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THE LIFE WITHIN SPEAKEASIES
Speakeasies were illegal establishments that discreetly served alcaholic beverages during the prohibition. They were usually hidden underground or behind legal businesses and were sometimes run by members of organized crime groups. Despite the passing of the 18th amendment that prohibited the sale, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol, consumption rates in the United states rose dramatically throughout the era. There were over double the amount of speakeasies in the country than there were legal bars and saloons, they became the most popular places for anyone who wanted to have a good time. Speakeasies were classified into two catagories, blind pigs and blind tigers. blind pigs were establishments for the lower class, they would have an attraction (usually an animal) as a front that people would pay to see then they would discreetly offer a so called "complementary" drink. With no transaction being made, this allowed them to bypass the law. Blind tigers however were the most common form of speakeasies, they would often cater to the high society and were more elaborately run, some even required fromal wear. Other than the alcohol, these places would also serve food and entertainment, there would usually be live shows and musical preformers on stage. The prohibition also brought along the roaring twenties, an era of jazz music and flappers which was reflected in these speakeasies. The atmosphere was always lively and full of excitment, people gathered to dance, drink and have a good time.
WHAT PROBLEMS THEY FACED
Speakeasies were often raided by the police or federal agents, yet they still managed to be around due to how popular they were. a majority of the population refused to follow the 18th amendment, so they resorted to trying anything and everything in order to transport and manufacture liqour. Speakeasies recieved their alcohol by means of bootlegging and illegal distilaries operated by the mob. They were designed so elaborately in order to take precautiouns against raids, they were almost imposibble to find without any prior knowlage and often had around half a dozen escape routes. However, due to the rabid corruption during the prohipition, the police were constantly getting bribed to look the other way and or inform the owners if there was going to be a raid.
DELANEY VISITS THE BACK ROOM
On a chilly Saturday night, I found myself meeting my date on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. As I walked towards the dark street, I tried to imagine the neighborhood, as it would’ve been in the 1920’s, during the Prohibition; bustling, loud, even more crowded than today. I couldn’t wait to seek more answers about this period in New York’s rich story.
At 102 Norfolk Street, a passerby may notice a simple, old sign that reads, “The Lower East Side Toy Company” on an old gate that opens to stairs and leads to nothing but a cruddy old set of stairs. This passerby will most likely keep walking, not even clocking the sign – or the curious words toy company, which seem antiquated, nowadays. However, if this passerby were “in the know,” then they would stop the man who stands nonchalantly near the gate and ask him that you’re looking for “the bar.” This is precisely what I did.
After the man stared intently at my identification card for what seemed like five minutes, he opened the locked gate for me, telling me to go “down, straight, up the stairs, and to the right.” I was nervous that I would forget, immediately, his instructions. However once I got through the small dark alleyway, lit only by three Edison bulbs, I saw the steel staircase and massive door to the right of it – the door’s peephole clued me off: This is the speakeasy I’ve heard so much about.
I knocked, aggressively, and the door opened about an inch, then wider so we could enter. Music was suddenly blaring when I had just been listening to nothing but street noise – there was no hint at all that this bar, with it’s blasting tunes, was there. Inside, old chandeliers dating back to 1923 hung from the ceiling, helping create the intimate, nostalgic mood of The Back Room, which had been just one of New York City’s 30,000 speakeasies during the prohibition. After taking a good look around at the velvet walls, the large paintings of delicate women in beaded dresses, and the intricate molding, I planted myself at the bar and ordered the Girl Friday (no doubt named after the classic Cary Grant flick, His Girl Friday). This gin cocktail was served to me in a teacup atop a saucer, just as it would’ve been back during the prohibition. I noticed the man next to me had ordered a bottled beer – I couldn’t see what brand as it had a brown paper lunch bag over it.
At the bar, my lovely bartender was ready to answer every question I had for her. I hope you find her answers as interesting as I did (though it could’ve been the Girl Friday that had me so curious and enraptured … it was a very well made little cocktail).
Note: The following conversation has been written verbatim, as well as possible. There were many interruptions, however, which have been removed from the text, below.
Delaney Yeager: First of all, when was The Back Room founded?
I finished my Girl Friday and took another look around The Back Room after saying goodbye to Erica. I tried to imagine the music, as it would’ve been in 1925: playing through gramophones or by live musicians, songs like Let’s Fall In Love, or The Charleston. I tried to picture the men in hats, coats, and bowties, the women in sparkling, loose-fitting frocks and feathery headdresses. A dreamlike sense of nostalgia and wonder cloaked me and had me feeling as though I was there, a part of the prohibition, hiding out with everybody else.
Delaney Yeager, Dec. 15, 2012. New York, NY.
New York City is a wonderful city for time traveling. Here are some links to some of my other favorite speakeasies in NYC. Check them out (only if you’re 21 – they’re very strict!) for a fun night: