A bar crawl through Columbia’s history.
By Josh Kazali
As happens to so many of us in our short Morningside stint, some friends and I decided that the best use of a sleepy October evening would be a few rounds of board games at Hex and Co., the Upper West Side’s favorite (read: only) board game café. Yet, instead of concentrating on the massacre of my troops in Risk, I found myself distracted by the walls surrounding me, searching for the remains of the old West End bar.
The West End Café existed in many iterations between 1911 and 2006. It was “where Columbia had its first beer,” where Kerouac and Ginsberg stayed till closing, where Dizzy Gillespie soloed, and where the student dissent of 1968 was first murmured. It was the breeding ground of counterculture and poetry, powered, of course, by plenty of booze (I’ve heard rumors of long-gone dollar-beer Senior Nights). Now, as I coughed up eight bucks for a table, I desperately sought any lingering relics from the old joint: an old photograph, a battered chair, some scrap of a bohemian past.
When living in a city predicated on newness, it can feel like no beloved campus spot is sacred. That night, I felt robbed of a wonderland of cheap beer and conversation, with Settlers of Catan feeling more like insult to injury than consolation. The diagnosis: Columbia’s campus bar problem. In the deep sea of New York’s bars, speakeasies, and clubs, how can any single watering hole carve out a unifying space? In an ever-Newer York with ever higher rent, how can a “classic Columbia institution” endure? And, more importantly, where the hell am I supposed to grab a drink in all this mess?
A quick consultation of the Columbia Daily Spectator archives reveals that my frustration is nothing new. In fact, it seems like lamenting the loss of the West End is as much a part of Columbia tradition as the bar itself ever was, inducting me into a long lineage of bitter bar-hoppers.
In 2006, the West End was bought by Cuban restaurant Havana Central. The move prompted Brian Wagner, CC ’06, to write a satirical Spectator essay titled “The West End Falls to Communism,” describing the massive blow to campus culture: “While you may feel inclined to gnash your teeth, rend your hair, and scream like a banshee, none of those will help. We are losing ‘the bar.’” Amid the histrionics, there’s a real sense of loss. In a New York Times article published that April, CaraMia Hart, BC ’87, says the West End was the backdrop for her life milestones, where she celebrated her graduation, her marriage, and even when she closed on a condominium. “‘Anybody who attended Columbia, anybody who attended Barnard, is going to mourn,’” she told the Times. “‘It was an intrinsic part of any Columbia University experience.’”
Yet Havana Central was not the mighty establishment that slayed the campus bar. By many accounts, it was already dead. In December 1989, Joshua Botkin, CC ’92, proclaimed “The End of the West End” in the Spectator as the bar changed hands, reopening as the more upscale West End Gate. The article charts the bar’s struggle throughout the ’80s in the face of changing times and an unfriendly Columbia administration. The Board of Trustees, which still owns the building, had long awaited “one of the higher-class establishments they apparently felt appropriate for Morningside Heights,” and when the bar’s lease expired in 1988, jumped at the opportunity to put a fresh coat of paint on the West End. A photograph shows a somber gathering of regulars, downing their glasses in the ultimate Last Call that one patron said “seems like death.” Out with the dim lighting and cheap drinks, in with high ceilings and $10 cover charges. By the time of the Cuban revolution of 2006, the only thing that remained of the Beats’ West End was the tile floors.
My quest for Columbia’s sacred bar amounted to little more than a dead end, a ghost of a ghost of a bygone era. Like the ship of Theseus, the vibe that once proliferated had been swapped, sold, and shifted until all that was left was the name. Then that changed, too.
In the beginning, there were students. The students studied very hard and built up a whole lot of steam, and so the students said, “Let there be booze.” The students drank the booze and saw that it was good. Thus, the campus bar was born.
The Morningside Heights student bar problem dates to the turn of the 20th century, before Allen Ginsberg was even a twinkle in Mrs. Ginsberg’s eye. When campus migrated from Midtown to Morningside in the 1890s, students found themselves severed from their beloved institutions, most notably the billiards room of The Buckingham Hotel on 49th St. Surveying the beerless expanse of the upper 120s, Mike Coleman, a waiter at the Buckingham, saw an opportunity; it was at Mike’s Tavern, not the West End, where Columbia (as we know it) had its first beer.
Mike’s Tavern, initially known only as “the College Tavern,” lived where Union Theological Seminary stands now. Mike himself said, “There was no cafe where members of the university could meet,” according to a 1938 article in Columbia Alumni News. “That’s what the tavern is here for now, and it’s here to stay.” In March 1898, when Grant was still fresh in his tomb, the tavern was constructed out of discarded building scraps and began serving a thirsty population of Lions. Beloved by students for its mint juleps and sherry cobbler and hated by local temperance papers for its revelry (“Damn the faculty” was the refrain of the tavern’s most popular song), the tavern had a brief and bright life, closing in April 1902 due to a fire.
Perhaps that fire cursed the Morningside barscape with 150 years of tragedy. By the 1930s, alumni of the ’90s (1890s, mind you) were already bemoaning the good ol’ days when beer was cheap and cold. In 1932, when the West End was garnering popularity, Spec published a piece written by a Columbia alum who recalled the beloved tavern: “Here in the barrenness of the first days of Morningside, the drabness of classes was pleasantly broken by frequent visits to the coziness of Mike’s Tavern, where they were assured a royal welcome.”
This anonymous nostalgic voices a bitterness that I found startlingly familiar, writing that “the college drinkers of today are a bunch of sophomoric softies” compared to “the discriminate palates of Columbia men of the nineties.” Trade three-piece suits for baggy denim and windbreakers, and “Columbia men of the nineties'' could just as easily be from the 1990s. Clearly, our campus bar problem is nothing new; with the constant stream of trends, spots, and fashions, maybe it’s just a part of being a student here to feel out of step with the Broadway pace. Perhaps the solution might lie even closer to home.
Maybe you’ve heard the whispers over late night milkshakes and fries or seen the faded black-and-white photographs of men in suits, but it’s semi-secret knowledge that JJ’s Place used to be the John Jay Pub, also known as King’s Pub. The brainchild of Livingston Hall (now Wallach) floor counselor Geoffrey Cummings, CC ’75, the Pub dispensed alcoholic beverages, accompanied with a proto-JJ’s cheeseburger. Though Cummings received some University backing and sourcing for employees, the bar was run by and for students. “We’re running at cost,” he told Ray Patient, CC ’76, for Spectator. “Any profit will be reinvested.”
On the night of its opening on Jan. 26, 1976, Patient reported that “the economy and convenience of the pub make it a welcome alternative to the local bars, which, as Cummings remarked, ‘are getting out of hand in a lot of ways.’” With $2.50 pitchers of Heineken and a proximity that couldn’t be beat, the excitement of the student body was palpable. “Its potential for bringing together the derisive groups, long needed at the university, grant King’s Pub the prospect of becoming the hottest place on campus,” Patient wrote.
The Pub exceeded Patient’s expectations, slowing the taps of neighboring Morningside bars (including the withering West End) and prompting some unhappy bar owners to call the Pub’s privileged position and slim profit margins “unfair.” The demand quickly led to a need to expand beyond the bar’s 180-person capacity, and by the Pub’s reopening after renovations in 1981, the joint was packed with over 400 students writhing on a raucous dance floor and imbibing plenty to boot. “The place was drunken and energetic and filled with smoke and the smell of stale beer,” wrote the editorial staff at Spectator.
Yet, as you should probably expect by now, nothing gold can stay. In this case, it was the 1985 legislation that raised the drinking age from 19 to 21 that would doom the John Jay Pub. “Another Columbia tradition has died,” mourned John Oswald, CC ’88, in Spec. Columbia College Dean of Student Life Roger Lehecka, CC ’67, TC ’74, even spoke on the matter, stating that closing was inevitable: “We can’t violate the law.”
Though its spirit lives on in impromptu revelry on Low Steps or the elusive Lerner Pub which graces the senior class once a semester, the John Jay Pub was lost to the annals of history, the halls of which are growing awfully crowded.
When someone says, “History is doomed to repeat itself,” I tend to think of the big picture: wars, dictators, bell-bottoms. But after poring over sepia-toned web pages for hours on end, I recognized the mechanism of history at its most mundane. I started predicting the ebb and flow of campus bars, from those rosy early days of free-flowing liquor, all the way down to shamelessly nostalgic alumni op-eds. Are we any different? How long until we’re those alumni, sighing about the things the new guard will never understand? Lagers at Arts and Crafts, a frozen marg at The Heights, bottomless mimosas at Amity—sooner or later, all these will become meaningless to Columbia students of the future, just as the Buckingham Hotel is to us.
When you find yourself having an existential crisis trying to decide where to buy an overpriced gin and tonic, maybe it’s time to take a step back. If history reveals anything, it’s that the inevitable demise of a campus hangout hasn’t stopped people from having a good time. Geoffrey Cummings and the John Jay Pub, Mike and his tavern, even the bohemians of the West End—these respites of excitement and energy were never inherited, but forged and fostered by engaged communities of drunken Lions. Our relationship with this campus is effortful, and what we reap is what we sow.
Instead of eyeing the glass we’ve been given and debating whether it’s half full or half empty, we should all take a swig before closing time. If that task is Sisyphean, so be it. I’d certainly rather drink a beer than roll a boulder.