Community rallies to save beloved restaurant


Coogan’s Restaurant will live to see another lease.

Regulars and employees – past and present – gathered in the Washington Heights mainstay on Sunday to celebrate a coup: The owners had reached an agreement with their landlord Friday afternoon around 4:30 p.m., two days after announcing the eatery would shut its doors in May due to a monthly rent increase of $40,000.

“Everybody banded together with good intentions – quickly," said Margaret Day, 46, whose very first job was as a hostess at Coogan’s. She attended Sunday's celebration to wish her former bosses well.

Co-owner Dave Hunt credited the deal, terms of which both parties have agreed to keep private, to a “true community effort” by neighborhood residents and local elected officials. The settlement is a rare example of a restaurant successfully renegotiating its lease in New York, where rent hikes frequently force established businesses to close up shop.

“What it took was a lot of focusing on what we meant to the community and for [NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital] to say, ‘You know what, let’s take a step back and let’s re-evaluate,’ ” said Hunt, 68, speaking from the restaurant Saturday morning.

The business that opened its doors in 1985 at 4015 Broadway, near West 169th Street, was one of the first to invest in what was then a neighborhood “synonymous with crack and drugs and death,” Rep. Adriano Espillat said last week. During the past 32 years, it’s witnessed “the renaissance of Washington Heights,” hosting not only the everyday dinner and drinks, but special occasions like weddings and baby showers.

“We’re the place for the apartment that doesn’t have enough room in their living room,” Hunt explained.

A Change.org petition calling on Coogan’s landlord to offer a more affordable renewal lease had collected 15,000 signatures within 48 hours of its Wednesday launch by Northern Manhattan residents.

Local elected officials including Espaillat and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer were “instrumental in opening up the doors to the big office at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital,” according to Hunt.

A joint statement from Coogan’s and the hospital announcing their agreement Friday evening thanked the politicians for “their help making it happen.”

They joined the owners, prominent community members like civic leader Luis A. Miranda, his son Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and many others for an impromptu celebration at the restaurant Friday night.

Another celebration and news conference was held Sunday, when locals turned out to rejoice in the good news.

“To me, it was really exciting to know that community beat money, especially in a rapidly gentrifying city, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” Day, a Washington Heights resident, said. “It’s good to know that the people have some sort of say in what their community looks like.”

Regular Billy Hart, 69, also known as “Boston Billy,” said it was a victory for the “little guy.”

“We’re not going quietly into the night and saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is,’” he said. “The community has voted ... and finally they said ‘enough is enough.’ ”

With Charles Eckert

 

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