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A Look at Prohibition’s Local Past

IMG_7347Maya Millett Lorcan Otway guides a tour of prohibition enthusiasts towards the gangster museum, located on the upper level of Theater 80.

Long before the Beat poets, the Warhol kids, free-spirited artists and musicians came to define the East Village’s bohemian scene, a different kind of character dominated the streets: the neighborhood bootlegger.

During the height of the 1920s Prohibition era, New York City served as the American gangster’s playground. Behind ordinary storefronts and in dingy back alleyways, men and women thirsty for forbidden libations and the prospect of a good time crept up to nondescript doors and slipped into another world. At the height of the Jazz Age, America was ready to dabble in debauchery even in the East Village, where European immigrant families crowded into tenement buildings.

Unlike the glamorous settings depicted on the new HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” the face of the speakeasy owner here was often not a wily gangster, but a German shopkeeper or a Jewish teacher. For these East Villagers, starting a speakeasy was as easy as opening their homes for an afternoon to sell alcohol. The illegal booze was snagged through a number of enterprising means — whether through dealings with a local bootlegger or grabbing what they could from a stalled truck transporting the stuff. “It was just kind of a buyer’s market — bootleggers were slipping menus underneath doors like Chinese food menus.”
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