Fast times on Avenue A: The life and death of Superdive

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Superdive. (Sarah Laskow)
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For a while, Superdive in the East Village was a spectacular success and a massive nuisance. And now it is gone. There will be no more keg service at this address, and the promise that patrons could pour their own drinks withered long ago. Once, private parties commandeered space for revelries that lasted well into the night, featuring epic beer pong sessions and monster keg stands. It seemed like the good times at Superdive would never end; in fact, its proprietor promised the readers of Eater.com, more than a year ago, “SUPERDIVE will live forever… SUPERDIVE will never close… LONG LIVE SUPERDIVE!”

But the party-hardy bar gasped its last rattling breath in September, when EV Grieve reported that it opened briefly, most likely only to support a legal claim (important for licensing purposes) that it has been a continuously operating business these past months. Now, Superdive is dead. And the only thing left to do is to dispose of its corpse.

The space still resembles a frat house common room, one bruised and scarred by too many all-night binges. Months after it was first broken, the upper, glass panel of its front door is still patched up with duct tape. Christmas baubles hang inside, and the sign promising “Fun” has been moved to the back. A table is missing a leg; “don’t forget” is written in blue chalk on one corner, above an arrow pointing down to the missing limb. In recent months, a set of toilets, apparently ripped from the bathrooms, sat just inside the bar’s big windows; this past weekend, the display was of piles of old vinyl, stacked against the wall and in crates. The bar once advertised its presence to the world with a bold sign, lit with multi-colored bulbs. Recently, the sign has been off, even at night, and a light is often on inside, revealing a scattering of red-topped bar stools, the only evidence left of the great, glorious sessions that happened here.

In its short life, Superdive generated fantastic media buzz, angered neighbors, became a magnet for police, and lost more than a few of its original fans. Its owners had pulled a fast one on the local community board in order to open at all, and it became a totem for everything that had changed about the East Village for better and for worse. And now that its day has passed, its legacy is proving hard for would-be successors to escape.

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LONGTIME VILLAGERS OFTEN TALK ABOUT the change in their neighborhood as synonymous with the rise of bars and restaurants that create street traffic and noise unlike that in any other neighborhood. Words and phrases like rowdy, circus atmosphere, zoo are used to describe the street scene at night. When bar owners and nightlife operators argue that the East Village has always been a nightlife destination, they respond: Yes, but. Something’s different now.

Academics have a word for what the neighborhood has become: a nightscape. Bars and restaurants were once peripheral to the main drag's primary economic drivers: supermarkets, coffeehouses, boutique shops, record stores. But in post-industrial cities, nightlife has grown into an industry in its own right. As in any industry, shop owners tend to cluster. A century ago, that meant the creation of a Garment District. Now it means the creation of a Party District.

There are a few of them of course. You'll hear similar complaints about the Meatpacking District, about areas of Fifth Avenue or Smith Street in Brooklyn, or the side streets of the Flatiron District. But the Party District below 14th street east of Third Avenue is the largest, the densest, and still growing. To hear the people who live further up near the Stuyvesant Town end of the East Village talk, the Party District is spreading largely north, and somewhere around the summer of 2009, it wholly enveloped the stretch of Avenue A between the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park and 14th Street.

Superdive, more than any other establishment, was the sign that the area has reached some sort of tipping point. There were already more bars in the area than there had been ever before, but none like Superdive. When Superdive opened, bright young things across the city talked about it. They also talked about keg service, the bar’s primary innovation. By calling in advance, customers could secure a keg of almost any beer imaginable: PorkS.L.A.p, Chimay, Allagash White, or any one of the hundreds of German, Czech, Belgian, or British beers on the 16-page keg menu prepared by “Kegmaster Matt.” A New York Press review noted that Superdive was “the stuff of frat-boy dreams—in a good way. We think.” Urban Daddy called it “a world of crazy—an all-out raucous, beautiful disaster of a bar.” It was rumored, briefly, that customers could pour their own well drinks.

In short order, party-seekers were lined up behind the bar’s velvet rope to get in. Positive reviews came rolling in on Yelp, and private parties booked the space, night after night. Upper Avenue A had had theme bars (one of Superdive's predecessors at the space was Korova Milk Bar, which had a Clockwork Orange leitmotif lost on many of the patrons), and the original location of the neighborhoods most notorious gay bar, The Cock. Superdive was self-conscious, though. It promised not just beer or a dance floor, but an experience directly targeted at a crowd the East Village had perhaps hoped it hadn't overtly been catering to: Not some group of characters out of an old Lou Reed song, so much as the group of characters you'd find on Bourbon Street, or worse, North Avenue in White Plains. There was some irony in the marketing of Superdive, but not much.

“Superdive made a lot of us into activists,” Dale Goodson, 58, said recently.

Goodson is a tall, mild guy. Until recently, he was employed as a social worker, and like many of the most vocal opponents of the expanding bar scene, he has lived in the East Village for a long time (in his case, two decades).

Even after the police made the area safer for visiting revelers, the bars that began opening to accommodate them weren't automatically considered by the locals to be bad neighbors. It’s not clear when that changed: One popular theory pins the blame on Mayor Bloomberg’s 2003 smoking ban, which forced drinkers out of the bars and onto the streets. Around then was the first time Goodson really noticed, “Oh, we have bars in our neighborhood,” he said.

Further south in the East Village, opposition began building to what locals and community-board members refer to as the oversaturation of the area with nightlife establishments. The Party District had taken over the area south of St. Mark's Place some time before. The police, to say nothing of residents, grew frustrated with the concentration of weekend revelers, since the throng of taxis and party-goers was keeping emergency vehicles from moving speedily down Avenues A and B.

By comparison, Avenue A above St. Mark’s Place remained quiet. And the locals point to Superdive.

“From night one, that was it,” Goodson said. “It blew the roof off. Crowds just flocked there.”

Neighbors like Goodson started calling 311 and attending Community Board 3 meetings to complain about the bar. Superdive had made an enemy of what's widely known as the toughest community board in the city to push a liquor license through. And although the board can only make recommendations to the State Liquor Authority about how to respond to license applications, it usually has some idea of what’s coming.

In this case, the board had no idea how Superdive had managed to open for business. They’d never seen plans, or talked to the owner, or heard community feedback on the idea.

"Before I was starting to throw up my hands, CB3 was more than happy to hear reasons to get the cops on them,” Goodson said. “They were in pursuit, unbeknownst to me.”

NIGHTLIFE IS AN INDUSTRY LIKE ANY OTHER. If coal-burning plants spew ash, bars and restaurants spew drunken hoots and hollers, vomit on doorsteps, loud fights and a gantlet of stumbling smokers to plow through on your way to your door.

But bars and restaurants also benefit the neighborhood by creating jobs, spurring crime-deterring street traffic, and giving residents a place to go when they’re tired of hanging out in their tiny apartments.

Increasingly boards have been more closely involved in the detailed plans for a new establishment, for instance recommending that the S.L.A. approve a license only if a bar or restaurant owner adheres to certain conditions. The S.L.A. doesn’t always follow the board’s recommendations, but many restaurateurs and bar owners take a community board denial as a sign of headaches to come, and volunteer to adhere to conditions or withdraw their applications.

The space Superdive occupied, at 200 Ave. A, has sold liquor for some time now: the location first was approved by the community board and the S.L.A. for a liquor license in 1997. Before that, in the eighties, according to one longtime Villager I talked to, 200 Ave. A was a refrigerator repair shop. Then it was leased by the city, which ran a social service program that helped mentally disabled people find jobs, or homeless people find apartments, or maybe both. After the city left, a group of kids rented the space and used it as their clubhouse, shooting pool until late at night.