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The East Village is one of New York’s most eclectic neighborhoods, teeming with secret entryways, scandalous histories, and underground venues. Here are a few curious architectural sites and scenes that will get your imagination and palate flowing.
One of New York City’s oldest bars, William Barnacle Tavern used to be a prohibition-era speakeasy frequented by Al Capone and other prominent gangsters during its heyday. The illegal booze came in from a series of underground tunnels below 1st avenue by bootlegger Frank Hoffman, and when the current owner’s family took over the bar in 1964, they found $2 million dollars stowed away in a safe in the basement. Today, the tavern is known for its old world charm (a relief from the chaos of St. Marks) and absinthe served on the original (half) bar, as well as its connection to Theater 80 – a hip, off-broadway theater venue. It is also the home of the American Gangster Museum, a two-room museum where visitors can peruse artifacts and documents from the prohibition era, and some (perhaps if they’re exceptionally charming) can take a tour of the underground tunnels with the owner.
Constructed in 1872, 155 Avenue C is now a legendary “squat house” that formerly functioned as a warehouse and residential building (among other things), but was eventually abandoned. During the drug-fueled party scene of the 80s, squatters moved in the abandoned building, also known as C-Squat, and in the 90s it became a central hangout for the underground punk scene. Frequented by musicians, artists, and revolutionaries, C-Squat’s walls are still adorned with murals, artwork, and graffiti. In 2002, “the government of New York City granted provisional ownership of 11 squats on the Lower East Side,” including C-Squat, to long-term residents as a kind of co-op housing. The now-legal tenants bought the building for $1 and are responsible for the building’s upkeep. Now home to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, C-Squat also functions as a music venue.
Opened in 1982, The Creative Little Garden is an “oasis of tranquility in New York’s East Village.” Tucked away between Avenue A & B, this little garden used to be a vacant lot strewn with the remnants of a burned down tenement building, but is now the source of a much-needed slice of green in Manhattan’s lower east side. Solely maintained by volunteers, the garden is a “community backyard” that is now also a National Wildlife Federation Habitat.
Hidden behind an old-fashioned phone booth inside a hot dog shop (yes, this is real life), Please Don’t Tell is a cozy speakeasy that serves up eclectic cocktails. After pressing the buzzer in the booth and getting the approval to come inside, the booth’s door opens to reveal the small center bar. New York City seems to love its secret venues and hidden entrances, and this particular spot requires a reservation to get inside. Although the name is “Please Don’t Tell,” many New Yorkers have been talking because the venue is currently fairly well-known, so expect a wait on the weekends for entry.
Constructed in 1848, this historical Manhattan church was built by Irishmen who had fled their homeland due to the Great Famine. Designed by architect Patrick Keely in the Gothic style, the church has had a varied history of closures and renovations since its initial construction. Since the beginning, however, the church has catered to the social needs of the ever-changing neighborhood, and has continuously served the various incoming immigrant communities of the East Village. An anonymous donor literally “saved” the church from demolition and offered the church $20 million dollars—$10 million of which went directly to the renovations. It seems as though this particular historical place of worship may just have a modern day secret admirer.
In 1966, Indian spiritual leader A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his disciples took to East Village’s Tompkins Square Park to chant their 16-word mantra, thus bringing the Hare Krishna religion to the limelight within the neighborhood. According to New York Parks and Recreation, “Prabhupada and his followers sat beneath this tree and held the first outdoor chanting session outside of India,” and participants (including Beat poet Allen Ginsberg) spent the day dancing and playing musical instruments. Since then, the Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park has had great significance not only for New York’s Hare Krishnas, but for the community at-large.
Hidden behind a functioning pawn shop, this upscale American cocktail bar is a “a wellcurated modern day pawn shop replete with a saxophone, boombox, quirky artifacts, vintage treasures.” The interior includes a “grand, circular staircase wrapped around a two-story custom chandelier,” with four dining rooms and two bars. This unexpectedly glamorous lounge is a testament to the quirky mysteries of the East Village and a must-see for adventurous visitors.
Located in the back of the building at the service entrance, this underground candlelit bar is a “secret” East Village treasure. This laid-back indie bar, which took its name from a Tom Petty song, serves no frills cocktails with a speakeasy vibe. Even though you have to walk through a shady alleyway to get to it, there’s something exciting about finding a little hideaway bar in one of the busiest cities in the world. A haunting little place where you can – maybe – meet up with “your little secret.”