Neir’s Tavern

Neir’s Tavern Circa 1898
Historical Landmark Plaque Outside
The Infamous Original Doors

For over 190 years, Neir’s Tavern has been the longest standing bar in all five boroughs.[1] Founded in 1829, Neir’s Tavern was originally called “The Blue Pump Room” and sat across the street from The Union Course Racetrack.[2] Match races between horses from the South against those from the North drew crowds at Union Course as high as 70,000. Several hotels, “including the Snedeker Hotel and the Forschback Inn, were built in the area to accommodate the racing crowds, as well as Neir’s Tavern, which remains at 78th Street and 88th Avenue.”[3] The race course was later home to trotters and then went out of business in 1888, when it was subdivided into streets and building plots. When the  racetrack closed in 1888, Louis Neir bought the tavern giving it the name we know it as today.[4] This was the same year that Queens became a part of New York City.

Woodhaven and Ozone Park were settled in the 1600s by Dutch and English settlers, who gradually eased out Native Americans; Woodhaven became a racing hotbed in the 1820s when Union Course, at what is now Jamaica Avenue and Woodhaven Blvd. was built. The neighborhood remained mostly white throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.[5]

Mr. Neir expanded the tavern by, “adding a ballroom, the first bowling alley in Queens, and rooms upstairs for a hotel…”[6] It is said that Mae West, a famous actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, and sex symbol, first performed at Neir’s Tavern as a little girl growing up in New York. Local historians believe that the bar even stayed open during prohibition by turning into a speakeasy. It was easy for the Tavern to hide this speakeasy behind the community center that it truly was.

Neir’s Tavern is on the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue, one block south of Jamaica Avenue.[7] For those not familiar with the neighborhood, Neir’s Tavern is right in the center of the town. Neir’s Tavern has served as a community center for Woodhaven, Queens for the entirety of its existence. As the current owner said, “This area doesn’t have the money to build their own community center, but they had Neir’s Tavern.”[8] Neir’s Tavern was the first place to have silent films and a bowling alley in Queens according to local historians.

As generations grew up, they could count on one constant, having their first drink at Neir’s Tavern. The bar has a long standing tradition surrounding someone’s first legal drink. Drinks on the house and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in Neir’s Tavern has been a write of passage for Woodhaven residents since the early 1950’s. One family whose home in Woodhaven was established in the late 1800’s, has a lot to say about the infamous tavern. As per James Fenter, playing on Neir’s Tavern softball team was one of the best parts of his 20’s. Something that goes on in Queens is the Bar League. Almost every bar in the borough has a team of regulars that they sponsor to play softball. It is a league for fun as there are no trophies but many people sign up to play. Neir’s Tavern was one of the first bars to join the Bar League according to Mr. Fenter.

Jeannie Mathis-Halpin is a third generation resident of Woodhaven. When interviewed about Neir’s Tavern, she recounted many fond memories. With Neir’s Tavern as the first bowling alley in the borough, they did not have an automated pin system which allowed for local kids to be hired. “Being a pin girl in middle and high school was some of the best memories I have of my adolescence,”[9] Jeannie said in her April 2020 interview. She also recalled a tradition held by the tavern. Each Christmas Eve, families gather there to celebrate as a community. The children go to the upstairs movie theater while the parents drink and socialize in the bar itself. Close to midnight, “whichever Dad was least drunk put on the Santa costume and we each got a turn to sit on his lap.” [10] Jeannie’s father and grandfather also put a lot of work into the tavern. Following the fire of 1964, the bar had to be restored. The restoration of the infamous doors was done by Mr. Mathis himself.[11]

The scene in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas”, where members of the Mafia showed up after robbing the airport showing off mink coats and pink Cadillacs, took place at Neir’s Tavern located on 78th Street.[12] Following the shooting of the bar scene, many members of the community had the opportunity to meet stars Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Lorraine Bracco.

Woodhaven has grown around Neir’s Tavern. As each generation passed through the infamous doors, the legacy of Mr. Neir continued. From its humble beginnings as the home of a race track to being a staple of Queens, Woodhaven has grown exponentially. Now with over 41,000 residents, Woodhaven is still the close knit community that allowed Neir’s Tavern to become the center of community. This area of Queens shows the close knit way of life in Woodhaven. Similar to cultural communities like Little Italy and Chinatown, Woodhaven’s residents are like a family. While race, age, and nationality varies a lot throughout the residents, they maintain a sense of community that has been sadly lost in many parts of New York City.

Neir’s Tavern has been uniting the residents of Woodhaven since its establishment. With the initial purpose to serve people from the racetracks and the jockeys, Neir’s Tavern became an important feature of the neighborhood. From sponsoring  little leagues, to being the site for milestones such as weddings and birthdays, Neir’s Tavern is a part of one’s identity when from Woodhaven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Primary Sources:

 

 

Corey Kilgannon. “After 190 Years, the ‘Most Famous Bar You’ve Never Heard of’ Avoids Last

Call.” 2020. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/nyregion/ neirs- tavern- closing.html

 

Erin Peitri. “Woodhaven, Queens.” 2007. Forgotten New York. https://forgotten-ny.com

/2007/02/woodhaven-queens/

 

Woodhaven Cultural Society. “A Tavern That’s Been a Fixture in Woodhaven Nearly 200 Years:

Our Neighborhood, the Way it Was.” Queens News and Community. https://qns.com

/story/2019/01/05/a-tavern-thats-been-a-fixture-in-woodhaven-nearly-200-years-our-neighborhood-the-way-it-was/

 

Woodhaven Cultural Society. “Turn Back the Clock to get a Glimpse of Woodhaven’s Rich

History.” 2019. Queens News and Community. https://qns.com/story/2016

/11/04/turn-back-clock-get-glimpse-woodhavens-rich-history/

 

Secondary Sources

Carlotta Mohamed. “Woodhaven Residents Form New Committee to Preserve and Celebrate

The Oldest Bar in Queens.” 2019. Queens News and Community. https://qns.com/story

/2019/01/30/woodhaven-residents-form-new-committee-to-preserve-and-celebrate-the-ol

dest-bar-in-queens/

Michael Shain. “Aged in the Bottle: Old Pubs.” 2019. Queens Chronicle. https://www.qchron.

com/editions/queenswide/aged-in-the-bottle-old-pubs/article_33b3d19b-9491-53f2-90c0-b888f1fd4b0b.html

“The History of Neir’s Tavern Tavern.” 2013. Neir’s Tavern Tavern. http://neirstavern.com/history/

 

Victoria Merlino. “De Blasio Pledges to Help Stop Neir’s Tavern Tavern Closure.” 2020. Queens Daily

Eagle. https://queenseagle.com/all/de-blasio-pledges-to-help-stop-neirs-tavern-closure

 

Woodhaven Cultural Society. “Oldest Bar in New York.” 2010. Project Woodhaven.

http://www.projectwoodhaven.com/2010/June/neirs-reopens.html

 

[1] Neir’s Tavern

[2] Project Woodhaven

[3] Project Woodhaven

[4] Neir’s Tavern

[5] US Census

[6] Neirs Tavern

 

[7] Project Woodhaven

 

[8] NY Times

 

[9] Jeannie Mathis Interview

[10] Jeannie Mathis Interview

[11] Jeannie Mathis Interview

[12] Forgotten NY

 

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