Thursday, April 22, 2021

Then and Now: Downtown Beirut, NYC

Gone But Not Forgotten

Downtown Beirut ca. 1987 randommusings.filmiinspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1987.
To an out-of-towner or pretty much anyone unfamiliar with the ways of the East Village, the above street scene probably seems fairly mundane. A bunch of ratty shops in some ancient tenement, long gone and long forgotten.

To people who do know a thing or two about New York City and the East Village, they know exactly why this photo was taken.

Downtown Beirut!

We're going to do a quick then-and-now of First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1980s randmomusings;filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, the 1980s.
What was Downtown Beirut? A bar in Manhattan. You can describe it in various ways, but probably the most accurate is that it was a classic dive.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1981 randmomusings;filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1981.
As a dive, Downtown Beirut had a lot of company. Some of its peers were Hogs and Heifers in the Meatpacking District (1992-2015 RIP), Scrap Bar, Union Square’s bar/restaurant the Coffee Shop (1990-2015 RIP). and, well, I could go on for a while. But this isn't about them, it's about Downtown Beirut.
NIGHT AT DOWNTOWN BEIRUT, video by Mike Enright
A long city block from Tompkins Square Park, Downtown Beirut acquired an offbeat reputation. If you stayed late enough, some girls in halter tops and boots might get up and dance on the bar. The jukebox was renowned for having a great selection of tunes you were pretty unlikely to hear elsewhere. Want to play some pinball at 2 a.m.? Downtown Beirut was your spot.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990.
For such a quirky East Village dive, a lot of people still remember Downtown Beirut fondly. For instance, it was featured in "Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar" by Elissa Schappell. Mike Enright made a video about it. The New York Times included it in a 2012 list of "Manhattan's Most Mourned Bars." When you start poking around on the Internet looking for beloved New York bars of the past, "Downtown Beirut" always seems to pop up. That's no small feat considering the thousands of little hole-in-the-wall joints that come and go in the Big Apple.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
It's 3.a.m., do you know where your children are? A clip from a deleted scene from "Night At Downtown Beirut," video by Mike Enright
Unless you've lived in New York, you might not understand how these neighborhood joints served a need. The heavy metal crowd could hang out together at Scrap Bar, the models could sit at Coffee Shop's amazing bar and hold court and then walk over to a table and have some grilled shark, and the punk crowd could spend a few hours at Downtown Beirut. It wasn't that far from CBGB, you could catch Patti Smith and then walk over and play some pinball. It was nice to have a place to just be among like-minded folks and maybe all sing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" together in July just because you could. Why? Well, if you have to ask... No, that doesn't make sense, now does it, it's not supposed to, nothing makes sense in the middle of the night after you've downed a few with friends.
First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, New York buildings are eternal, especially in the East Village. The building was built in 1920, so it just celebrated its centenary. Yay 2020! It will probably still be there in 2120, too, because those old buildings never go away. It's what gives New York its charm.

As you can see above, "Downtown Beirut" is no longer with us. It closed in 1994 around the time of Rudy Giuliani's election as mayor. That location now houses "Yu's On First," where you can get a nice back and foot rub. If you go to Yu's Facebook page, it tells you that "We Believe Massage Is the Way to Physical Relaxation." Downtown Beirut did the same thing, in its own way. So, as we like to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I hope you enjoyed this random walk through the East Village. Please visit some of our other pages!

2021

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