Last Thursday, Loycent Gordon, the owner of the 191-year bar, officially signed a five-year lease, with an option to extend the agreement for another five years.
Though Gordon made a handshake deal with building owners Henry and Ken Shi in January, they finalized the agreement with the help of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
At the lease-signing ceremony, which was attended by chamber representatives, local elected officials and even Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gordon thanked all of his supporters for believing in him.
“This is a new lease on life. In the middle of a pandemic, we have an opportunity to start over,” he said. “I would hope Neir’s Tavern will be a beacon of hope for that.”
Believed to be one of the oldest bars in continuous operation in New York City, Neir’s Tavern was on the verge of closure at the start of the year.
Unable to broker a deal with the property owners, Gordon, a New York City firefighter who has owned the bar for the last 11 years, decided to call up WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” during the weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment.
Gordon said it was a “shot in the dark,” a last hurrah that he hoped would lead to a miracle. He got through to the mayor and told his story.
“He felt a sense of responsibility to do something,” Gordon said ofde Blasio.
Later that afternoon, Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber, invited Gordon, the Shi brothers, representatives from the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) and local lawmakers to the chamber’s office in East Elmhurst.
“I closed the door and said I’m not going to feed you or let you out until we have a deal,” Grech said.
They emerged with a deal that was officially signed last week. Councilman Robert Holden, who was in the room, said the negotiation was contentious and difficult.
“But it was something we had to do, we must do, to protect small businesses and protect our history,” he said. “This is a landmark for Woodhaven and Queens. If any establishment was worth saving, it was this.”
As part of the agreement, SBS provided help through its commercial lease assistance program, according to Commissioner Jonnel Doris. They also provided a Love Your Local grant, which included 20 hours of expert advice from a business consultant and up to $90,000 for renovations.
Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold. By March 31, Gordon had to temporarily close Neir’s Tavern. After many other establishments transitioned to delivery and takeout, the owner said he did not want to put his guests and staff at risk of contracting the virus.
Gordon kept paying his staff through a combination of GoFundMe donations, gift cards that customers purchased, loans and personally not taking a salary. He also donated hot meals to local frontline workers.
Raquel Olivares, executive director of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District (BID), said during the pandemic Gordon reached out to all of the businesses on Jamaica Avenue to help them advertise their services.
“That says so much about him,” she said, “and how much he understands how much power a place like Neir’s has for this neighborhood.”
At the lease-signing ceremony, de Blasio praised Gordon for his strength and resiliency, and for embodying the “New York City spirit.”
“No matter what was thrown at you, you stuck with it,” he said. “You’re preserving something beautiful here and you’re making it even better.
“This is an amazing place, you can feel the history and feel the spirit,” de Blasio added. “The number one thing to do to help it survive another 200 years. Show up, spend a little bit of money.”
Neir’s Tavern first opened in October 1829 as The Blue Pump Room. It was located across from the popular Union Course racetrack and became a gathering spot for bettors. In 1898, the bar was purchased by Louis Neir, who added a bowling alley and ballroom.
The watering hole stayed in his family until the late 1960s, when it was sold and renamed the Union Course Tavern. That name stuck until 2009, when Gordon purchased the bar, renamed it and led a restoration project.
The pub is known for providing the setting for multiple scenes in the iconic 1990 film “Goodfellas,” as well as the 2011 movie “Tower Heist.” Patrons also claim that actress and singer Mae West first performed at Neir’s Tavern.
Gordon said he couldn’t have kept the bar running for the last 11 years without the help of the community. By signing the lease, he said it means the bar will have “a little bit more certainty in this time of uncertainty.”
“I’m relieved, and I’m also hopeful that maybe people will come back and continue to support Neir’s Tavern so it can reach 200 years,” he said.
Though it’s already tough being a small business owner, Gordon said he has never experienced this much difficulty, this many ups and downs, in his entire life.
He said he’s grateful that other people decided to help shoulder the burden, from eating and drinking at the institution to sharing social media posts.
“That’s been the strength that kept me going,” he said.
A committee of supporters planning ahead to the bar’s 200th anniversary is already tossing around ideas for how to celebrate, Gordon said. Some have mentioned throwing a parade, while others want a community space and museum to recognize the history of the Neir’s Tavern.
To get to the 200-year mark, Gordon encouraged everyone to support small businesses.
“I’ll keep trying as long as you believe in me to keep getting it right,” he said. “We need it now more than ever.”
The mayor echoed that call to shop and buy local, especially during the holiday season.
“More than any other time in our history, we’ve got to buy from our mom-and-pop stores and go to our restaurants,” de Blasio added. “We’ve got to keep our money in our communities.”