A couple of years ago, I wrote about a little boarded up storefront at the corner of North 5th & Berry in Williamsburg:
I used to live down the street, and every time I walked by, I always wondered if it was once a bar, or maybe a restaurant.
Finally, I did a bit of searching, and managed to dig up a picture from 1960, revealing it to have once been a bar/grill (ah, winters with snow! Those were the days…):
Exactly what it was back then remains a mystery; however, a bunch of commenters wrote in with fond memories of its time as Gallagher’s Ship’s Mast, a local Williamsburg dive in the ’80s and early ’90s that became a beloved gathering spot for artists and performers in the area.
If it was true…wow. Ever since, I’ve kept an eye on the building, but never saw anyone go in or out. I rang the apartments once or twice, but no one ever answered, and I ultimately gave it up as a lost cause.
That is, until last week, when I drove by and noticed that work was being done on the adjacent storefront. I quickly jumped out of my car and spoke with someone on site, and he confirmed that the bar did in fact still exist.
And then, he opened the door…
Founded in 1981 by John Gallagher, the Ship’s Mast was forced to close its doors over a rent dispute on September 14, 1993. As far as I can tell, its been boarded up ever since.
At the time of its closing, the Ship’s Mast had developed a fiercely loyal following from the new wave of artists converging on Williamsburg, which, at the time, was still primarily a working class neighborhood of Italian, Polish, and Hispanic immigrants.
The highlight of what remains is the beautiful old wooden bar, which I’m sure dates at least as far back as the picture taken in 1960, if not before (and is actually for sale if anyone out there is interested):
Reader Justin remembers: “[it] made Turkey’s Nest look like a Starbucks. The ceiling and floor were wildly uneven and were never more than seven feet apart. There was always a hot plate of lasagna or some other kind of food in the back and the Williamsburg artists that frequented it tended to be closer to 40 than 20 and more often than not covered in fresh paint.”
The old flip top bar door still remains:
Great detailing on the bar – I’m pretty sure they don’t make ‘em like this anymore:
Reader Bobby B. remembers: “The Ship’s Mast was the nexus of Williamsburg in the 90s. There was a free hot buffet, and cheap Guinness. John Gallagher was the proprietor/ barkeep, and his wife Nora Kitten was the barmaid.”
Behind the bar…
…where cheap Guinness used to flow:
The old coolers:
The bar’s mirror – I’m pretty sure this was an intentional design choice, though it could just be some sort of mold:
According to Bobby B., “There was a silver fringe curtain and you never knew what would come out of it. The first time I went, I was thinking it was right out of a David Lynch movie. Maybe 20 minutes later the midget from Twin Peaks came out and danced around; his name was Michael Anderson.”
A little bit of left-over nautical decoration – it was the Ship’s Mast, after all!
Bobby B. continues, “The Waterfront Week was a zine that told you where everything was going on that weekend. It featured Tony Millionaire’s Drinky Crow, Spike Vrusho’s beat-poet sports column, and various poetry & short stories. It was edited by a tall transvestite named Medea DeVyce. She would cut & paste (literally!) everything onto an 11×17 inch paper right there on the bar and xerox it in the back room.”
In June, 1922, New York Magazine featured an article on the Ship’s Mast, describing it as “a hip spot, the place to go for jazz concerts, performance artists, and poetry readings.”
According to the article:
Owners John and Nora Gallagher have welcomed artists since they opened the bar in 1981. They even provide lasagna, meatballs, and knishes on weekends. “It cheapens the place to charge for food or admission,” says John Gallagher, the middle-aged former lead singer for a defunct Queens band, Moving Violation.
Below, the Ship Mast’s old kitchen…
Pot still on the stove, ready to cook up some meatballs once more…
The old mint green fridge is also still there (though methinks a new box of baking soda might be in order):
It was a Westinghouse:
Still on the wall, a notice from the City of NY Department of Health, notifying customers that the most recent inspection report should be available from the bartender:
Nearby, something called Blatz Liquid Detergent. I only know Blatz as a beer (and a punk band), and can’t seem to find a word about this online. Pretty classic can though:
Also nearby, some important notes tacked to the wall (note the Post-It on the left – still sticking since at least 1993!)…
…including a 1987 freebie calendar:
Also nearby: an ancient number for the Greenpoint Volunteer Ambulance Corp, along with a number for the local police precinct:
Back in 1964, a man was hit by a car on Humboldt Street in Greenpoint, and had to wait over two hours for an ambulance to take him 15 blocks to the nearest hospital. Outraged residents decided to form a volunteer ambulance group, which was in operation through 2000 and was making 130 calls a month at its peak during the 1960s and ’70s. Its first ambulance? A 1949 Cadillac hearse.
The climactic ending to 1992’s Laws of Gravity (starring a young Edie Falco!) was filmed in the Ship’s Mast. Unfortunately, they never seem to go wide, and so you never get a good shot of the full bar:
Also nearby, a stack of old posters, including one for a disco contest:
Resting on a couple of old Kirsch trays, a sign advertising the Yankees game “tonite on a big 7 foot screen.”
On the back of the door to the kitchen…
…one of those reflective photographs, clearly to go along with the ship’s mast theme:
Ultimately, the bar closed over a dispute with the landlord. As Nora Kitten/Gallagher explained to the NY Times in 1993, “This is strictly vindictiveness on the part of the landlady. The landlady is my husband’s ex-girlfriend. As soon as they broke up, about four years ago, she evicted him from his apartment above the bar, and then she went after the bar.”
The owners and clientele of the Ship’s Mast fought tooth and nail to keep the bar running. In fact, when they were finally evicted, nine people, including Gallagher, were arrested for trying to block the city marshal from enforcing the order. About twenty others protested nearby with signs.
A last ditch effort to save the bar a week prior is still written on the message board:
My post last week talked about the disappearance of New York seediness, with many commenters mourning the related loss of the city’s character. In the end, I suppose it’s all a cycle. The original working class residents were certainly unhappy with the influx of artists in the early 90’s; I’m sure the artists of the early ’90’s are not happy with the neo-Soho Williamsburg has become today.
Ultimately, New York has always been a city of change, for better or for worse, and perhaps much of the value of the places we all know and love is in part linked to the fact that they won’t be around forever. So enjoy ‘em while they’re there.
In the meantime, 107 North Fifth Street is being renovated, and will soon come back to life as an establishment catering to the current wave of Williamsburg residents. My hope? They bring back those great windows from the ’60s.
PS – According to the NY Times article on the Ship’s Mast’s closing, “…some artists say they are being pressured, through higher rents, to move out in an effort to exploit new interest in this old working-class waterfront community.” Man, how things have changed since 1993…
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