What if you went to a funeral but the corpse didn't show up? That's what it was like on January 10 at 190-year old Neir's Tavern, which rose triumphantly from its death bed to become the toast of the town.
Let's take a step back to set the scene. I got a call from Neir's owner Loy Gordon and he broke the news to me that he would have to close the doors on the historic bar that he'd championed over the past decade. As a history buff this was shocking and sad. As a resident of Woodhaven this was a terrible blow. But there's a more personal side to this. Loy is a dear friend. He and his wife A´sha and son Evan are family. They are much beloved by residents in our community. As much as this news hurt Woodhaven, it was devastating watching people you love losing everything they had worked so hard for.
Simply put, it was like a death in the family. I don't want to trivialize the death of a loved one; I've lost loved ones, so I know what that feels like. But that's exactly what this felt like. The next 72-hours were a blur. It was hard to concentrate.
Loy had told me not to say anything which, being a big mouth, wasn't easy. The day after he told me, a friend messaged me and asked if I wanted to meet at Neir's "next week." I never answered him. I couldn't answer. There wasn't going to be a "next week." Not ever again. The doors would close Sunday and that would be that. It would be gutted out and turned into a grocery store. Or a liquor store. Or maybe a laundromat.
I got depressed thinking about future walking tours, how I'd point to that building and tell people that's where Neir's used to be.
We gathered at Neir's the next evening to make it official and it was just heartbreaking. It was eerily quiet as Loy struggled to speak, his emotions getting the better of him as he explained how bleak the situation was. There were tears; there was a lot of hugging. We looked around the place, the belief sinking in that it
was truly over. We went through the various stages of grief in one sitting: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We posed for a group photo, but our hearts weren't in it. It's hard to smile when your guts are churning.
We knew how bad this was going to be for the morale of the community. Even if you're not a customer, even if you're not a drinker, it was always a source of pride that we had something so old and important right here in Woodhaven. It wasn't just that it was old, older than Woodhaven itself; it had the whole Mae West and Goodfellas connection, it had the horse racing history. It was fun having a place like that in our community and the thought of it being shuttered, gutted and replaced was just plain awful.
And then the news started to leak out. First it was just a few rumors. And then it was official, and people were, as expected, shocked and stunned and angry and sad. A lot of people had ideas on how to save it and all ideas were on the table, at this point. My wife and I even doubled our weekly lottery budget. But unfortunately, time wasn't just running out, it was running out fast. The problem that couldn't be solved over the past few years now needed to be solved in just three days. But as bleak as things were, it wasn't Sunday yet and the doors weren't locked.
I didn't think I could be there all weekend. It would be too sad. But we did plan to gather Saturday night for karaoke and Sunday for Last Call and in between, hope and pray that the phone would ring with news that a miracle had just arrived.
But the way the eulogies were pouring in, it seemed like Sunday was going to come and go without a resolution. People were leaving heartfelt messages of grief. The closest nearby bar, Geordie's, posted a beautiful message of support for Neir's owner Loy Gordon.
But as it turned out, there was a miracle on the way.
The ball had gotten rolling on that nearly a year earlier when Assemblyman Mike Miller began a dialogue with Tom Grech, Executive Director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce (QCC). With just days to go, Mike and Tom were able to pull together a meeting with the building's owner and as Mr. Grech joked later, he locked the door to the meeting room and said no one was allowed to leave until they struck a deal.
The Mayor's Office got involved after Loy called into a radio show and asked Mayor de Blasio for help. And Councilman Bob Holden was at the table, offering aid and support to this beloved historic location within his district. And once everyone got together, a deal was reached and the next few hours were bedlam.
I was in the doctor's office for a routine checkup. Even in the waiting room, the nurses were talking about the impending closure of Neir's, I couldn't get away from it. And while I was waiting in the doctor's office, my phone rang. It was Assemblyman Miller. The connection was bad and every time he started to tell me the good news, he would cut out. Finally, when we had a 10-second window of clear connection Mike gave me the good news, but told me to keep quiet, that it would be announced later.
Well, folks, I wish I could say I kept the secret. But I had a few close friends who were crestfallen, and I couldn't resist breaking the good news. And never have I enjoyed breaking good news more than this.
We stopped by Neir's which was solidly packed with revelers from around the city who had seen the news and came out to say farewell. For many, it was their first trip to this historic treasure. Other people came from long distances to say farewell, including one gentleman who drove from Pennsylvania just to have a beer.
And locals were wandering over all afternoon, many as they often do, to kick off the weekend at their favorite gathering spot. We were surrounded by people who had come to see a funeral, and yet this good news was bursting to be let free. It was the reporters who broke then news by asking those they were interviewing how they felt about it being saved. Quickly, word began to spread, tears of sadness turned to tears of joy. Hugs of comfort turned into hugs of relief and celebration.
The Mayor came out to Woodhaven and stood behind the bar and made it official. It was a remarkable night for this community. There is a very old saying that success has a thousand parents, but failure is an orphan. When it came to saving Neir's, this old saying was very apt.
Every person who came to Neir's, for lunch or for an evening out; each person who shared news stories about the place, who told friends or relatives about it, were all part of a 10-year campaign to get the city to stand up and recognize this historic location.
And so Neir's was saved but the job is far from over. This is a reprieve, not an endgame solution. But this gives us time to work something out (including possibly landmarking) so generations of New York City residents will be able to visit and enjoy this historic treasure.
And many thanks to the Newtown Historical Society for their continued support of Neir's Tavern through sponsoring events at Neir's. We recently had the pleasure of attending a Jazz Brunch at Neir's featuring the Carl Bartlett, Jr. Jazz Quartet and a screening of The Woman in the Iron Coffin.
This was supposed to be an obituary. Thanks to everyone who pulled together to turn Neir's funeral into a celebration. It was an amazing evening.