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Wednesday
Feb092011

Know Your Bartender: Donald O'Finn, Freddy's


As Freddy's Bar slogged through the wretched, seven-year battle against the city that culminated last year in its seizure by eminent domain--and subsequent demolition--in order to construct developer Bruce Ratner's Barclays Center, longtime bar manager and artist Donald O'Finn rose to the top of the fray, taking the fight to the streets, television, and anyone who would listen. The fight brought Freddy's into the national conversation about abuse of power and the forcible seizure of land, and by installing chains to the bar and organizing protests, he brought a human element to the legal wrangling. By the time of the bar's demolition (along with the surrounding buildings), it seemed that the only two people that weren't on O'Finn's team were the only ones who really mattered, sadly: Mike Bloomberg and Bruce Ratner. 

The re-opening last Friday night of the new Freddy's, about a mile and a half away on Fifth Avenue between 17th and 18th, was a big deal, for obvious reasons. Just about all of the things that made Freddy's unique made the journey, including the bar, the tables, the chains, the art, and O'Finn, who is now co-owner along with former bartenders Matt Kuhn and Matt Kimmett. It's a larger space, with a vaguely nautical/steampunk theme, and it's warm and welcoming.


Freddy's Bar began its life during Prohibition on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Dean Street, as a secret watering hole for employees at the Spalding factory, which was located right next door. After prohibition ended it became a local hangout for off-duty cops from the precinct across the street, and one of them, Freddy Chadderton, bought the bar in the early 1970s after retiring. The bar languished during this time as a fading, run-down cop bar, and struggled to stay alive.

The first Freddy's (Photo by Norman Oder, Atlantic Yards Report)
In 1994 the failing bar was purchased by Frank Yost, who turned to another nearby bar, O'Connor's, for new clientele; the owner of O'Connor's was having a falling out with his patrons due to false accusations of drug use, and many defected to Freddy's. O'Finn, a San Francisco native, left his gig bartending at O'Connor's and brought some fresh ideas to Freddy's, including converting the back dining room into a space for artists and musicians, decorating the walls, and installing screens to display his psychedelic video art, mashups of old B-movies, commercials, and found footage.

The revamping of Freddy's couldn't have come at a better time, and a young crowd began pouring into what some had begun referring to as "the CBGB of Brooklyn." "Brooklyn was hungry for a real scene," says O'Finn. Everybody thinks they can do a bar, but I don't think many people can, because I go to everybody's bars and I'm usually a little bit disappointed." 

Freddy's had firmly cemented its reputation as one of Brooklyn's top bars (and a great place to see live music), but Bruce Ratner wasn't far behind with his scheme for an arena for the "blighted" neighborhood. After seven years of hassling and haggling, Yost finally accepted a lucrative deal last spring, fired his employees, closed up shop, and after promising to help find a new location, left everyone in the lurch. That's when O'Finn, Kuhn, and Kimmett stepped in, found the new space, and now, as they put it, "the inmates are running the asylum."

New owners Matt Kuhn, Donald O'Finn, and Matt Kimmett, via Daily News.
HPS: What do you miss most about the old Freddy's?

Donald: It's hard to say; this is all so new. We really haven't established patterns, I don't really even know what we have on tap yet. All the best stuff made the move. The only thing I can say that I miss is Lee Houston, who was a regular who passed away. We have his picture here on the wall, but he'll never walk in the door again, I don't think.

HPS: Is there anything you don't particularly miss about the old Freddy's?

Donald: Yeah, there's a lot of things that I don't miss. The smell. There was something really wonderful about a building that hadn't been cleaned in a hundred years, but there were a lot of bad things about a building that hadn't been cleaned in a hundred years. I don't miss the previous owner of Freddy's at all. I feel like we all got a little shafted there. 

It came out great in the end. Everyone, including Bruce Ratner, got what they wanted in this deal. It's a really rare thing; I was just thinking about this the other night. The owner of Freddy's got a bunch of cash and got to walk away after never really doing anything, Ratner got his stupid goddamn arena and address, and we got a fresh start. 

HPS: What are you most proud of about the new bar?

Donald: There's so much. I'm very proud of the look of it. I mean, I really designed this whole frickin' place. I'm proud of the sculptures, the paintings, the videos. This place was built on the backs of ten or eleven people, that small community of regulars. I saw in that bad movie Reds, there's a line, "A small group of people can do anything." And I thought, "Well put!" I'm really, really proud of the people that stepped up.

HPS: If you had thirty seconds to talk to Mayor Bloomberg or Bruce Ratner, what would you say to them?

Donald: I would say, "As a businessman, I know how important financing is, but as an artist and as a community person, you've got to step back and realize that the best neighborhoods are the ones that generate income and generate business. And those neighborhoods are not made by corporations, they're made by small-time entrepreneurs. Ma and pa shops. Those are the people that need funding. Not these goddamn corporations, they don't need more money. Who needs the money is the guy trying to put together a little shoe store around the corner, and he'll work every day of his life for the rest of his goddamn life to do that. They're the ones that need help."

It makes me so mad. And it's us who give the place character, who make us want to live there. That's why Park Slope is so great. It's not full of the corporations. It's the little stores, the little places. That's what makes it great.

HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?

Donald: There was this Celtic queen, Boudica, she almost defeated Rome with a small band of warriors. The Roman battle strategies beat her, but everything else, she would have sacked Rome! That's a broad that I'd love to sit down and have a drink with. 

HPS: How did you get involved in the artistic community?

Donald: I grew up in the cultural vacuum of the artists in the 70s. Nobody ever said,"Hey, you draw really well, you could be an artist." So I never knew that was even a choice until I was about 22, after I'd exhausted about all the drugs on the planet. That's when I bumped into it as a concept, and began to follow it, and got a scholarship to the Art Institute of San Francisco for my painting.

I don't really like "art." I don't like the idea of it, the way it exists in this culture. Arthur Danto said that we're at this strange point in time where we're stuck in this transitional period, and if we were less intelligent, we wouldn't be able to make art, and if we were more intelligent we wouldn't need to make art. Eventually, it's not that we won't need art, but that art will be everything. Which is what I think it should be. To me, this bar is the way every building should be that you walk into. It should be hand-crafted, everything should be aesthetically considered. Art should be a part of life. Like with my videos, that's what TV should be.

HPS: What first brought you to New York City?

Donald: I had finished grad school on the West Coast, and I had galleries lined up there, I thought I was a real big shot. I was in the Bay Area School of Figurative Painters. I came here almost as a postgraduate school, to continue my education. I got some solo shows and stuff, but it didn't go anywhere. 

I'd go to my own opening and I'd hate it so much that I'd leave after 15 or 20 minutes. My friends would come and couldn't find me. I'd tell them to just walk out the door and take a left, and I'd be in the first bar they came to. Half the time they wouldn't even see the show; they'd just go to the first bar on the left!

I wanted to talk to artists, but to artists who could hang at the bar; those are the people that I liked. Not the stuffed shirts who want to talk about money and pricing and comparative Middle Eastern philosophy.

HPS: What got you into your specific style of video art?

Donald: I bought probably the first VCR that was available for home use, in about 1980. Cost two thousand dollars, weighed two thousand pounds, two feet tall, top loader, Sony Betamax. I couldn't help but sort of mess with it. That was right around when MTV was starting, so these videos were happening, and I started cutting up stuff as fast as I could. I'd just get these wacky bits of things. Eventually I hit the digital stuff, and I made the decision to stop painting, and that's when I took the same intensity I was bringing into painting and turned it to the video. I think I was an excellent painter but I never made myself laugh with my paintings. I crack myself up when I'm making the videos, though. It's just something goofy. I don't care anymore if anybody likes it. Usually if it makes me laugh it'll make other people laugh. I don't laugh too easily. 


Freddy's, 627 Fifth Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-768-0131. Open from noon daily.

Reader Comments (1)

Good luck in the new spot people!

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

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