Lend Me Your Ear
I wandered out of Soho, toward the Hudson River along Spring Street, and there it was. I am not a history buff, but I am deeply intrigued by historical facts and the nostalgia that accompanies a good classic bar. This little joint has both, plus the charm of a saloon, and the feel of worn leather.
The Ear Inn sits a half a block from the Hudson River; two hundred years ago it was almost on the river. New York City extended the island west with landfill and new construction, “moving” the Ear Inn inland a bit, but easily accessible to the longshoreman arriving with a hankering for women and whisky. Fortunately, you can still find both at the Ear Inn, and it remains a great watering hole and living museum, managed by a friendly bartender and cool staff.
The three-story house (Inn) was built around 1812, and was originally the home of James Brown, an African-American United States Revolutionary War veteran, who ran a tobacco store on the bar’s first floor. It became a bar in 1817, making it one of the oldest in New York City. When you sit at the bar, you are ensconced in artifacts and historical clutter. Scores of apothecary bottles are stacked on shelves. The bottles were discovered after light construction inside that revealed goodies more akin to emptying the belly of a pirate ship.
Like hundreds of US bars, prohibition was only a temporary setback. Bar owners would simply open a “flower shop” or “fruit stand” in front, obscuring the bar’s façade. Insiders eventually got word to enter through the back, around the side, or know the password to gain entrance to the secretive fraternity of men and women drinking. The Ear Inn went a step further and included a brothel upstairs.
After prohibition, it became known as “The Green Door,\” and remained serving the neighborhood, sailors, and those working at the shipyards and docks. The walls are covered with black and white and sepia tone photos of men in fedoras, ties, leather jackets, or overcoats. You will be amazed at the bar’s façade with a horse and buggy in front, and in later years, a Model-T and, still later, a Chevy Nova. The home to hard drinkers was designated an historical landmark in 1969. In the seventies, new owners took over, and rather than change the sign on an historic building, they simply painted over the curves of the letter “B” on the sign, making it appear to be an “E,” hence the Ear Inn, and not the Bar Inn.
As I sat at the bar sipping my Guinness, I allowed myself to momentarily daydream, and imagine what a typical patron would look like one hundred years ago. Would it be the clichéd businessman with the handlebar mustache and pocket watch? A hardscrabble dockworker with tattoos and Popeye forearms? How about a man with an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder? After my sense of humor ruined my time travel, I looked around at who does visit the Ear Inn.
There are Wall-Streeters, hipsters, construction workers who walk north from the Holland Tunnel, and even those who boast of living a nine-iron from the bar. A true neighborhood bar, it has a blend of all income brackets, and no one judges. Suits mix with hardhats.
Outside there are a few park benches that form a small cubby-cove around a tree. Weather-permitting, those who smoke can take a short breather from the bar to catch up with others and see if cigarettes are their only common bond. Very unpretentious, the bar has a purpose: make people feel welcomed, comfortable, and at home.
When I left the Ear Inn, I enjoyed the quiet walk east on
Spring Street. You still feel the history and the energy of a street once filled with shipping commerce, and the characters that likely stepped off ships docked yards away from the bar.
The Ear Inn is located at 326 Spring Street, NY, NY 10013 / 212-226-9060
Johnny Cosmo is a writer and host of Classic American Bars Podcast at TradioV.com Contact him about your classic favorite firstname.lastname@example.org Give a LIKE on Facebook: Facebook.com/ClassicAmericanBars
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