Although—or because—it is one of the youngest of the world’s great cities, New York has a way of generating neighborhoods as if on fast-forward, developing their own histories at full steam yet being obliterated even more quickly.
That has especially been the story of downtown Manhattan, where soon, Sway on Spring, one of the last joints in the West Village where a hardy bunch of regulars could hear continuous good music, will shut its doors.
Sway’s last night will be Dec. 27. I paid a final visit a week prior to the closing dating. I showed up at the door, which is marked by a red neon sign reading “McGovern’s,” a relic of a long defunct Irish bar, at 10 p.m.
This timing was on the advice of Pebbles Sway, who has worked there for eight years and has managed the place for three.
Sway’s name isn’t coincidental; she took the name of the bar.
It was near empty when I got there, but soon it was filling, pumping with ’80s music, and awash with emotion.
“I came two nights after what happened [the terrorist attacks] in Paris,” the artist Margaret McInroe told me at the bar. “The DJ played Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy.” The Gainsbourg number had been ‘Aux Armes et Cætera’ and the Françoise Hardy had been ‘Comment te dire adieu.’
McInroe gestured to the now-pulsating dance floor. “It’s like a time machine in there,’ she said. “All that ’80s energy.” Soon thereafter, she hit the floor.
Another familiar face wove through the peoplescape, Neil Harbisson, a cyborg artist, recognizable by the embedded antenna sprouting from his skull. He was known to me from the hi-tech arts collective, Hyphen Hub, which has also changed location.
But Harbisson wasn’t a Sway regular by any means. He had come out of interest in seeing the joint while he still could.
“In New York a place is always full just before it closes,” announced Nick Lawrence of the gallery Freight & Volume, which has itself just moved from West 24th Street to the Lower East Side.
And, yes, here was Pebbles. “It’s only 11,” she told me. She had arranged for a posse of four-star DJs to give the place a good send-off in its last days.
“Normally it’s still quiet at this time,” she told me. “But tonight it’s packed. I’m terrified. It’s going to be insane.”
Good guess. It was—and also way too loud to talk, so we spoke a couple of days later.
I asked Pebbles when she heard the place was closing.
“I heard the day after my birthday. December 10th.”
Not much notice, I said.
“No,” she said, briskly.
The vanishing of familiar bars, restaurants, and galleries is usually a signal that yet another block of condos is about to be deposited on the nabe like a glimmering turd.
This may ultimately be the case here, of course, but the closing of Sway, which had been operating just three nights a week, seems more a symptom of general attrition.
“You can just see what has happened in the neighborhood,” Pebbles said, noting some of local favorites of yesteryear. “Don Hill’s is gone and Antarctica, which was a sports bar, and Emerald’s Pub, which was right across the road from Sway, and Greenhouse and WiP.”
Yes, WiP. Although best-known for brawls between the entourages of rap stars, Stuart Braunstein’s lively hangout on Vandam has been another place deeply missed.
There are fast-decreasing relics of what the neighborhood once was. Speaking of which, I asked Pebbles what compelled her to keep that McGovern’s neon sign?
“It was folklore. Like you had to know to know,” Pebbles explained.
Indicating that it was an old speakeasy?
“That’s douchey and over-used,” Pebbles said. “It’s just that it’s unusual to see an Irish bar sign with a velvet rope.”
As Sway readies itself for the last call, Pebbles is unsure of her next move. But one thing is certain: She is sure as hell not ditching the name “Sway.”
“I have a tattoo of the bar, for fuck’s sake,” she said, with a note of outrage that didn’t sound like a put-on at all. “I’ll always be Pebbles Sway.”