Siberia Bar: Exiled in Times Squareby Justin Vogt
For the past five years, writers, critics, and commentators have bemoaned the transformation of Times Square, claiming it represents the loss of an essential part of Manhattan’s soul. Once a lurid cultural oddity, shunned by many New Yorkers and visitors alike, the 1990s has seen the area become a rigorously homogenized tourist zone. Recently, one sneering critic writing in the New York Times likened Times Square’s present-day incarnation to “a suburb of Orlando.”
Yet as the end of the Giuliani era approaches, lamentations such as these have become as clichéd as the mass-market, family-oriented establishments that now define the area. Times Square indeed has basically ceased to be a cultural battleground. The war is over; the straight-laces won.
Just don’t tell that to Tracy Westmoreland.
Mr. Westmoreland, 44, is the burly, gregarious, tenacious, and unusually media-friendly owner and proprietor of Siberia Bar. Opened in 1997, and twice named “Best Dive Bar” by Zagat’s, Siberia is the only bar in New York City that is located underground in a subway station. Situated on the downtown side of the 1/9 station at Broadway and 50th Street, the bar isn’t precisely located in Times Square itself. Rather, it inhabits the margins of the area, the outlying regions of midtown that used to be considered even less savory than the Square proper.
Regardless of its youth, Siberia has quickly become a legend. Its unique location no doubt attracts many curious first-time visitors, as does the well-spread tale that the site used to be a drop-point for KGB operatives during the Cold War. Yet what gets people to stay, and come back, is the bar’s full-blooded embrace of the culture that disappeared from Times Square in the ’90s. Siberia is an appropriately dirty and malodorous temple to the dying values of rough-edged American nightlife: rock ’n’ roll, non-conformity, hard drinking, and good old-fashioned sleaze.
That frothy combination has proven to be particularly popular with many of the media professionals who work in the Midtown area. These writers, editors, and producers are not only Siberia’s most vocal defenders, but also its best customers. They usually explain their affection for the bar as stemming from its rough-hewn “authenticity.” Yet one suspects that, on another level, Westmoreland has become a hero to these media types because they seek to identify with his struggle against a large corporation that wishes to shut him down. For Siberia’s defenders, Westmoreland’s story serves as a parable for the struggle of independent media worker who toils in vain against the forces of mass media conglomeration. And there is more than a bit of truth in that characterization. Indeed, the same group of large corporations that has taken over Times Square, site of the nation’s most familiar public space, has simultaneously taken over the mass media, creator of the nation’s public discourse. The droves of diehard fans from the media world who frequent the bar (and introduce it to everyone they know) can thus feel as though they are still fighting the good fight after they leave work.
Despite the bar’s popularity, Westmoreland has been struggling to keep Siberia’s doors open. His battle has grown into a drawn-out tangled David-and-Goliath tale. It now involves big-name real estate developers, multinational corporations, and even New York State’s new junior senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The senator was caught off guard earlier this year when Westmoreland confronted her, in public, beseeching her to help him.
Photos of that encounter are prominently displayed behind the bar. In one, Westmoreland is clutching Clinton’s hands in his own. He is wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, chin lowered. She is laughing, teeth bared, eyes shut in mirth.
“Have you ever seen Hillary looking that happy or that pretty?” he asks, proudly.
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Until 1999, Westmoreland had been leasing his space from the Riese Organization, a company which in turn was master-leasing the building from the Rockefeller Group. This group, a New York-based real estate developer, is owned by Mitsubishi, the mammoth Japanese corporation. When Riese abandoned its master lease in 1999, the Rockefeller Group and Mitsubishi decided to start the process of clearing the building of occupants in anticipation of a major new development project.
What has happened since then is subject to debate. According to Westmoreland and his lawyer, David Kaminsky, the Rockefeller group informed them that the building was going to be knocked down and advised Westmoreland to accept a settlement that terminated his 10-year lease six years early. He accepted, believing he had no choice in the matter. Yet after some investigating, Westmoreland and Kaminsky discovered that the city was unaware of any such plan to demolish the building. What’s more, even some other tenants had not been informed of that plan.
“They were obviously discriminating against me for no good reason,” Westmoreland said. “They wanted me out, and they were going to do anything to get me out, including lying.”
The Rockefeller Group does not specifically dispute the veracity of Westmoreland’s account. Yet it strongly maintains that it has full legal control of the space and that Westmoreland’s original agreement should be binding.
Westmoreland filed in court in order to get an extension of his right to occupy the space, claiming he had been unfairly treated. To almost everyone’s surprise, he won. When that extension expired, Siberia filed for bankruptcy. Luckily for Westmoreland, the bar has been allowed to stay open during those proceedings. In the last few months, the relationship between Siberia and the Rockefeller Group has deteriorated into a morass of accusations, allegations, and “he said, she said” contradictions.
Westmoreland claims that the Rockefeller Group shut off his hot water; Rockefeller counters that the bar never had hot water in the first place. Westmoreland reports that Rockefeller irresponsibly removed one of the bar’s toilets and damaged another; Rockefeller claims they attempted to fix the facilities but determined them to be “irreparable.” Westmoreland charges that Rockefeller’s lawyers and representatives have threatened and harassed him; Rockefeller complains of Westmoreland’s “manipulation of the media,” a reference to the many articles sympathetic to Westmoreland’s plight that have appeared in press outlets, including the Times, the Observer, and the Post.
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Meanwhile, Siberia’s days are growing short. Even Westmoreland’s lawyer, the pugnacious Kaminsky, admits that an ideal outcome is unlikely. Recognizing his own dire straits, Westmoreland decided to take a drastic step in order to win a powerful ally.
In March, Westmoreland attended a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon hosted by the McManus Democratic Club, of which he is a vice-president. Also in attendance was New York’s new senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Westmoreland took the opportunity to physically corner the first lady, gently but forcibly, as she was making her way out.
“I told her what I was all about, how I’m just a small business owner trying to provide for my wife and three kids,” he explains.
After a short but animated chat, Westmoreland managed to get Clinton to promise that she would further investigate the situation, to see if she could in fact help him. An aide to Senator Clinton confirmed that her office was still “looking into the matter.”
Westmoreland sees himself as the victim of what Clinton herself might characterize as a “vast conspiracy,” though not necessarily of the right-wing variety. In his version, the Rockefeller Group is a miserly, misguided micromanager. In this extremely optimistic view, Rockefeller and Mitsubishi just need a helpful nudge from Senator Clinton in order to realize that it’s in everyone’s best interest to let Siberia stay where it is.
The reality of the situation, while possibly less dramatic, does present a loaded set of cultural and political tensions. Rockefeller’s take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth approach to conflict management seems to come straight out of Mayor Giuliani’s playbook. In fact, it exactly mimics the approach that they mayor used early in his administration to rid Times Square of the sex shops and peep shows that dominated the area’s image in the popular imagination. Of course, the bellicose style that served Giuliani so well in the Times Square “cleanup” is precisely the factor that most alienated many voters, especially minorities, when it was applied to more delicate matters such as police conduct, education, and city subsidies for art museums.
The Rockefeller Group’s adoption of Giuliani’s no-compromise style in dealing with the Siberia Bar is similarly grating to many, particularly the bar’s regular patrons. Siberia, they point out, is not a strip club or a sex shop. Westmoreland actually enforces strict rules to ensure that the bar never gets out of control. Verbal harassment, excessive loudness, and even foul language are all grounds for immediate removal from Siberia, although the rules may be slacking just a bit in the bar’s waning days.
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When boiled down to its essence, this conflict is not so much a fight over property management and real estate law, but over image. In this post-industrial period, New York is increasingly competing with other cities not to control the manufacture and distribution of goods, but to provide services like entertainment and tourist attractions. In this climate, the writer Philip Lopate recently observed, cities are forced “to market themselves based on images; the image of city life becomes the product of the city.” Unfortunately for Tracy Westmoreland, the Siberia Bar is clearly out-of-sync with the image that the Rockefeller Group, following the Giuliani administration’s lead, has in mind for 1627 Broadway.
Times Square’s new image, one characterized by increased safety, family-friendliness, and mass consumer appeal, has proven to be an incredibly saleable product for the city in recent years. Regrettably, like other “new urbanist” spaces that are controlled by large media conglomerates (Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Union Station in St. Louis), Times Square’s appeal depends upon an absence of economic and cultural diversity.
Like theme parks, corporate “new urbanist” spaces draw visitors because they are totalizing spectacles. The core purpose of Times Square is to present, as spectacle, the overwhelming domination of the cultural mainstream over all else. The bright lights and big stores are secondary components. Indeed, there is almost nothing to buy or see in Times Square that can’t be bought or seen at any number of suburban mega-malls. Thus, what is unique to Times Square is that its existence physically embodies the victory of a newer, larger, “cleaner” mass culture (The Disney Store, ESPN Zone) over an older, smaller, “dirtier” local culture (strip clubs, sex shops, dive bars). The “product” made available to visitors in Times Square is simply the image of that victory’s certitude and finality.
The only real threat to this profit-generating spectacle would be the appearance of a successful network of smaller, independent establishments, unconnected to big media and entertainment groups. This would counteract the totalizing façade of big-media domination that is now Times Square’s true asset. Yet, barring a major financial collapse, such a trend is almost impossible to envision. Media conglomerates and other big corporations now control so much property in the area that it would almost be unthinkable for any such network of small establishments to survive.
Thus, justified or not, the Rockefeller Group’s approach to the Siberia situation is not only strident, but also a miscalculation. Throughout the debacle, the group has willingly played the mean-spirited villain in a public narrative that Westmoreland has controlled, providing him with ample ammunition in the PR wars. A firm with a better grip on New York’s zeitgeist would simply bide its time and let market forces achieve the result that its ham-handed intimidation has failed to produce.
The unfortunate truth is that, even with a more accommodating landlord, Siberia would have trouble staying afloat. Its status as an anomaly in the new Times Square is one of its most appealing features. Yet that very singularly would probably guarantee its eventual downfall, even if Rockefeller backed down. Operating in what amounts to enemy territory, Siberia lacks the advantage of proximity to other places its prospective patrons might want to frequent. Thus, with or without pressure from Rockefeller, the bar would eventually suffocate as Times Square becomes an increasingly unpleasant environment for people interested in socializing in a dive as seedy as Siberia.
None of this, however, should reflect negatively on Westmoreland’s admirable personal resistance to Times Square’s “mallification.” He is currently planning to go international with his struggle, leading a group of supporters to a demonstration at Mitsubishi’s corporate headquarters in Tokyo. One can’t help but appreciate the delightful dissonance sure to be produced by a protest in Japan led by angry American dive-bar denizens. Of course, one need not join in any overseas exercise in civil disobedience to contribute to Westmoreland’s fight, and by extension to the protest over what Times Square has become. All it takes is a visit to the bar and a drink or two. Or five or six.