Posted by: Nancy | March 14, 2009

A Toast to Change

Change can be hard. Especially if it’s bound in tradition and decades of norm.

But it can be great.

Take McSorley’s, the storied ale house of Greenwich Village. Operating since 1854, it served Abraham Lincoln and statesmen galore. Emphasis on “men” — it prohibited women.

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Until Karen DeCrow and Faith Seidenberg, civil rights lawyers, raised a challenge in 1969.

They filed suit, and ultimately Mayor John Lindsay signed the bill that ended discrimination in public places in New York City.  Women could visit the bar at last — although it took a while for a feeling of being welcomed.  The McSorley’s ancient restroom became coed (it would be another 16 years before a separate women’s room was installed).

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McSorley’s history and personality are special and I love to visit every time I’m in New York City. I remember I  first learned of it from an artist who was a regular there before WWII, Ion Paleologue, who explained the wishbones that are perched on the chandeliers over the bar.  They were placed by men going off to war, intending to recover them to make a wish when they returned.   You can tell the age of the wishbones by the depth of grime and dust — some positively dripping with debris were placed by young men heading off to World War I, while clean wishbones were placed by men (maybe women too?) heading off to Iraq.  (The photo is from my last visit there, in December.)

This clearly is a place that thrives on personality.  It still has cats who live in the bar (Minnie and Stinky); it still has a coal-burning stove in the center of the room, the only drink you can buy is McSorley’s ale, served only in half-pint mugs; it still has sawdust on the floors.

And it’s mottos: “Be Good or Be Gone” and “Ordinary People are as Important as You Are Whoever You Are” signal low tolerance to arrogance and disrespect.

So doesn’t it seem odd that such a business had to be forced to serve 50 percent of its market?  Yet the change didn’t kill this business — it helped it. And it allowed someone like me to sing its praise.

Karen and Faith recently visited McSorley’s. I wish I’d been there with them. I owe them.

So, here’s a toast to Karen and Faith for forcing the change that allowed me to be part of the McSorley’s community too.

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Responses

  1. […] a recent renovation that turned it into an upscale eating establishment. But McSorley’s, as I’ve noted before, stands defiant in its refusal to change. The last major change was the result of a 1969 legal […]

  2. […] leaving McSorley’s in the Village (a special place, see previous posts about McSorley’s 1, 2, and 3). We hail a cab and greeted by a young man with a handsome, round face, and a big toothy […]


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