If you were a geeky rock dork in the 80’s and 90’s (and into the 2000’s) and lived in New York City, you’ve probably gleaned by this point that HiFi, the music-themed watering hole on Avenue A between 11th and 12th streets that used to be Brownie’s, is shuttering. Here’s the official story from co-owner Mike Stuto, as posted on his Facebook page:
I (sorta) regret to inform you that my bar HiFi will be closing at the end of this calendar month, ending my 23 year tenure at 169 Avenue A. All parties booked before the end of the month will happen as planned. The story? Quite simply, the renovations we undertook a few years ago to reinvigorate the business were not successful in putting us back on a good financial footing.The generation of people who inhabit this neighborhood on weekends remain mostly indifferent to the place. HiFi seems to occupy a place square in the middle between “dive bar” and “mixologist paradise” — and while I hoped that would help us have a broad appeal to the newbies, it turns out that it translated as utilitarian (aka boring) to their tastes. Could we have pivoted again? Yeah I guess so, but it turns out that I only want to run a bar if its one that I would want to hang out in. Otherwise it’d just be a job I have no passion for. And I don’t want to live like that.
I want it to be clear that the building’s landlord is in no way to blame for this outcome. Yes, the commercial rents in this neighborhood are all over-the-top insane, but at every turn, throughout the roughly 20 years that Time Equities has managed the building they have been an ideal landlord in pretty much every sense of the word. I have been lucky and honored to work with them and to know that there are good honorable people everywhere, even in nyc commercial real estate. Who woulda thunk it?
For the past 18 months or so I have known this outcome was inevitable, and in that time I have passed through all of the “stages of grief” about this era of my life coming to an end. There is no shame in being a 50 year old who no longer knows how to appeal to 25 year olds. So while this is at best a bittersweet moment, I am happy with the end result and very excited about what the future may bring.
Honestly, I don’t think I’d set foot in the place since about 2015, and before that, I hadn’t been since it had still officially been Brownie’s.
In fact, that last time I went, I was essentially taken there by my oft-volatile friend Rob K. (longtime readers may remember him from this post). I’d gone off on a rant at some point about how shitty it was that Brownie’s had closed and been replaced by yet another bar, but he was keen on correcting me (he enjoys that) that it was essentially the same place, with the same owners — but without a performance space. I conceded that it was still a cool place as HiFi, and I believe we left it at that.
As much as I would have liked to have counted myself as a HiFi regular, that was just not the case. By the time the space was enjoying its second wind as HiFi, I’d already crossed the perilous Rubicon into parenthood, and was spending more time and money in baby-supply outlets and playgrounds than in the endearingly dank, smoky rock clubs of my 20’s and 30’s. That’s just the way it worked out.
But as Brownie’s, I still have myriad happy memories of seeing bands like Spoon, Bullet LaVolta, The Figgs, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Emma Peel, Girltoucher, The Gerladine Fibbers, Skeleton Key, The Unband, The Upper Crust and, of course, several performances by my beloved Firewater (that’s them up top circa 1997) in that great space. As Brownie’s, it was just a cool, easy, fun, intimate venue, and I don’t believe I ever had anything other than an excellent time there.
One can take a bit of solace in Stuto’s account above in that he’s leaving on his own terms, but the sting of his observation that the current denizens of the neighborhood are “indifferent” to the character and legacy of HiFi/Brownie’s remains. Much like the Joe Strummer mural a few blocks to the south and a few other other fleeting signifiers, HiFi is ultimately a fading vestige of the sensibility of a vanished East Village. Sure, Jesse Malin’s doing his best with his string of establishments, and The Pyramid is still operational, but — as observed — it’s really nothing like it used to be. It’s hard to find much of that incarnation of the East Village anymore.
And when HiFi shuts its doors at the end of this month, it’ll be even harder to recognize.