Friday, December 08, 2006
New York's Eastern Bloc
A Night in New York's East Village leads to the Iron Curtain
by Cody Lyon
The streets of New York’s East Village appear unusually quiet as those on the out, quickly return in, on this, the city’s first truly bone chilling Saturday night. Even the usual clusters of smokers who’ve been seen braving colder nights than this, appear smaller in numbers and more inconvenienced than usual.
But on Sixth Street, just beyond Avenue A, a cacophony of animated sounds escapes through a non descript red cinderblock wall to the cold sidewalk outside luring passersby with what sounds like warm and fun allure. Behind this iron curtain, lies the Eastern Bloc, a fun den of drinks and laughter, what could pass as the urban equivalent of a red-lit gay American roadhouse.
From wall to wall, heads sway to rhythm while others talk or stare as a muscled, tattooed go go dancer swirls around a bronze poll, surrounded by portraits of Soviet style art. Alongside Stalin, there’s a wild boar, over the bar a zebra’s head is crowned with a red star decorated military officer’s hat while in the back of the long, narrow space, sits a stuffed chicken, all part of the bar’s eclectic taxidermy and pulp fiction motif. Television screens flicker with obscure Japanese animation and vintage erotica as laughter, random shouts and catchy tunes from Beyonce to Zeppelin punctuate random conversations and flirtation.
On December 14th, Eastern Bloc Bar marks one year in business. The venture was built, and is owned and operated, by three first time entrepreneurs who learned the nightlife business where it teaches it’s best lessons, behind the bar.
“Excuse me” a man with a low riding red hat shouts with slow elongated vowels to the bartender working his way through customers, at least three thick.
Behind the bar, two of three owners, both shirtless and bulging with muscle, mix, fill and charge money for drinks ordered by the rambunctious Saturday night crowd.
“On the rocks” the man with the red hat says as the bartender raises a hand to his ear and shakes his head, “On the rocks!” he repeats more loudly as a barman’s tease earns them both some chuckles.
The third owner, also shirtless and the tallest of the three, spins music next to the chicken in the elevated DJ space at the rear of the room, keeping an eye on the crowd, as a cocktail of sound, booze and cruise keeps the night’s clientele crowing.
New York City’s Eastern Bloc Bar, is a creation of Benjamin Maisani of Paris, Darren Dryden of Portland Oregon and Gabriel Beaton from Portland Maine. Arriving in New York at separate moments, the three came together as co-workers while bartending at the Barracuda bar, a wildly successful space in Chelsea. After great soul searching and personal financial assessment they decided to strike out on their own.
The three pooled resources and secured the former Wonder Bar space on Sixth Street, then, all pretty much on their own, began the long arduous days and nights of general carpentry, painting and design of their new bar.
“The bar was in shambles” said Sixth Street resident, current New York City Public School teacher as well as Eastern Bloc’s moonlighting weekend coat check attendent, John Grauwiler. He said the restoration and design was no small challenge for the do it yourself contractors, and their carpentry savvy friends.
But even greater challenges lay ahead.
For one, competition and how to keep the bar filled with patrons. The three’s labor of love would be joining about 60 other Manhattan bars that cater primarily to the LGBT community according to figures compiled from the available listings of a local gay nightlife magazine. And the East Village is home to one of the city’s higher concentrations of gay bars.
But, the three welcomed healthy competition.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing the three owners was a name, and subsequently the bar’s unique concept.
“That was the biggest struggle so far” said co owner Gabriel Beaton, known as Gabe, while accepting deliveries and recalling their business adventure with the other two owners a few days before the cold Saturday night.
“We originally wanted to call it Revolver” he said as the three got laughed about a name already taken by a bar in LA no less.
Eastern Bloc became a clever all encompassing play on words that appreciates geography, but also historical symbolism.
“It’s in the East Village, and it’s an old Polish and Russian neighborhood, it wasn’t silly or obnoxious, it just kept coming back to us” said Darren Dryden, the Oregonian.
And, there’s no denying the historical irony and unspoken sense of triumph over the oppression and drabness that much of the Eastern Bloc once represented. In fact, from 1934 to 1986, the Soviet Union criminalized homosexuality, considering it to be a product of western decadence, landing thousands of gays in gulags.
Inside this 2006 New York City version of the Eastern Bloc, a little decadence was acceptable, perhaps encouraged.
“We want people to have fun” and that’s why “we play music that’s fun, that the crowd likes” said Dryden who often swaps out DJ duties with Beaton.
“People come here and they do have fun” chirps in Maisani in a still distinct French accent.
Maisani and the other two bartenders appear not only business wise, but strikingly smart. For example, each discusses politics, art and history with confidence and ease, obviously armed with knowledge, facts and insight. Maisani, who’s first language is French, received highest academic honors when he graduated New York’s Hunter College in 1999 where he majored in art history.
“I fell into bars totally by chance” he said.
“I was working 9-5 at a museum and then discovered I liked these (bar) hours and the freedom it afforded me” said Maisani who noted that the most popular liquor in the bar, like Russia, is Vodka.
So, besides selling booze and making money, what’s the measure of a successful bar for these three bartenders slash owners?
“Sometimes, people come here and they leave with fun, hopefully interesting, stories” noted Gabe Beaton, the youngest of the trio.
And apparently, it is fun they are having on any given night inside the Eastern Bloc Bar, an interesting place that is the antithesis of drab or oppressed. So far, the young new funky nightspot is not only earning and maintaining a solid regular clientele, they’ve succeeded in becoming a spot on the East Village drinking trail, a cherished position in an area saturated by nightlife.
So, on a cold Saturday night as temperatures plunged and the wind blew, the iron curtain that descended over the East Village just over a year ago, kept revelers warm inside its triumphant, decadent and party filled borders. Rest assured, some really interesting stories would be told later that week.