Coogan’s, an uptown stalwart, makes its last stand


Count out the weeks between now and the end of May, when a bar and restaurant in Upper Manhattan called Coogan’s is set to close, and you come up with about 80 more deliveries of fish and meat; 50 times when crates of vegetables will be unloaded through its kitchen door on 169th Street; and five revisions of a menu that is built on a foundation of burgers and steaks, and climbs upward from there.

If that were the end of it, bags of produce and cases of liquor no longer needed, it might not be worth a second glance.

But since Coogan’s opened in 1985, the restaurant and its owners have left footprints in their neighborhood that go far beyond the service of food and drink. Where others saw a broken neighborhood and city, they built a sprawling, homey space that erased ethnic, class, racial and religious boundaries, fully embracing and embodying the promise of New York. On the walls are posters of John F. Kennedy, former president of the United States, and Leonel Fernández Reyna, former president of the Dominican Republic.

Coogan’s will close this spring for the usual horrible reasons, the end of a lease and impossible rent demands for a new one. Its space is owned by the neighborhood’s dominant institution, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, which once was delighted to have any legitimate business in a neighborhood that was a headquarters of the city’s drug trade and its collateral murders.

Now, in more peaceful and prosperous times, the hospital’s leadership has emptied out nearly an entire block of commercial real estate along upper Broadway. A 16-unit apartment building it owns on 169th Street has been vacant for nearly five years.

“They want about $40,000 a month more,” David Hunt, one of three partners in Coogan’s, said. “That’s not remotely doable. Right now, we are paying all our bills every week, and that’s about it. But when we leave at the end of May, not one employee, not one vendor, not one tax will be unpaid.”

The hospital did not respond to a request for a comment.

A look at the restaurant’s calendar for the next 4 1/2 months helps explain its force in northern Manhattan: a weekly comedy club, a monthly Memory Cafe for people with memory loss, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. People visiting family at the hospital will grab a bite and respite. Then there are the runners. Down the block from the restaurant is the Armory Track, where the Millrose Games will be held in early February. Swarms of track stars, young and established, will descend on the restaurant and cheer as the winners are introduced by Peter Walsh, another partner. He named a sundae on the menu after a high school runner who set a record.

The restaurant takes its name from Coogan’s Bluff, the site of the Polo Grounds stadium for much of the 20th century. After early ownership shuffles, Walsh, Hunt and Tess O’Connor McDade have been its long-term partners and stewards. Coogan’s came through the crack wars of the 1980s and served as a meeting spot for, among others, Dominican-Americans, African-Americans, Caribbean-Africans, Irish-Americans, old-time Jewish-German refugees, police officers, doctors and construction workers. Also, reporters, including this one. And my family. When riots were tearing the streets apart in July 1992, Coogan’s stayed open 24 hours. One evening, it hosted the local precinct captain and a local power broker, who met in the back room. The next day, the riots ended.

When former Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell was chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party, he interviewed candidates for civil court judge at a table in the front room. He held fundraisers in the back room. “I can have my functions at the Waldorf Astoria,” he said. “But why should I?” Among the regular visitors is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton.”

Back in the late 1990s, when the neighborhood was still seen by some as dangerous, Walsh set up a 5K run through the streets on the first Sunday in March, with musicians stationed along the course. Organizing, at first, by the seat of his pants, Walsh persuaded Coogan’s soda delivery man to donate 1,000 bottles of water; waylaid an artist, Sam Garcia, who was walking past the restaurant, to design a poster; and declared the event to be the “Coogan’s Salsa, Shamrock and Blues 5k.” A gospel choir, the Voices of Faith Missionary Church, sang “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at the start. Over the years, the most festive part of the day has been the fun run for little children, who get medals from firefighters or police officers. The event has been overseen since 2013 by the New York Road Runners Club, but Coogan’s continues to hold a celebratory breakfast that benefits a program for families of people with HIV in the Dominican Republic founded by a pediatrician, Dr. Stephen Nicholas, who is a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Hunt said that he and his partners, veterans of the city’s restaurant world, intend to use their connections to help find jobs for the 40 people who work at Coogan’s. Until the end of May, he said, the place will not flag. “We’re going to run through the tape,” Hunt said.

A lap of honor.


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