The times, they have definitively changed.
By the time Bob Dylan sang about Greenwich Village, the bohemian enclave was already too pricey for poets, who were then finding refuge across Broadway in the East Village. Today the transformation is complete. Greenwich Village is a fully haute-bourgeois neighborhood for those who like their $10 million-plus homes surrounded by fashion boutiques and pricey eateries.
So, in many ways, Chumley’s, the 1830s-era bar at 86 Bedford that is embroiled in a fight with its neighbors, is an anachronism. The iconic speakeasy, which once attracted the greatest modernist writers (Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Norman Mailer) and then the bridge-and-tunnel set, has been closed for eight years now. In 2007, one of the walls of the building collapsed.
Jim Miller, the bar’s owner, is fighting to keep his bar and a piece of NYC history alive. Unfortunately his neighbors don’t view the bar with the same nostalgia.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t going to be drinking here,” Matthew Maline, a lawyer who represents locals opposed to the bar, told LLNYC. “It’s a tourist crowd.”
The street has a different character today than in the past, Maline said. “It’s a dead silent street.”
In 2011, Chumley’s landlord, Newcastle Reality Services, converted the neighboring building at 84 Bedford into a nine-unit condominium, with prices in the millions. Those units have since sold to well-heeled buyers who were charmed by the otherwise quiet street and are now afraid a rowdy clientele might harsh their serenity.
Maline even suggested to LLNYC that Newcastle intentionally stalled repairs at Chumley’s until after the new residences were sold.
Both Newcastle and Miller call that theory absurd. “It’s been there since 1920. Everyone knows that Chumley’s is on the block. The notion that they were somehow hiding Chumley’s to sell condos, that doesn’t make sense,” said Miller.
Miller, who bought into the bar more than a decade ago, says that he has worked closely with the community since the 1990s, voluntarily reducing hours. He says if the locals suing Chumley’s would give him a chance, he would work with them to make the bar “a responsible part of the community.”
He also hopes to revive some of the color that made the neighborhood a destination in the first place.
When founder Lee Chumley died in 1935, his obituary described him as one of the characters that once made Greenwich Village a mecca for the avant garde. He was usually seen in “a floppy hat, open shirt and wavy necktie,” the New York Times wrote of the former “solider of fortune,” “wagon tramp,” artist and writer from Chattanooga, Tenn.
So is there room for “wagon tramps” in the Village today? Money will likely have the final say.