By Madeleine Hollis
The prohibition of the 1920’s notoriously spawned a cultural movement that has now become one of the most romanticized eras in history. New York City was at the forefront of this up and coming nightlife scene, leading a new wave of unrestrained decadence and debauchery. It’s estimated that in New York City alone, there were between 20,000 and 100,000 speakeasies.
Enough for any crowd to find their niche: fans of live music could swing by The Cotton Club any night and find one of the most popular live shows around, featuring class acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, or, for those with more literary interests, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were only a train ride away at Chumleys.
Though the obvious catalyst for this was the simple act of banning alcohol in the U.S., it was also a largely political and cultural statement. The world was divided into those who agreed with the prohibition laws and those who didn’t, bringing those in each group closer together but further apart from those on the other side. Disarray was heavy in the air of the 1920’s, but the chaos turned into a profitable venture both fiscally and socially.
It’s no big surprise that the idea of the speakeasy has come back with a flourish since the beginning of the pandemic. There are, of course, the classic (and totally legal) New York speakeasies that exist as a simple nod to the past: Angel’s Share, found through a backdoor in a Japanese restaurant, or the telephone booth bar PDT. But the interesting part of speakeasies is not simply that they have a funky entrance—it’s the adrenaline of being in a place where you are not meant to be. And during this time of political and social turmoil, it’s no wonder that New York City has become, once more, a hotbed for the lawless, adrenaline inducing speakeasy of the past.
Of course, compared to the thousands of clubs that existed in the past, the new world of underground clubs falls pitifully short. But, while New York’s new handful of secret bars may not reach the roaring heights of the Twenties, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t make an impact on the diminishing social scene of the city. New Yorkers could once more mingle and drink and dance, living the life that many of them moved to New York for in the first place. The decision to go out in the midst of a stay-home order is controversial to say the least, leading to a pretty big split between those who considered these events to be morale-boosting for city citizens, and those who simply saw the existence of secret bars as an unnecessary risk.
In the past, these establishments brought people of different political and social ideals together, allowing those of different socioeconomic backgrounds to socialize in a way that they hadn’t before. Though this era is seen as mostly a time of indulgence and reckless amusement, it also made an impact on political and social norms that would ripple throughout the rest of history. Could the same be said for the speakeasies of the pandemic?
Recent years have polarized society in a way that hasn’t been rivaled in decades. Unfortunately, the small communities created through the support of local bars were not entirely on opposite sides of the political spectrum, making it a bit of a stretch to say that these wild nights were anything but just that. For the most part, like-minded people were brought together out of a similar desire for collective expression in a world that had kept them apart for so long. These communities, though perhaps not a binding force in a demarcated world, did grow into their own kinds of social factions. The bars themselves became an oasis for those who no longer minded the consequences they may face, opting to place personal gratification above negative outcomes.
It’s difficult to say whether these bars were willing to risk fines and permanent shutdowns for financial reasons or simply to act as a refuge for a discontent world. Multiple bars during this time lost liquor licenses or were forced to permanently close their doors as a result of disorderly conduct. The famously rowdy House of Yes faced this consequence, losing their liquor license after law enforcement realized that they were serving alcohol without the addition of food. This was one of the lesser punishments, and the club has since reopened with full privileges.
One of the bigger raids happened at a warehouse-turned-club in Queens, resulting in a slew of misdemeanors for the nearly 150 occupants. This club was a true blue speakeasy, a tightly kept secret to all but those who knew just where to look. The entrance was blocked and the club did not hold a certification of occupancy, seemingly pointing to the idea that the doors were opened for the sole purpose of providing entertainment during the pandemic. In the same weekend, a TriBeCa club was raided and found to be guilty of illegal activity ranging from serving minors to operating, once again, without a liquor license.
These were just a few of the bars that were shut down during the pandemic but there were many more that operated under such secrecy that they were never found out by law enforcement. As winter began to fade, “underground parties” started to pop up all over the city, gaining traction by word of mouth alone. Some of these parties were held in already popular clubs, making it difficult to understand how law enforcement wasn’t aware of their illegal early comebacks. It wasn’t unusual to walk down a Brooklyn street late at night on a weekend and see a suspiciously long line forming in front of an unmarked door, raising the question of whether police were aware of the parties and choosing to ignore them or if they were truly oblivious.
Already established bars and clubs were not, of course, the sole providers for a good time. The supply of already popular locations could not keep up with the demand of patrons, prompting New York residents to take matters into their own hands. House parties became an integral part of the New York speakeasy scene, far surpassing what house parties have been known for in the past. This was not your average casual hangout between friends and acquaintances, but an entirely real club experience. Those who’d been regulars in the club scene pre-pandemic sought to recreate the experience in the realest way possible, going so far as to rent out empty two story apartments and fill the rooms with makeshift bars and dance-floors. Bartenders and DJ’s were hired under the table to entertain from dusk til dawn, although the parties were known to last far past lunchtime. It wasn’t uncommon for music to suddenly be shut off and rooms to go entirely silent at the suggestion of a curious cop on the sidewalk.
Things have changed since the city has begun to reopen, and the real speakeasies have once again fallen away in favor of legal bars sporting faux storefronts. But there’s still much to learn from the past couple of years, namely that New Yorkers can and will find a way to show off their outfits by dancing on tables no matter the consequence.