This profane Eden

James Davidson takes us on a journey of reminiscence and revelation through his spiritual home


It was a Saturday, Valentine’s Day in 1970, when a 25 year-old David Mancuso held a party in his SoHo loft to help raise funds to pay his rent. An ardent record collector and hi-fi enthusiast, the upstate New Yorker also had a wide and varied social circle, including LSD guru, Timothy Leary. In debt to the psychedelic mind-opener, Mancuso’s night would bear an acronym: Love Saves the Day. Some 100 revellers arrived, and The Loft was born.

“I don’t play the music, the music plays me,” the young spiritual thinker was known to say. The music that played him was rich in the finest feels of R&B, soul, psychedelia, boogie and deep grooves. Lou Reed’s hymns to hustlers and hookers were ingrained in the fabric of downtown Manhattan, and here in its heart the marginalised and the displaced would find a home. Gay, straight or transexual; hippie or dance floor enthusiast; introverts and extroverts. Mancuso’s homemade club paved the way for disco and house, it paved the way for the togetherness that those close to these scenes hold close to their hearts till this day. It paved the way for names such as Larry Levan, Danny Krivit, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian … venues such as Paradise Garage, The Gallery and Studio 54.

The dancefloors of Manhattan may have been on fire, but it was the city that was burning around them. It may seem somewhat odd to eulogise social decay and criminality, but the New York of the 1970s and ‘80s holds a seedy appeal to me that’s impossible to shake. For radical creatives there was no better place to carefully balance excitement with danger. From Miron Zownir’s frenetic photography of prostitutes and flashers, brawling bums and drug-addled performance artists to Jane Dickson’s affecting paintings of an on-edge Times Square; the explosion of graffiti and street art to the combustible post punk scene, where performers like Alan Vega and Martin Rev would provoke audiences to the point of violence. In its chaos, it was the birthplace of a profusion of the music and art that I’ve lapped up since a teenager. It’s a city whose lure has never quelled, no matter how many times I visit.

“Whoever is born in New York,” wrote the literary icon, James Baldwin, “is ill-equipped to deal with any other city: all other cities seem, at best, a mistake, and, at worst, a fraud. No other city is so spitefully incoherent.” Even today, decades after its tough-love clean-up, New York City’s incoherence rides high. Corporations may have sucked the bones of its underground scenes clean, Times Square peep shows and the gaudy neon call of XXX cinemas may be a thing of the past, but the city still crackles with the energy of its tawdry history; no number of high-end apartment blocks or hedge fund frat boys can scrub clean that indelible essence. You feel it, it grips you in its crumbling tarmac, its iconic steam system, its decaying subway. Even if you’re taking another photo from the Top of the Rock, or eating another pastrami sandwich under that sign that tells you where Meg Ryan faked her orgasm, the ultimate metropolis still resonates overwhelmingly. On the face of it, much has changed, but in some ways, it never will. “Nothing is an end,” said Keith Haring, “because it always can be a basis for something new and different.”

Which brings us to a sort of beginning. It’s a little while since the last visit to my spiritual home, and much is new and different. Parts of Williamsburg now feel like a faux film set at a Florida theme park, the one percent’s billions have transformed the Manhattan skyline. And there are some new locals. See, last time I was here, brewers such as Other Half, Finback, Threes or KCBC were either just in the process of setting up shop or a grain of barley in their creator’s eye. It was, as ever, a worthy pilgrimage for a beer lover, but in terms of what we know about and expect from beer in 2020: as different as Mancuso’s SoHo to today’s. IPAs were IPAs, of course. But like the great Mr Haring said, nothing is an end, it can always be the basis for something new.

With a long-held reputation as New York’s ‘skid row’, the streets around The Bowery – the city’s oldest thoroughfare – are now home to upscale retailers, penthouses that run into the tens of millions of dollars, and posh hotels. It’s from the 21st floor of the cool CitizenM where I sup on a cloudy NEIPA from KCBC and look down on the neighbourhoods below with my nostalgia level ramped up to an alarming level. Here’s where CBGBs hosted Talking Heads, Television and the Ramones; where The Beastie Boys played as a hardcore punk band. But even in rampant gentrification, New York maintains a magnetism. It’s simply magic up here, you can see the neighbourhoods rolling into one another; the street art, low-rises, water tanks and European-inspired façades; the steel and glass monoliths reflecting a pink sunset; yellow cabs and the Empire State. It’s at street level, though, that the grip tightens. Let’s take a walk on the Wild Side.

Street names around here are ingrained upon the consciousness of contemporary culture. Orchard Street is just one of them. You know it, but you don’t know why. Aesthetically little has changed from the days it began hosting immigrants as ‘Little Germany’ in the mid 19th century, those evocative brick apartment blocks with external fire escapes that have backdropped scenes from countless movies. I stumble across Top Hops by happy accident, the Lower East Side bottle shop and bar, a fine find. There’s hundreds and hundreds, and some hundreds more, of cans and bottles from around the world, but my first priority is to dip into the new face of American craft beer. A trendy 7.3% NEIPA from Barrier with Grimm, 3 Sons and Equilibrium is a good place to start. That roster of names would warrant a hefty price tag over here, so I get stuck in before following up with an Allagash White, because: Allagash White.

One Mile House on Delancey Street is one of those classic Manhattan bars. A vintage styled taproom with a fine happy hour that offers up fresh brews from Other Half and Mikkeller NYC at reasonable prices for an unreasonably priced city, it packs to the rafters for after works. The lights dim to a nothing and the voices raise as they crank up the volume on dive bar standards, it’s cold outside and I lose all sense of time. (Nothing to do with the high-ABV IPAs, honest guv’nor.) A brisk walk from east to west lower Manhattan takes us past David Mancuso’s original SoHo loft on the way to Blind Tiger, a mainstay of Greenwich Village boozing since 1996. I get involved in a pale from Hill Farmstead, an Other Half German-style pilsner from cask and a gravity-dispensed brew from Vermont’s Von Trapp.

The floorboards at Blind Tiger creak reassuringly, it’s the sort of place one that way persuaded may call a bolthole, an evocative escape for an afternoon of day-drinking with its bountiful wooden panelling salvaged from a 19th-century farmhouse. New York has a knack for heightening experience, and it’s something I reflect on whilst soaking up big-hitting beers with a huge slice of unctuous ‘pie’ at nearby Joe’s Pizza; another nostalgic blast of the Manhattan of old. Revellers will have stopped off here to do just as I’m doing during the peak of the city’s artistic creativity and the nadir of its sociopolitical strife. It’s four decades later, and in Joe’s, little has changed.

Around the time Pino ‘Joe’ Pozzuoli opened, in 1975, even the notorious Irish gangs were fleeing the aptly named Hell’s Kitchen. Today, a couple of miles north west of Greenwich Village—through the gentrification 101 of Chelsea—the neighbourhood is unrecognisable. It now stands in the shadows of the contorted skyscrapers of Hudson Yards, an ostentatious $25 billion super project of high-end real estate, shops and restaurants, public space, hotels and galleries. Walking away from the development, toward Central Park on 10th Avenue, fanciful juxtapositions unfold, as the surviving buildings once home to poor and working-class Irish-Americans offer an aesthetic respite. It’s in this corner of Hell’s Kitchen, behind a heavy wooden door, that As Is offers a sense of community and familiarity. And great, great beer. The bar is moody with an industrial edge, but wholly inviting too, and it’s here I sample my first lager from the much-lauded Threes Brewing. Which takes us across the East River for a whole new chapter.

There’s nothing quite like drinking in Manhattan, here the energy is hyper and the connection to the past so tangible still; the hulking Goliaths tower imposingly above and the fraught pace quickens the heartbeat. But it is not the epicentre of all things cool as it was when the future of dance music was being dictated. Things change, and the end of one story is the basis of something new and different for another. Brooklyn is today’s heart of New York cool, beyond that Queens as the slow avalanche of gentrification hikes rents and forces creativity further. Brooklyn is a vast borough, littered with the remnants of industries gone by; old warehouses and rattling overhead railways offering a different brand of nostalgia to its NYC neighbour. And old warehouses mean breweries. Lots of them. Manhattan’s bar crawl is Brooklyn’s taproom crawl.

Other Half, Finback, Interboro, Folksbier, Threes, Transmitter, KCBC, Evil Twin … the eponymous Brooklyn. Some need no introduction, others a welcome discovery, all contribute to a rich craft beer scene that has blown up since a 2014 legislation allowed for the sale of beer on brewery premises. Of course aficionados on this side of the pond will be familiar with the long standardised class of Brooklyn Brewery, they’ll have likely sought out wallet-draining releases from Other Half or Finback, but some of the lesser-known names here offer the most surprises. In blue collar Carroll Gardens, Folksbier hides behind an unassuming neighbourhood façade, and is as sleepy and farmhousey as its founder Travis Kauffman, an engaging chap with a studious look, who sits me down with a pint of O.B.L. (Old Bavarian Lager).

Kauffman is borderline obsessive with his desire to apply German precision to his brews, and his childhood on a Michigan farm is clearly evident in all that exudes from his brewery. Clean, crisp and crushable, their Green Yuzu Glow Up—part of a series of Berliner weisse-style beers—is one of the best I have drank in months. Just ten minutes by foot, but in an area of polar opposites, is Other Half, who are printing money as they roll beers straight off the canning line into the back of classic American trucks owned by muscly guys with a shared love for Untappd and ice hockey. The music is loud and the taproom has a nightlife feel even at lunchtime. With the sound of lanes of traffic resonating through the decaying steel supports of the I-278 above, the faster pace of industrial Gowanus draws a fitting juxtaposition between the two breweries.

Not in spite of, but perhaps as a consequence of pastry sours with ingredients lists that read like a brunch menu, the beer scene in Brooklyn is unfamiliarly grown up for a European, and breweries such as Threes and Transmitter join Folksbier in putting out simple but effective lagers, pilsners and pales; the latter brewing some exceptionally clean Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales from a bright and fresh spot in a new food hall at Brooklyn Navy Yard. Brooklyn bars, such as the unmissable Tørst, echo this movement beyond hype and saccharine sweetness with restrained but excellent tap lists stocked with odes to simplicity.

I pretend to forget who owns it, and pop into Whole Foods on Bedford Ave. The U.S. has always been an eye-opener for beer fans, but the range on offer here rivals many a very good bottleshop I’ve visited in capital cities throughout Europe; top notch brews from big names, all at $4.99 a pop. Rampant capitalism is a terrible thing, until you’re a thirsty old kid in a candy shop. Bodegas throughout the neighbourhood offer similarly welcome surprises, and, by and large, the same can be said for non beer specific bars; the new wave of craft beer has permeated the mainstream here in Brooklyn. Which helps to explain the progressive simplicity of some of its breweries, folk here are one step ahead of us, it would seem.

A visit to New York is not complete without getting close to the banks of the East River and marvelling at manic Manhattan from the relative serenity of Williamsburg. All the nostalgia, all the feels. I catch sight of dozens of police vans and swarming helicopters, gaze over to downtown and dream of having seen the Twin Towers first hand, remind myself to pick out the Chrysler Building and compare its Art Deco splendour to the modernist wonder of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. The sunlight fades and the pink hues rise, another trip is over. 

Whatever your kink, whether you’re a movie fanatic giddy about spotting famous locations, a hip hop head making pilgrimages to the projects where it began … maybe you love Sex and the City and have to go to that cupcake place and quote a line about ‘Big’ (I’m not judging), the ultimate metropolis has you covered. For those of us who quite enjoy a decent beer, too, it’s a veritable paradise of concrete and confusion. As Baldwin said: “all other cities seem, at best, a mistake, and, at worst, a fraud.” New York, my friends, is the very real deal.

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