When word first emerged that Abby Ehmann, an East Village party organizer and neighborhood chronicler who’s resided in the hood since 1989, would be opening a bar on Avenue B, not everyone was all about it. There were enough bars, people said– in fact, there are several of them located on the block between 10th and 11th streets already. And worst of all, weren’t the proliferation of bars (especially the fancy cocktail ones) part of the problem?
As essential services have been displaced from the Lower East Side, making way for businesses aimed at a higher caliber of customer, residents are feeling increasingly less comfortable patronizing the establishment in their own neighborhood and are forced to travel farther for essential services. Comments on neighborhood blog EV Grieve indicated that a lot of people believed that Lucky would be “just another bar.” As one anonymous commenter argued, “I can’t get behind any new bar these days. We are losing diversity in our commercial spaces.”
Also, it seemed a little hypocritical that Ehmann, who’s been a vocal detractor of new bars and the East Village party scene gone to hell, had suddenly decided to open a bar herself. (In 2013, Ehmann organized a “Santacon Detour” which offered an alternative to the annual celebration of acting like a total dickweed in public. Once a proud participant of Santacon, she argued that what used to be a “dress-up, anti-shop-’til-you-drop culture jam” had been “co-opted” by out-of-towner bros who turned it into a super lame “opportunity to get shit-faced.”
Grumbling aside, it actually seems like Ehmann has found a number of enthusiastic supporters. On top of a loan she obtained from a family member, she was able to raise more than $21,000 to fund the bar by way of an Indiegogo campaign that attracted close to 350 backers.
“It’s been a bar since 1997,” said Ehmann, brushing off her shoulder. But more than that, what seemed to make Lucky appealing was Ehmann’s awareness of the issues faced by old-school East Villagers and regular people (i.e. not trust-fund bros). Also, she has been adamant that the bar is much more than just a business investment or place to get drunk.
“I’ve wanted to open a bar since the first time I was behind a bar, bartending– which was in like ’92 or something,” she recalled. “After all these years the stars lined up, or the money lined up.”
Her highest aspiration for Lucky is to emulate one of the greats. “My favorite bar, still to this day, was Downtown Beirut,” she explained. The place closed way back in 1994, but the Times named the punk dive among “Manhattan’s most-mourned bars” in 2012. “This isn’t really like that,” she admitted. “But the camaraderie and the community that that sort of fostered is what I’m fostering here.”
We stopped by Lucky yesterday (Ehmann said she’s still in the “summer of soft opening,” and will celebrate her grand opening September 24), and by the look of things at least, the place seemed to be living up to the owner’s rhetoric.
The space used to be home to Boxcar Lounge, a lovable neighborhood fixture that closed earlier this year. Ehmann told us, as politely as possible, that the place was a mess when she found it– there was a hole in the floor and she’s actually still dealing with basement problems brought on by 18 years of hard partying, which has held her back from installing draught beer. At the same rate, taking over the old Boxcar Lounge has been a major blessing in that it allowed Ehmann to inherit the liquor license and therefore bypass the notoriously difficult Community Board 3 liquor license vetting process.
“It was perfect, because it afforded me a ten-year lease at a reasonable rent and I didn’t have to jump through too many hoops,” she said. “And I’m glad it was falling apart so that I had to renovate.”
So far, the cosmetic changes have been dramatic. Ehmann has chosen classic details over eye-popping ones. “I don’t like the idea of trendy,” she explained. “I don’t want to be that hot new bar, I want to be the bar that’s going to be here through all the stupid trends.”
With the bar itself now on the other side of the narrow room (“the feng shui is a little better,” Ehmann explained), the place is almost aggressively uncluttered, aside from a large stained glass window toward the back and some trinkets on a shelf. Ehmann said she plans to acquire artwork and other oddball pieces over time. “Things need to accumulate,” she said.
During my visit, people seemed decidedly at home. Maybe everyone recognized each other or it was a particularly vibey evening, but there seemed to be fewer barriers between separate groups of patrons. It probably also helps that there’s no TV.
“Yeah, I really like introducing people to each other and I’ve always been the kind of person who matches people up,” Ehmann explained. “I enjoy that, being a matchmaker but for all things– jobs and love and apartments, stuff like that.”
So far, people have compared Lucky to “an East Village bar 20 years ago” and, in one case, “a New Orleans bar.” Above all though, she wants this to be “a community space” where people can actually engage with their neighbors and other likeminded people. “I’m hoping to be the bar for the island of misfit toys,” she said. “There’s this neighborhood woman with a one-eyed beagle, he’s a therapy dog, and she comes in here almost every day. She sits and chats. And I’m sure she would not feel as welcome or free to chat anywhere else.”
Ehmann is also employing unlikely bartenders. “Most of my bartenders are not 25– most of them are over 40,” she said.
Lucky is already attracting the kind of customers Ehmann wants to see, and repelling those she’d rather see gone from the neighborhood altogether. “One night these three douchey guys walk in, look around, and they turn right back,” she recalled. “I don’t know what they’re looking for– if they’re looking for hot chicks, TV screens with the sports ball on? Whatever they’re looking for, they’re not seeing it.”
And according to Ehmann, there’s a real need for these kinds of spaces. “There are so many bars in this neighborhood now. The douche factor is very high, and so many people say that they don’t go out on the weekends,” she said. “That doesn’t seem right– you’re living in this neighborhood, you should be able to go to a bar and have a drink with your friends.”
So far, Lucky has hosted an event for Waggytails dog adoption, a Gays Against Guns event, and Reverend Jen Miller’s birthday party. “There was a kiddy pool, it was ridiculous,” Ehmann laughed. After the grand opening is over and done with, she said she’s hoping to start some events up including drink-and-draw and even “a bitters making class”– which is pretty funny, actually, since Ehmann herself assailed bars that turn areas into “destination neighborhoods” with offerings like “artisanal bitters.”
But what Ehmann seemed most excited about was the jukebox filled with CDs that she explained were curated by several DJs to sound like a variety of bygone bars and long-dead parties, which definitely serve as the bar’s ultimate homage to its downtown heritage. Soundtracks include Ehmann’s favorite Downtown Beirut, Greendoor, Jackie 60, Mars Bar, and Motherfucker, with more on the way.
Although she’s fond of the downtown of yore, Ehmann said that Lucky has been a great way for her to “finally grow up” and that it’s changed her life dramatically, and for the better. “I’ve never worked so hard in my whole fucking life,” she said. “But it’s all worth it when there’s, like, five cool people meeting each other at the bar.”
Lucky is located at 168 Avenue B in the East Village.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that one DJ had curated all the CDs, in fact several DJs have contributed their mixes.