Jon Michaud shows why a neighborhood bar mattered
Washington Heights may not be the part of Manhattan that people in our neck of the woods routinely visit, but chances are many of us have spent time there. Situated in the northernmost area of the borough, it is home to Columbia University, Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, the Fort Washington Avenue Armory (where CHS’s student athletes participate in winter track events) and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
The area was also home to Coogan’s, a legendary saloon on Broadway and 169th Street, that closed its doors in 2021 after 35 years of business. Considered a fixture of Washington Heights, an area that had undergone major demographic changes in prior decades – shifting from a middle-class white population of Irish and Jewish descent to a multi-ethnic, mostly Dominican neighborhood – it brought together people from all walks of life. Families, professionals, blue collar workers, politicians and cops all felt at home at Coogan’s.
Maplewood resident Jon Michaud, who considers himself to have a keen eye for a good neighborhood bar, made the first of many visits starting in 1998 with his future brother-in-law. He explains, “My wife is a child of Dominican immigrants, and Coogan’s was a staple part of their social lives. I quickly saw that it wasn’t just another bar, but that it was a special place.”
It seems fitting, then, that Michaud has written a book about the saloon, titled Last Call at Coogan’s. The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar.
Over the years, Michaud watched how Coogan’s became a gathering place for the community. He says, “Variety is one of the things that drew me to the story, because it wasn’t just a story about a bar. It was a story about all these different groups in the community, who used that bar as a place to connect with each other.”
Michaud was first inspired to write a piece about Coogan’s for The New Yorker in 2018 after it was threatened with closure by a rent increase of $20,000 a month. Thanks to a groundswell of support from the community and local government leaders, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had grown up in the neighborhood, and Miranda’s father, a power broker in Washington Heights, the bar was saved.
Michaud recalls showing up for his interview with Coogan’s owners Dave Hunt, Peter Walsh and Tess O’Connor McDade. Expecting 15 minutes of their time, they instead talked to him for two hours. He says, “I walked out of there, like my head was swimming with all the stories that they had told me. And I just thought, wow, you know, I’m going to write my piece, but there’s so much more here to write about. And if they had closed, all of that would have been lost. And I thought, ‘Well, somebody should really write this story.…[I guess] it’s going to be me.”
In the book, Michaud traces the history of Washington Heights and details the pressures that defined it over the decades along with the various mayors and operatives who ruled the city.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the community suffered from the highest crime rate in the city fueled by the crack epidemic, gun violence, and riots concerning race relations and policing. By the end of the 90s, homicides had dropped dramatically and gang activity began to slow. Grassroots neighborhood associations sprang up to tackle other issues by offering afterschool programs, adult education and healthcare and neighborhood cleanup initiatives, and often partnered with small businesses. Eventually, the community became a safer place but it has been challenged by gentrification: rising rents, the displacement of longtime residents and the closing of small businesses.
It took five years for Michaud to complete Last Call at Coogan’s in between his day job as Collections Management Librarian at the Millburn Public Library, but his six weeks at home during the pandemic were transformative. He was able to conduct dozens of interviews with people who were also stuck at home with nothing to do. Michaud says, “I figured out what I was doing and how the story needed to be told. And, in part, that was because I did several crucial interviews during that period that really cemented like, ‘Oh, this is what the book needs to be.’”
The recurring story line is about community and that became clear to Michaud after he transcribed an interview about a romance that budded between an Irish American police officer from the Bronx and a Puerto Rican American district manager who was running the local community board. Their first date was at Coogan’s, after which they fell in love and got married.
Michaud says, “This is about people from different backgrounds, from communities that are historically at odds with each other, finding common ground and coming together at Coogan’s.” He believes the bar had a role in the neighborhood’s renewal.
The other narrative is how Coogan’s owners kept trying new ways to connect with their customers. They opened their space to stage original plays; added karaoke night to the calendar; let mentoring groups for girls meet there; threw annual Halloween parties for HIV-positive children; and they hosted many a fundraising dinner. The owners also got involved in the community outside their doors, partnering with the Armory Track and the New York Roadrunners to host 5K races. Michaud says, “If something didn’t work, they tossed it out, and they tried something new. And I think that entrepreneurial spirit and that open-mindedness was part of their success.”
Of course, when Michaud started writing the book, he knew nothing about an impending pandemic that would force Coogan’s to close. He says, “It was going to be, I guess, the kind of redemption story where, they [Coogan’s owners] had worked all this time, and then the community came to their rescue and saved them. And that was going to be the end [of the book]. But there was this new twist with COVID.”
Having conducted about 100 interviews, Michaud had a lot of material to weave into a story. And thanks to being awarded a New Jersey State Artists Grant, he was able to hire a fact checker, which certainly lightened his load.
Michaud is keeping busy promoting the book, but he can’t help but contemplate his next project. One thing is for sure: it will be another nonfiction book, and that is a change for someone who long considered himself a fiction writer (his first novel is When Tito Loved Clara). After the 2016 election, he says, “I looked at my work, and I found that it was incommensurate with what was going on in the country.” He continues, “And so when this Coogan’s thing came along, I felt like it was a story that matched the moment…because it ran counter to what was going on in the news at that time. In the aftermath of the community rising up and saving the bar [in 2018], they spoke directly to that. They said, we have an administration that is anti-immigrant, and we were just saved by a bunch of immigrants. So that finally, I think, is what drew me to the story.”
It turns out that writing nonfiction has appealed to Michaud. He says, “I’ve actually really enjoyed the process of writing nonfiction, doing interviews, doing research. I enjoyed the social element of it too. Whereas if you’re a fiction writer, you’re just sitting at your desk all day with people that you’re dreaming up in your head, which I did for 30 years.”
Although Coogan’s is now gone, Michaud has provided a portrait of how a neighborhood bar can enliven, nurture and even improve a community. He draws a parallel between a neighborhood bar and the public library, saying, “During the five years that I was working on the book, I was struck frequently by how similar those two institutions are: how important they are for encouraging communication and connection among people who normally wouldn’t interact with each other, because they are places that are open to all, egalitarian in their treatment of people, and spaces that people can take and adapt. Coogan’s became a theater and art gallery, fundraising space, all of these things, a networking venue, and the library where I work can be all of those things, too. We show movies, we have poetry readings, people run small businesses from our quiet study rooms, so they are both fundamental to civil society.”
Last Call at Coogan’s was released on June 6 by St. Martin’s Press and can be purchased at Words bookstore and anywhere books are sold.
Ellen Donker wishes she had stopped at Coogan’s after attending many a winter track event at the Armory rather than being in such a hurry to get over the George Washington Bridge.