“In the back of my mind, I still keep saying that something’s going to happen,” said Gordon, who owns the 190-year-old Woodvahen pub, said in an interview shortly after the announcement. “But I’m trying to face the truth, and that’s hard.”
The very next day, he got his miracle.
Thanks to support from government officials and the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Gordon reached a handshake agreement with property owners Ken and Henry Shi to avoid the historic bar’s last call.
On Friday night, hundreds of revelers packed Neir’s Tavern after hearing the good news. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who heard Gordon’s plea on the radio earlier that day, showed up to celebrate the deal.
“When I heard about what was happening with Neir’s, like everybody in this bar, I said this just cannot happen,” the mayor said. “We can’t lose this bar. We can’t lose this part of our history.”
“The hardest decision I’ve had to make”
Gordon, a Jamaican immigrant and New York City firefighter who bought the bar 11 years ago, first informed his staff and customers of his plan to shutter the watering hole last Wednesday.
On the morning of January 9, he sent out an email and posted on Facebook that he had to come to the decision after failing to obtain an affordable long-term lease. He noted that exorbitant rent and insufficient sales led to financial losses every month.
Due to an increase in personal obligations, he wrote, he was also no longer able to put in the time to “overcome increasing business challenges.”
“I had to face the truth,” he wrote. “Neir’s Tavern is losing money and I don’t have the time to help to overcome it.
“I have no more money after Sunday,” Gordon added in his post. “I’m sorry I let you down.”
Gordon said in an interview later that day that the landlords wanted to double his rent to more than $5,000 per month.
“I felt like I was alone,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell anybody that I was in trouble.”
Patrons reminisce on iconic bar’s history
Pat Merola from Woodhaven and his cousin Nick Cuttonaro from Glendale were sitting at the bar last Thursday afternoon when they learned that their regular spot was closing.
“We usually meet here on a Wednesday or a Thursday,” Merola said. “We have a couple beers, some hot wings and then we go to see a movie.”
Cuttonaro said he couldn’t believe it was closing.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “Where are we going to go?”
Eric Schleyer from Woodhaven said his father worked as a bartender at Neir’s Tavern from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. He recalled that as a child, he used to run down to the corner bar to deliver sandwiches.
As a film major in college, Schleyer said he shot a short film inside the tavern, and later worked with Gordon to create a small commercial for the bar.
“I got my foot in the door here,” he said.
Schleyer’s mother Christine, who first came to Neir’s in 1975, recounted that there was a bowling alley attached to the building. She also remembered the party room upstairs that was often used for birthdays, christenings and other celebrations.
“We used to have Halloween parties up there in the 80s,” she said. “It was great.”
The establishment first opened in October 1829 as The Blue Pump Room. Sitting across from the popular Union Course racetrack, which drew over 70,000 people to the neighborhood, the pub became a gathering spot for bettors.
In 1898, the tavern was purchased by Louis Neir, the bar’s current namesake, who added a bowling alley and ballroom to the property.
The watering hole stayed in the family until the late 1960s, when it was sold again and was renamed The Union Course Tavern. The name stuck until 2009, when it was sold yet again to Gordon, who led a restoration project for the bar’s interior and changed the name to Neir’s Tavern.
In addition to being one of the oldest bars in continuous operation in New York City, Neir’s was known for providing the setting for scenes in the 1990 film “Goodfellas,” and later in the 2011 movie “Tower Heist.”
Patrons have long claimed that Bushwick-born actress and singer Mae West first performed at Neir’s, and that the bar was a favorite of Fred Trump, the current president’s father.
In 2016, Gordon and the bar’s supporters rallied to have the pub landmarked, but were denied by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Last September, Neir’s Tavern celebrated its 190th birthday with a street fair. A committee of residents kicked off a 10-year countdown, hoping to reach the establishment’s 200th birthday in 2029.
As Thursday wound down, Gordon believed he fell short of reaching the bar’s bicentennial.
Gordon reaches the mayor on air
On Friday morning, de Blasio was taking questions from callers on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” for his weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment when Gordon called in. He explained his situation on the air, and asked how de Blasio could help save the historic business.
De Blasio, having read an article about the situation, wondered aloud why the landlords would “jack up the rent” on an 190-year-old institution.
“I think it’s really disrespectful of local communities and local culture,” he said. “So bluntly, the original sin so often is a greedy landlord.”
The mayor called on Small Business Services (SBS) Commissioner Gregg Bishop to contact Gordon and offer a variety of tools to help.
That’s when Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, sprung into action. In an interview, Grech said he was “bothered to no end” when he saw the announcement that Neir’s Tavern was closing.
Grech invited Councilman Robert Holden, Assemblyman Mike Miller, SBS representatives, Gordon, and the property owners to meet at the chamber’s office in East Elmhurst and hammer out an agreement.
“We locked the doors for two-and-a-half hours,” he said. “Nobody was going to leave until we had a deal.”
Grech said the meeting was challenging because the owners wanted full value, and Gordon wanted to have the lowest rent possible. But after both the city and the chamber offered to help both parties, they agreed to a five-year lease.
“We’re very excited about a lease that’s long enough to give both the owner of the building and the bar owner some breathing room to figure out next steps,” Grech said.
Holden said one obstacle was that the Shi’s did not have a certificate of occupancy for the building. Because the property was built nearly two centuries ago, the site predated and did not meet zoning regulations. They were also missing other necessary paperwork.
As a result of lacking a certificate of occupancy, the owners could not obtain a mortgage. They borrowed money from relatives, but ended up with a lot of debt.
Holden said his office would help the property owners work with the Department of City Planning on the paperwork.
“I told him, ‘we’ll be your advocates, whatever you need, we’ll try to help you,’” the councilman said. “They liked that, and that seemed to break the ice.”
SBS also agreed to provide a “Love Your Local” grant to Neir’s Tavern, which includes 20 hours of expert advice with a business consultant and up to $90,000 for renovations.
Friday night’s celebration with the mayor
By Friday night, word had reached longtime customers that Neir’s Tavern was saved. Hundreds of people came out to celebrate, including the mayor and other local elected officials.
Behind the bar, de Blasio raised a glass of beer and praised Gordon as a “good man” for stepping up and running the historic bar for the past decade.
Grech encouraged patrons to come to Neir’s more often now that it has been saved from closure.
“Come for a beer, come for a burger,” he said. “Come to your local establishments and keep them viable.”
After the mayor’s departure, Gordon had time to reflect on the whirlwind day. He encouraged struggling small business owners to “hold on” and seek help from the community.
As for customers, Gordon’s message was simple: thank your local business owner.
“They need emotional support because they’re struggling financially sometimes,” he said. “Those words really help us to keep trying.”
The Neir’s Tavern owner said he didn’t even know about the mayor’s radio segment until someone gave him the number to call.
“It was almost like a miracle, like something opened up,” he said. “Out of so many people calling that show, they picked up my call just 48 hours before we closed down forever.
“It took 13 months to get a miracle when I wanted to quit a long time ago,” Gordon added. “This is as close to a miracle as a miracle could be.”
His goal is still to reach the bar’s 200th anniversary in October 2029. Gordon said he’s heard people talk about throwing a parade and other extravagant ideas.
“I just want to make sure we’re still here,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”