Part III of Ethnographic Study: The Flatiron District

17 Jul

Don stood outside The Old Town Bar and looked out into the bustling streets of the neighborhood he called home. His restaurant had not changed since as long as he had been working there since he was a little boy, but the world outside seemed to me moving at lightning speed.


The Old Town Bar was a constant in Don’s life; it was the one thing that never changed. His grandfather had opened the restaurant in 1982, and Don remembered how vividly his grandfather, Peter, used to describe the area and how it had changed over time. After immigrating to America from Germany, The Old Town Bar was the first thing that Peter was proud to call his own in this country. He had worked hard to open the restaurant, and would do anything to make sure it prospered. He had also been in the area long enough to make some observations about the people and how it was changing over time. He would often recount the stories to his grandson, Don while working.

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When the Old Town Bar opened, the area was best known for being a shopping destination for well to do women, called the Ladies Mile. It was commonplace to see women walking down the street shopping in the highest fashions of the day with their friends. They wore bustling dresses and enormous hats that took up the sidewalk.

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It was also the shopping destination of some of the most well known women in America such as Mrs. Grant, the president’s wife. Business flourished and department stores and boutiques were very successful. This also provided good business for the Old Town Bar and its business was thriving as well.

In 1902, another main attraction came to the area.  Don remembered how his grandfather would describe the frenzy that surrounded the construction of the Fuller Building. It was a masterpiece. It was of the beaux-arts style and represented modern architecture during its time. The beautiful concrete details were elegant and reflected the influence of Italian and French architecture, bringing an unmistakable air of sophistication to the area.

Photo taken by Katy DeHoff

Peter would tell Don all about how there was speculation that the building wouldn’t be able to stand. People though that its odd shape would cause it to fall. The building, however proved it was made to last, and it drew even more people to the area.

By the 1910’s, with the recent construction of the Fuller Building, or the Flatiron Building as it was coming to be known, the neighborhood was getting more traffic and attention than ever. Women were shopping even more if that was possible, photographers were snapping pictures of the Flatiron, and more people were venturing into the area than Don’s grandfather had ever seen. The building had made the area the center of the city it felt like. Luckily this was good for business and The Old Town Bar continued to do well.

During the time of prohibition, The Old Town Bar operated as a speakeasy under the name Tammany Hall. The 1920s were an exciting time for Peter and he felt a sense of adrenaline every time he served a drink illegally.

It was around this time that Peter married Don’s grandmother. Soon after, they had a son, who they named David. David grew up in the Old Town bar and came to love it as much as his father. When he was old enough, he officially joined as a partner with him in the business. Unfortunately, however, the 1930s were approaching, which led to the decline of the Flatiron District as a popular neighborhood. With every passing week, more and more business was moving uptown. Stores that used to be filled with women shopping everyday were being abandoned. The district was experiencing a steady decline in population, business and activity.

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As many restaurateurs and shopkeepers closed up, Peter and David were determined to keep the restaurant they loved alive. This meant dealing with slow business and making a lot of cutbacks. In their mind it was worth it though. By the early 1950s, David was starting to think about starting a family of his own. He married in the Spring of 1951 and he and his wife continued to help in the family business. In the Fall of 1953, they were blessed with a son, who they named Donald. The boy grew up just like his father, learning the family business and with a love for the stories about the Old Town Bar and the area. Even though the world outside was changing, the old mahogany bar, which had always been there, had a timelessness about it that gave him comfort. Even the big urinals gave him comfort in that they had never changed.

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When Don’s grandfather died in 1960, and his father a years later in 1968, Don felt more responsibility than ever to keep the Old Town Bar alive. He considered it their legacy. The customers, of whom the majority were regulars during the hard times they were in, gave him comfort and reminded him everyday the allegiance he had to his father and grandfather. He resolved to keep as much of the original furniture as he could a part of the restaurant. Everything was sacred.

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By the age of 20, Don had been living in the area long enough to start making his own observations about the Flatiron District. In the 1960s the area was beginning to be populated mostly by artists who were lured to the area by the low rent prices. The area was not safe, however. Crime was prevalent and it was not safe to walk around at night alone. This era also brought a lot of interesting people into The Old Town Bar. Don learned a lot about the troubles of life and of being an artist from his customers. He watched people struggle with drug addiction and even experienced the loss of the friends he made to drugs.

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As the years went by, the Flatiron District became more and more popular, which greatly excited Don. The neighborhood was getting a resurgence of life, mainly due to the new restaurants, bars, and clubs, which were popping up all over the district. The Old Town Bar, which had experienced a great deal of hardship, was back in full swing by 1985.

It was also exciting for Don to witness the area in which his family had always lived be declared a historic district officially in 1989.

At this point, Don was able to start a family of his own too; it felt good to begin to educate his own son about the family business and to share it with the people he loved. He hoped that one day, his son Jack, would be able to carry on the family business. The constant rotation of Wall Street Traders, college kids, and Irish immigrants who visited the bar kept the business interesting and made it something he would always enjoy doing.

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The Flatiron District had been through a lot, and Don would always feel a personal connection and tie to the area. He could never imagine living anywhere else in the world.


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