Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Secret Passage

The secret entrance to the currently closed Chumley’s.
Forgotten New York: Chumley's is probably the only major bar or restaurant in New York City that has never had a sign or marking of any sort on its exterior to mark its presence. Yet most Greenwich Villagers know where it is, officially 86 Bedford Street just north of Barrow, and most nights, it's packed.

Chumley's building dates to the 1830s and was originally a blacksmithery. According to legend, in the pre-Civil War era it was a stop where escaped slaves could find a haven (there was a black community on nearby Gay Street). At length it became a gathering place for leftist radicals. By 1922, Leland Chumley had established a speakeasy/gambling den in the old building; the tradition of not marking the entrance continues to this day.

During and after Prohibition Chumley's became one of NYC's many literary hangouts. The difference here is that the authors' original dust jackets, and their portraits, line the walls of the place on all sides. You will find just about every big name in 20th Century literature here from Hemingway to Mailer to Ginsburg on the wall.

Chumley's is accessed via a small passageway leading from Barrow Street called Pamela Court. According to legend the term "86 it" for "kill it" or "forget about it" comes from a warning the cops would give, phoning ahead to Chumley to let him know they were on the way and customers should "86" or book out the entrance/exit.


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