Thursday, May 04, 2023

Last Call at Cougan's: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar by Jon Michaud

     I grew up in a small coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. I learned as the years went by the importance of our local bars to the communities they served. The larger ones housed a restaurant serving comfort food and providing a forum for entire families to socialize or burn off some of the stress of a day’s work.

     These businesses provided jobs. They sponsored sports teams. They often housed banquet rooms where celebrations were held. They acted as information highways where the latest news was shared with a pre-internet, news-hungry populace.

     In Last Call at Cougan’s: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar, Jon Michaud provides a rich history of one such social hub: Cougan’s. Located in Washington Heights, at the upper reaches of Broadway at 169th St., Cougan’s became much more than an Irish bar and restaurant. Michaud shows how during its almost four decades of existence, “…it became a beloved community hub so essential that it was sometimes called Uptown City Hall”. 

     Cougan’s provided a place where people from varied walks of life and different ethnicities and races were able to have a drink or a meal in harmony. It provided a haven for doctors and nurses working at the nearby hospital, for police from the nearby precincts, for downtown workers blowing off some steam at the end of a tough workday, and many others. Well-known personalities walked through its doors from New York City and beyond: Lin Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights” means in Washington Heights), Mayor David Dinkins, and Gerry Adams of the IRA are just three. 

     Michaud provides a historical review of Cougan’s existence overlaid with most of the important local and national issues of the time: the AIDS epidemic, the crack epidemic, stop and frisk, race riots, the various financial meltdowns, 9/11, and finally the COVID crisis. 

     He demonstrates how Cougan’s management was versatile and open-minded in its out-of-the-box thinking. Cougan’s held book launches, mounted plays, staged poetry readings and karaoke, facilitated community outreach and arbitrated conflicts when they arose outside its doors. It helped resurrect the use of an armory building and began an annual 5K run fundraiser. 

     Any business that exists for almost forty years will have challenges and changes. Cougan’s was no different. Bars and restaurants tend to have more than their share. Michaud illustrates how Cougan’s navigated those challenges and changes, and mostly accomplished them in a moral way. 

     Through his extensive research and straightforward writing style, Michaud brings Cougan’s, and everyone who walked through its doors, alive. I could imagine sitting at this neighborhood gem, drinking a cold beer, and hearing about all the interesting people who graced its history. Last Call at Cougan’s provides a slice of Americana that you should discover for yourself.