Service of a Happy Ending: Coogan’s Stays Open in Washington Heights

January 18th, 2018

Categories: Collaboration, David & Goliath, Neighbors, Restaurant

Photo: amazon.com

I’m a sucker for happy endings and a recent one that hit the spot is about a 33 year old Washington Heights, NY restaurant/bar, Coogan’s, that was being forced to close when its lease ran out in spring because of a $40,000 rent increase–to $60,000/month–according to harlemworldmag.com.

Photo: phillymag.com

In two days Coogan’s gathered 18,000 signatures on a petition to save the Broadway and 169th Street hangout. Under pressure the landlord, New York Presbyterian Hospital, agreed to lower the rent increase and the owners, Peter Walsh, Dave Hunt and Tess McDade, are staying put.

Before the agreement, according to cbslocal.com, Walsh told the landlord: “’There’s community here, don’t build walls. Don’t pull a plug so fast on a person when they’re still breathing.’”

Harlemworld.com reported: “During the neighborhood’s dark days of the 80s and 90s — which were plagued by drug-related violence — the restaurant remained open, owners told the Manhattan Times. ‘When we opened, we were one of the first integrated bars in New York, and maybe the country,’ Walsh told the Manhattan Times. ‘We were Dominican, African-American, Irish, Jewish, and everyone got along. We embraced the neighborhood. It worked. But thirty-three years ago, you didn’t see that kind of thing.’”

Photo: airbnb.com

“‘We have served a very, very big part of the Washington Heights community in supplying that big living room that these apartments just don’t have,’ co-owner Dave Hunt told WCBS 880’s Mike Sugerman.

“‘Now the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted out and said everybody should get onboard, that certainly helps,’ said Hunt.” WCBS also noted “‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrated his birthdays there.”

It also doesn’t hurt when in addition to hefty neighborhood support your cause is picked up by local media such as The New York Times, harlemworldmag.com, nbcnewyork.com, cbslocal.com, manhattantimes.com and patch.com/new-york for starters.

The owners are good souls—another reason so many jumped on board their cause and why the story resonated with me. Before the agreement happened, Harlemworldmag.com quoted the New York Times that the “owners are using their connections to help the 40 restaurant employees find jobs.”

There’s a flagrant contrast between the approach of this small business and the big ones that in spite of their tax windfall from the December 2017 “reform” bill are nevertheless collectively laying off millions—AT&T, Wal*Mart, Comcast, Carrier Corp. and Pfizer, to name some. Maybe we should rename “trickle down”  “riches up.”

Might this David & Goliath story be a template for supporting other worthy small fries against the greedy big ‘uns? Can you point to  instances where an aggressive collaboration by concerned citizens, backed by a celebrity and media, helped achieve a happy ending for a beloved neighborhood business?

Photo: Coogans.com

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8 Responses to “Service of a Happy Ending: Coogan’s Stays Open in Washington Heights”

  1. Lucan Said:

    Before applauding too loudly, think this through a little bit.

    If I understand correctly, New York Presbyterian Hospital, formerly Columbia-Presbyterian, is the landlord. It is the neighborhood hospital, which I believe had financial problems prior to its recent merger with New York Hospital. Its trustees are duty bound to seek the maximum return on investment they safely can from the Hospital’s investments. It was not up to them, even had they wished to do so, to agree to accept a below-market rent to foster diversity. Indeed, a court might even hold that they had breached their fiduciary duty if they did this.

    The deal, to which the parties eventually agreed, sounds like typical tenant-landlord bargaining, and I suspect that the ultimate rent was a market rent.

    However, consider this, what if the below market rent the tavern might have agreed to pay the hospital had been the proverbial “feather which had broken the camel’s back,” and the hospital had collapsed? The neighborhood would have kept its diversified restaurant open at the cost of losing one of its largest employers. Would it have been worth it?

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucan,

    What you write has merit, but increasing rent by $40,000/month is excessive and I am sure that the committee or board in charge of the hospital’s finances might find they wouldn’t get that much money from anyone else. Washington Heights is not Tribeca.

    If the scene you envision had been true, of the hospital closing because it didn’t get this money, don’t you think that it would have made this clear? I read nothing about the hospital’s point of view and the place has a PR department that would have been on top of it, you can be sure.

    Further, if short of money, why does this hospital pay for so much advertising?

  3. EAM Said:

    First, that increase is outrageous! I’d like to mention that Montclair recently went through something similar. The landmark movie theater Bellevue Theater closed in 2017.
    https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/essex/montclair/2017/12/27/next-act-montclairs-bellevue-theatre/877102001/ Yesterday, the Montclair History Center held a meeting to discuss the future of the historic theater. Locals were pretty stunned by the sudden closing and the building owner would like for another movie theater to continue the tradition.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    EAM,

    Good luck Montclair! I think a movie theater is an essential and valued benefit to a town. It brings in others and is good for business whether restaurants, bakeries, gift, hardware or clothing stores. I hope that the business community gets behind the landlord and that he/she doesn’t ask for a ridiculous rent so that you get back a working historic theater.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Good for Coogan’s along with fellow establishments! Neighborhood uprisings to save a cherished store/landmark is common, and a healthy sign that positive activism is alive and well. So sad that a seemingly noble institution, New York Presbyterian, stars as the greedy landlord in this drama. Such behavior tarnishes the reputation of the hospital staff, whose intensive medical research and loving care of patients leads to countless saved lives.

    A former boss said he was at a loss to understand how heads of huge corporations were, more often than not, former C students in school. This may explain the inability of such institutions to keep up with the times thus forcing shrinkage, bankruptcies and eventual dismissal of thousands of employees. Another former colleague insisted that elected officials had little more than 110 IQ. If correct, that explains even more!

  6. Martha Takayama Said:

    I think the story is simply wonderfully positive with a large slice of reality. Some places that are with genuine welcoming atmosphere and a sense of coummnity and familiarity have to prevail. Otherwise it really becomess pointless to go out to be treated like sheep.The increase sounded ridiculous, beyond greedy. At the risk of being repetitive boring every time I hear about a story where consumer loyalty and insistence wills out over short-sighted greed I think of Market-Basket, the Massachusetts supermarkets where consumer loyalty to visionary half the business triumphed. . Today the Harvard bBusiness School studies the Market Basket Case. Send them the Coogan’s story for their curriculum!

  7. jmbyington Said:

    Lucrezia,
    Sometimes success in school and college or lack of same doesn’t translate into lack of brains. It might be that IQ tests capture a certain kind of smarts and not other valid qualities. I don’t think there is a connection between greed and brains. What’s lacking in some is empathy and the ability to realize when to be charitable and generous.

  8. jmbyington Said:

    Martha,

    The folks at the Harvard B-school have their ears and eyes open and no doubt have files full of positive and failed examples of the potential impact of community support on a business. They only need set up Google alerts to capture more.

    I wish we had a Market Basket near us! My kind of place.

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