oldest bar in operation, having served customers since 1854, some historians have joined local patrons in claiming Neir’s historical status.
In its beginnings at 1829, Neir’s was called The Blue Pump Room and owned by Cadwallader R. Colden, manager of the Union Course Race Track. The famed horse track used to be right across from The Blue Pump Room, covering the street all the way down to Woodhaven Blvd, and is currently referenced by the horse-shaped logo of the sign hanging above the establishment. Louis Neir took over in 1898 and it made into a speakeasy, then later upgraded it with a ballroom, a bowling alley, and an upstairs hotel under the name of Neir’s Social Hall (which was rumored to also function as a brothel). In this period, Neir’s Social Hall was renowned as a center for socialization, entertainment and performances — and was most notably the site of Mae West’s singing career. In 1967, the new ownership renamed the place as the Union Course Tavern. The current owner, Loycent “Loy” Gordon, a Jamaican-born Queens resident and FDNY lieutenant, took up the establishment in 2009, and was partially responsible in giving the tavern back the Neir’s namesake and completely refurbishing the place. In its renovation, much of the antique items, including gas lamps and old-school beer funnel system, were preserved. As of today, the former ballroom and social rooms are a neighboring martial arts classroom and music recording studio.
A Short Primer to Woodhaven, Queens
Woodhaven was historically known to be a white suburban working-class area; mainly Irish, Italian and German. Currently, Woodhaven, like many other areas in Queens, is diverse in terms of ethnicity, class and household income. Overall, it is majority Hispanic at around 44%, with whites at 16%, blacks at 7% and Asians at 25%. Within Census Tract 14, where Neir’s Tavern is located, about 54.6% of the population are foreign-born, with half of the percentage being unnaturalized citizens. Most of the foreign-born residents, at 67.1%, come from Latin America, primarily from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guyana. Within the past decade, more Chinese immigrants — my family included — have relocated here. A significant reason for this shift is the “White Flight” phenomenon. Many of the Irish and Italian immigrants that historically populated Southern Queens have relocated to areas such as Long Island and Staten Island, in reaction to the increasing residencies by blacks and Latinos. As gentrification by whites is continuing to widen the income gap in neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, more people/immigrants of color are reshaping suburbs in Queens.
Neir’s Tavern historically served the German, Irish and Italian community it grew up with. However, the changing demographic of the area, combined with the ever-increasing media coverage since its 2009 revival (such as its feature on the Emmy award-winning series New York Originals, linked below), has drastically changed the establishment’s business operation and branding. Nevertheless, Neir’s still describes itself as a mom-and-pop place, and its atmosphere is irrevocably tied to a particular history of the Woodhaven community. I had already ate at Neir’s a couple of times before in my three years of living in Woodhaven. This time, I wanted to specifically talk to the people behind it, to further understand the exact changes the historic establishment has been through.
A Sunday Visit to the Establishment
At this point, despite the recognition and popularity it has garnered, Neir’s is still regarded as exclusively “Woodhaven”, rather than as a facet of New York life.
I visited the tavern March 12, on a Sunday afternoon; a time of day with considerably more patrons than a typical weekday but less than a weekend night. Holiday-appropriate shamrocks and bright green streamers were pasted inside the windows to celebrate the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day. A bright blue sign put up by the Woodhaven Historical and Cultural Society stands proudly at the curb where the Union Course used to be, briefly describing the history of the former Blue Pump Room. It touts the two most notable claims to fame of the tavern: that it was used to film scenes of the Scorsese gangster film Goodfellas and that Mae West (born and raised in Woodhaven) was rumored to perform on the very stage shown in the picture above. These blue signs can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood for various noteworthy cultural spaces — the public library, the Episcopal Church, and the like — that are not quite established enough to warrant a “landmark” status by the NYC government. At this point, despite the recognition and popularity it has garnered, Neir’s is still regarded as exclusively “Woodhaven”, rather than as a facet of New York life.
As soon as I entered, one of the waitresses greeted me and directed me to a table. Most of the seats at the bar were filled with people of a diverse range of ethnicity and age, but there were only a couple of other people eating in the dining section. The waitress informed me that Loy wasn’t available at this time of day, and referred me to the general manager. A few minutes after receiving my order (empanadas with a salad and water), Yvette came over and greeted me. Born in the Bronx and a denizen of Woodhaven for 35 years, Yvette has been working as a manager in the tavern for almost two years. Acknowledging her relatively short time in Neir’s, I asked if she noticed a change in the patron demographics within the span of her work. “Of course,” she responds, noting that “new boomers” have been frequenting in larger amounts, while “old timers” seem to be decreasing. Initially, she was hesitant to distinguish the differences between the new boomers and old timers, so I asked her what they tend to look like.
It seemed as if the original population of Woodhaven grew up with Neir’s, but the current patronage is changing with the younger generation. Recently, the old timers show up less often at the restaurant, but always come for special gatherings and events.
As it turns out, the old timers at Neir’s reflected the initial demographic of Woodhaven: Italian, Irish, and German. When Yvette first moved to Woodhaven in the 1980’s, it was essentially a community for middle-class whites. “The 90’s is when the Spanish started coming in,” she informed me. It seemed as if the original population of Woodhaven grew up with Neir’s, but the current patronage is changing with the younger generation. Recently, the old timers show up less often at the restaurant, but always come for special gatherings and events. Noting the fact that I was the only East Asian person in the whole restaurant, Yvette mentioned that she would hear customers saying that there are a lot of Chinese coming into the area, “but I never see them, especially not in here!” Pointing at me, she remarks, “You’re the only one,” with the possible exception of a couple of Asian (Filipino?) regulars.
I asked Yvette what meaning the place held for these old timers, and she motioned me towards a plaque hanging across the room. It was a letter that one Woodhaven-born elder who got married in that very spot wrote to the restaurant. Recently, he reunited with Neir’s along with his three daughters after rediscovering the restaurant’s opening under a new owner. Yvette told me that Neir’s historical significance and status as an important recreational center led to many people getting married here. She heard many stories from her co-workers and customers about how old timers grew up on Neir’s; how people would come just to play cards and relax, how kids would wait outside as their father grabbed a drink at the bar. “Now things have changed,” she notes, as Neir’s now mainly serves as a pub that serves food and drinks. Indeed, the bowling alley is now closed off by a locked door, and there is no longer a saloon-style balcony open for people to socialize. A lot of this probably had to do with the fact that the establishment was going to close in 2009, if it weren’t for Loy’s renovations. With the shift in ownership and the aging of the original customers, Neir’s had to change accordingly.
I found that although the community makeup of Woodhaven has changed drastically, Neir’s is trying to work towards accommodating the diversity rather than fighting against it. One of the main objectives of the business is to hire locals, and thus give back to the community it serves. A majority of the waiters and chefs happen to be Latino, and while most of the people who eat in the dining section are white, the bar is often packed with people of different ethnicities. Marketing plays a huge role; the official Facebook and Instagram pages are very active, informing about special events such as weekly karaoke nights, performances and film screenings. That and increased media coverage of its history led to more people visiting; not just New Yorkers from other areas, but also out-of-state tourists curious about its relation to Goodfellas.
I asked Yvette if competition with other businesses also play a role in its marketing, and she refers to the constant deals and specials, such as the 50-cent wings offered every Monday. Prices keep going up, and online delivery services and chain stores only add to the competition. Things were much more different when Yvette first moved to Woodhaven. She mentions that she fit in nicely and integrated well within the local community. Generally, people used to support others by going to their businesses. “People don’t want to buy local anymore,” she laments. “They want to go to places like BJ’s or Target where they can get things in bulk.”
"I hope this place lasts for another 180 years!" Yvette, Manager of Neir's Tavern
I noticed that even though Neir’s mainly sticks to standard “American”, Irish/Italian/German-influenced pub dining, there are also Hispanic food options (such as the empanadas I ordered). I asked Yvette if she has changed menu options to serve different and broader demographics, to which she told me of including vegetarian and gluten-free meals to suit the tastes of “the hipsters” coming in. She explains that since Williamsburg is no longer accessible, hipsters turn to Bushwick as the next best option. “The same thing is happening here.” In the past few years, younger and whiter newcomers have been settling in Woodhaven at a comparatively smaller scale, for two likely reasons: cheaper housing prices compared to parts of Brooklyn, and convenient commuting. The J train is the only subway line within the area, but it also goes directly to “important” parts of Manhattan, such as Chinatown and Wall Street. I ask Yvette if she thinks that this group tends to isolate itself and serve their own needs, rather than contribute to the community. She agrees, believing that they don’t feel a need to come to places like Neir’s. “They’re kind of like the Chinese,” she remarks with a laugh.
My final question to Yvette was, “What do you hope in the future in terms of business?” She responded that she wishes for the continued growth of small businesses, which would be difficult because “everybody is scared to spend money nowadays”. Since insurance is continually going up and profit margins have become almost obsolete, utilities are a gamble to manage and people don’t want to take the risk. “Instead of spending $20, they’ll spend $3 or $5 because they need to keep saving … They don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Even so, Yvette said she felt very positive about the general outlook of Woodhaven’s community, noting that there isn’t any conflict between the different groups and ethnicities living here. She confidently concluded with, “I hope this place lasts for another 180 years!”
It is a means of survival and preserving identity, by means of distinction.
I regret not contacting the actual owner for an interview, but I think that I fulfilled my objective nonetheless. Loy has discussed his history and business at Neir’s in a few previous interviews that are published on the internet and on newspapers (most of which I have referenced in this post and linked to in the references), so I would probably be treading familiar ground.
I came out of the establishment knowing a lot more about the cultural and demographical evolution of Woodhaven, and the cutthroat nature of NYC business competition. A great deal of Neir’s continuing success and popularity comes from its marketing and rebranding. Yvette noted to me that there are many Woodhaven residents who have never visited Neir’s before, and would find out about it by happenstance, “wondering, ‘How did I know about this place!?’” There will likely continue to more people, from Woodhaven and beyond, who will discover Neir’s through word of mouth and promotional marketing, and keep business flourishing. Even so, there will always be a looming sense of danger over every NYC storefront, and a need to find more ways to preserve.
Upon leaving, I passed by a desk with an open binder full of petition sheets, requesting for the tavern to be recognized as an official landmark of New York City. The binder already had several pages of names filled in with the current date. Neir’s, Loy and many Woodhaven residents have been requesting, petitioning, and generally spreading the word amongst the community for years at this point. Due to Neir’s having closed and reopened, and the fact that there is no documented evidence of it having served alcohol during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933), the pub is likely to continue to argue for its arguably well-deserved title. I realize that the community’s petitioning means a lot more than just carrying a status. It is a means of survival and preserving identity, by means of distinction.
Carlson, J. (2015, Feb 26). Neir’s Tavern, NYC’s Oldest Bar That You’ve Never Been To. The Gothamist. Retrieved from http://gothamist.com/2015/02/26/oldest_nyc_bar_neirs_tavern.php#photo-1
Census Reporter. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://censusreporter.org/profiles/79500US3604111-nycqueens-community-district-9richmond-hill–woodhaven-puma-ny/
Colangelo, L. L. (2015, Feb 24). NYC BAR WAR: Neir’s, McSorley’s battle over which is older. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/queens-bar-oldest-city-historian-article-1.2127001
[HuffPost]. (2015, Sep 27). The Fight To Be The Oldest Bar In New York City [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfPaOVl3VQk
Gronda, L. (2014, Mar 27). Neir’s Tavern: 185 Years of Greatness In Woodhaven. The Queens Tribune. Retrieved from http://queenstribune.com/neirs-tavern-185-years-of-greatness-in-woodhaven/
Historic Neirs Tavern Press & Photos. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://neirstavern.com/press-2/
MacDonald, J (Writer, Director, Producer). (2011). Let There Be Neon; Neir’s Tavern; Rubie’s Costumes; Dempsey and Carroll; the St. George Theatre. New York Originals (Television series). New York, NY: PBS. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLwKonDqq8Y
Social Explorer. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.socialexplorer.com/
Surico, J. (2016, May 20). A Queens Bar Has a Rich History but Lacks Status. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/21/nyregion/a-queens-bar-has-a-rich-history-but-lacks-status.html?_r=1