In 1985, when Peter Walsh decided to open a restaurant and bar, many were astounded at the location he chose. Washington Heights, in the northernmost tip of Manhattan, was home to The Cloisters, a castle-like museum with beautiful gardens, but the surrounding streets were plagued with a crack cocaine epidemic that was claiming lives and tearing apart families.
The story of an Irish bar that became a gathering place for a diverse population in Upper Manhattan is the subject of a new documentary, Coogan’s Way, directed by Glenn Osten Anderson, that will premiere Thursday, May 6, during the opening night of the Harlem International Film Festival. The 67-minute film recounts Coogan’s beginnings as a neighborhood restaurant whose fans soon included, not only locals from the community, but members of Congress, city government officials, authors, journalists, and members of the creative community, including Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Why did we come into Washington Heights, into one of the worst neighborhoods you could possibly choose?” Walsh says, in the documentary. “It comes down to two reasons. One, there’s no competition. And number two, it was near a hospital and people needed a place. We’re filling a void.” Located near NewYork-Presbyterian, Coogan’s became the comfort zone that people needed when leaving the hospital after receiving bad news or visiting a sick relative. Unfortunately, in 2017, hospital officials failed to recognize Coogan’s value, hiking the restaurant’s rent $40,000 a month. Jim Dwyer, a Coogan’s regular who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, wrote a column for the paper about the restaurant’s possible demise. That galvanized Coogan’s fans, many with influence in the city, and resulted in negative publicity for the hospital. Negotiations produced a new lease that Coogan’s could live with.
David Hunt, one of the co-owners, along with Walsh and Tess McDade, notes that Coogan’s was once dubbed “the uptown City Hall,” adding that there was an element of truth to that title. Photos that flash on the screen show the owners with Mayor Ed Koch, Governor George Pataki, Senator Hillary Clinton, as well as members of New York’s City Council. “This is where you come to find help,” says Dave Crenshaw, a youth sports coach and community organizer. “If you had a problem, this is where you come to sit and if you waited long enough an elected official was going to come here. You might not want to go to a community board meeting, you didn’t really have to. River to river, this is where you came to get something done.”
Of course, there are many Irish bars in Manhattan, but none became so involved and identified with a neighborhood on the scale achieved by Coogan’s. Former Congressman Charles Rangel says that if he’s asked to show someone a picture of America, reflecting the nation’s diversity, he will take them to Times Square and then take them to Coogan’s. Anderson and his team skillful weave together archive footage from local news, along with photo images and on screen interviews with dozens of individuals who, for decades, lived through a changing neighborhood, often seeking refuge in Coogan’s.
“It was a safe place, it was a family place,” says Luis A. Miranda, Jr. “So whenever we had an occasion that we needed to celebrate, including Lin-Manuel’s birthday, Coogan’s was always the place to go. It’s not a chain, it’s a neighborhood establishment, that grew out of the need and the want of the people in the neighborhood.”
“Coogan’s welcomed women at a time when a lot of single women didn’t want to walk into a bar by themselves,” Manhattan Borough Historian Robert Snyder says. “And by bringing in everybody in the neighborhood, giving them a home here, making this the living room that they might not have that they could share with everybody else, it became an inclusive bar.”
Coogan’s didn’t just exist in the neighborhood, it became an important part of people’s lives, working on many levels to effect change. In July, 1992, after a controversial police shooting, riots broke out in the Washington Heights area. Walsh says that Coogan’s made the decision to stay open 24 hours, despite the violence. “Because if you close, you become an object of fire bombs, molotov cocktails, broken windows,” says Walsh. By the next morning, the front room of Coogan’s was filled with police officers, the back room, with protestors. Walsh introduced Nicholas Estavillo, the commanding officer in the 34th precinct, to the City Councilman Guillermo Linares, a Dominican leader helping the protesters. “They were hesitant about talking to each other,” says Walsh. “But they sat and they talked.” Linares says, “[Coogan’s] was a part that was instrumental in getting us from that moment of crisis.”
In 1998, the bar founded what would become one of the most popular city races – Coogan’s Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K. The race, according to Walsh, was “a statement to taking the streets back. Taking it back from drug dealers. Taking it back from filth.” The children who run in the race receive a medal from one of the police officers waiting at the fish line.
Tess McDade notes that the race cost the restaurant a fortune. “Basically [Peter’s] salary for three to six months was taken up organizing this race,” she says. “But the benefit was to the neighborhood. It also brought a lot of attention to the neighborhood to people who weren’t familiar with it.”
While Coogan’s managed to survive a threatened rent increase, the restaurant did not survive the pandemic. In April, 2020, Coogan’s announced it would close. But even after closing, Coogan’s continued to have an impact on other small businesses. Featured in a national advertising campaign for Facebook, they raised more than $100,000 to help small businesses and nonprofits in Upper Manhattan.
Coogan’s may be gone, but, hopefully, Anderson’s documentary will keep alive the history of this iconic restaurant, and also serve as a reminder that one small business, watched over by passionate and dedicated people, can make a difference in a neighborhood and in people’s lives.
An online petition has been created to “co-name” the corner of Broadway and 169th Street Coogan’s Way.
To stream Coogan’s Way, go to the website for Harlem International Film Festival.