Fast times on Avenue A: The life and death of Superdive
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.
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.
THE FIRST BAR AT THIS ADDRESS, KOROVA MILK BAR, was a Clockwork Orange-themed bar that served drinks with the consistency of milkshakes. Naked white mannequins hovered on the walls, above patrons’ heads, and provocative videos played on screens in the back. One of the bar owners remembers it catering to musicians and artists who didn’t keep normal hours. Others remember the crowd drawing on outsiders—bridge-and-tunnel folk.
Korova stayed at 200 Ave. A for 10 years, paying much less for the space than the $10,000 it can command today. It was loud enough that a couple of the building’s tenants went on a rent strike to force the landlord to deal with the issue. By the time it moved out, in 2006, the druggies and the homeless people were, for the most part, gone; the bright young things and the drunks had moved in.
The next tenant, Superdive’s predecessor, was Rapture Café & Books, the creation of Joe Birdsong, a Georgia-born artist, writer, performer, and sometime go-go dancer. It was named after a Blondie song and managed by a downtown legend, Brian Butterick, a k a Hattie Hathaway, the drag queen. The café had books, and it served coffee and croissants. It also served as a space for performances and literary readings. At night the café sold beer, wine, and liquor; the idea was for drink sales to subsidize the art. According to a 2007 New York Times article about the café, its proprietors were paying below market rent, as well: the landlord told the Times he was “hoping to preserve the area's quirky, artistic feel by keeping small independent businesses around.”
By 2006, Community Board 3 was growing wary of the burgeoning bar scene in the East Village, and although the board gave the café’s application its blessing, it asked for a series of conditions to be placed on its liquor license. First and foremost, the café could only serve alcohol “incidental to its operation as a bookstore.”
In other words, it could not operate as a bar. It needed to stick to the layout its owners had submitted to the board, dedicating a large portion of the space to bookshelves. It promised not to host DJs or live music, to close the backyard by 9 p.m., and to close altogether by 2 a.m., even on weekends. Some remember it more fondly than Korova. The area closest to the front was dominated by small round tables; the middle section contained the bookstore; the noisiest components—the bar and the performance area—were relegated to the back.
Rapture lasted little more than a year, closing in April 2008. For more than a year after that, the space lay dormant. Then, in July 2009, Superdive tapped its first keg.
It took Stetzer, the district manager, months of work to figure out what had happened. In the year after Rapture closed, Community Board 3 had made it clear it was not in favor of another bar, or even a restaurant, opening in the space. In May 2008, they had turned down a proposal from Daniel Warren, the owner of Common Ground, a bar just a block up the street, to open a burger bar (Warren describes the idea as “an east side corner bistro” with “really good burgers and casual neighborhood pub atmosphere”), on the grounds that the stipulations written into Rapture’s liquor license meant it could only be transferred to another bookstore. Carlos Narcisse, a nightlife operator, was interested enough in the property to begin the application process in December 2008, but soon withdrew his bid.
By that time, however, Superdive was already on track to open. In June 2008, Joe Birdsong filed paperwork with the S.L.A. to change Rapture’s trade name to Superdive. In the original application for Rapture’s liquor license, the type of establishment is listed as “café and bookstore.” The new paperwork indicated the business would operate as a “tavern” and listed its operating hours as 7 a.m. to 4 a.m., every day of the week—a clear departure from the stipulations Rapture had agreed to.
Although Birdsong was a visible, active presence at Rapture, his name appears nowhere in the press coverage or other hype surrounding Superdive. It’s possible to connect Birdsong to the new business—Superdive’s manager, Keith Okada, appears to be close with Rapture’s manager, Brian Butterick. (Butterick’s Facebook page lists Okada’s relationship to him as “child.”) But neighbors and customers thought of a different man, Allan Mannarelli, as Superdive’s owner.
At a recent community board meeting that dealt with Superdive’s liquor license, he sat in the back, answering questions directed to him by the board members, but declined to come up to the front to address the group. He’s been involved in the New York real-estate world for years: in the 1980s, he appeared in a New York Times article as a slum-buster who bought dilapidated buildings, fixed them up and made them profitable without evicting the current tenants. These days, he’s also involved with the Drop Off Service, a bar less than a block from Superdive, and with The Cock, a gay club on Second Avenue whose original location was on Avenue A near 12th Street.
Mannarelli is not Superdive’s owner, but, according to documents filed with the S.L.A., the “managing member” of Rapture Café & Books LLC. He has been a member of the company since November 2008. Responding to an S.L.A. question about his relationship to Birdsong, he wrote, “I was approached by the owner since we are familiar and I own and operate the bar across the street at 211 Avenue A.” The forms adding Mannarelli to the L.L.C. also listed the expanded hours.
The S.L.A. acknowledged the change of ownership, but, the agency maintains, not the change in hours. The form was not intended to change the method of operation in that way, and the agency, realizing that it was not clear, has since removed questions about hours from the form. But Birdsong and Mannarelli believed they had what they needed to run the place the way they wanted.
By the time these transactions had come to light, Superdive had lost its original luster. Weekend warriors who stopped by the bar were turned away, when private parties took over. Cops were more than happy to respond to 311 complaints, and Department of Building inspectors closed down the unfinished basement the bar had been using as the “Mad Dog Room.” A gimmick called Champagne Tuesdays, where $20 bought unlimited champagne, opened by a midget dressed as a pirate, inspired some enthusiasm initially, but apparently one visit was enough for a lot of the customers. The nights Superdive was open each week dwindled, down to two by April of this year, until it closed, more or less for good, over the summer.
SINCE SUPERDIVE CLOSED ITS DOORS, POTENTIAL successors have been regularly listed on the community board's docket, but each “corp to be formed” has withdrawn or postponed its application before appearing at the meeting.
Earlier this month, however, Han Kao and his partners, who would like to open a restaurant in Superdive’s abandoned shell, actually went forward with the process.
Kao invited neighbors to 200 Ave. A to consider his proposal. It was a cold and blustery night, and Kao was running a few minutes late. One of his partners was waiting outside, but he didn't have the keys. At five minutes before 8, there were just a couple of people waiting outside the door, but they were cold, having jogged across the street or around the corner without their coats, expecting to duck into the empty bar. Kao pulled up in a taxi just a few minutes after 8, with trays of sushi and a three-paneled presentation board stashed in the back. He also had the keys. He wore a yellow tie.
Maybe a dozen people showed up by the time the meeting got underway, and among them were Goodman, Jill Ackerman and Dolores Schaefer, all local regulars in the fight against proliferating liquor licenses.
Kao did not ask their names. He perched on a stool in front of his presentation board and began explaining his idea for a restaurant as if he were selling it to potential investors. His pitch was for a eating establishment that would offer a multi-sensory experience, that might include, at times, aromas pumped into the space. It would include televisions and lights and music and multi-ethnic food, sourced locally.
No one was eating the sushi he brought. Jim, the property manager, finally put the trays on stools next in the middle of the gathering, and ate a few pieces himself. Over the hour that Kao talked only two people in the audience had any.
The meeting did not go well. The neighbors asked Kao if he would have live music. He said he didn’t know. They asked him what his hours would be. He answered that the restaurant would be open from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., seven days a week, as if it were an obvious answer. (It’s common in the area for restaurants and bars to agree to close on some nights at 2 a.m., or as early as midnight.) He didn’t know how many seats there would be at the bar.
Kao seemed genuinely surprised that his audience was not won over.
"You don’t like this idea?" he asked, incredulously, at one point.
He quickly grew defensive. He warned the community that his offer was a good option. If they fought him, he said, they could get another Superdive.
And they may yet. The community board’s liquor license committee turned down Kao’s application for the all-senses restaurant two weeks ago; the full board has since confirmed that decision.
At the meeting with Kao, the locals gave him the same reason for opposing him that they had given Warren, when he wanted to open a burger bar in the space: according to the current license, the only type of business that should be selling liquor at 200 Ave. A is a bookshop. With rent set at $10,000 in the East Village Party District, that's as unlikely as it sounds.