Sometimes a place becomes noteworthy because of their top-rated cocktails, Zagat scoring, tasting menus or perfectly-curated live shows. After all, this is Brooklyn and there’s no shortage of those types of places. Alaska bar was, to say the least, not that type of place. What made Alaska so, err, “vibrant,” were the people who chose to spend their time within its doors, a group that the term “regular” doesn’t even seem to define.
When Skyler David Insler opened Alaska’s doors in 2012, it was built with the intention of hosting friends (and evading the rising crackdown of DIY spaces). Insler had long been a staple in the DIY community by that time–he and his previous partner Lisa Noble Acquilino decided to open up Alaska, originally envisioning it as a music venue. After noting the impracticality of the size of the space–it modestly hosted three booths, a couple of tables and one gnarly couch–they moved forward, hoping to have a legal space for neighborhood friends to congregate.
“I often think back about the night before we opened, Dom [Turi] and I were up all night making the tables and building shelves behind the bar,” Insler said. “There were too many friends to name them all who helped us at the very start, physically building and painting etc. It took literally days, spent sanding, cleaning, clamping, gluing… it’s definitely the one thing I will miss the most about that place. It was uneven, sloped, and littered with holes and cracks, but at the same time it was beautiful and it felt perfect.”
Since moving to Brooklyn in 2012, I have been to Alaska at least a hundred times. I’d know about third of the people in the bar on any given evening and at least one or two of the bartenders wouldn’t charge me for drinks. This equation, at any other bar, would merit me the glowing title of “regular.” At Alaska, it made me merely a fucking tourist.
“I did the math, and I would say i’ve spent atleast 1,500 hours at Alaska since I moved here,” Alex Weiner recently explained to me, after the news of Alaska’s closure hit. And Alex is far from the only one.
When I heard the news that Alaska would be permanently closing its door on July 3rd of this year, I thought about Alex, and everyone else I’d ever met there. I knew it was an end of a particular–even though insular–epic era of Bushwick’s party scene. Though nearly a month has passed since the its closing, the community bars like Alaska built remains strong.
But I wanted to memorialize the place, so I made an open call for tributes. What I got in return was two hundred and fourteen notifications in a mere five hours, people I knew and some I didn’t know flooding me with stories, photos and memories from a family already missing their home. It was fucking… moving.
Watching a group chat with four of Alaska’s longtime bartenders Ryan Gabel, Paul Lizarraga, Joe Petersen and Zak Abrams and patron + Sunnyvale co-owner Ali Lukens unravel was a glimpse inside the psyche that made Alaska tick. Spending hours bouncing memories off of each other, the group seemed to forget I was even watching their thoughts unfold. It was like watching a sports team combing through a yearbook before summer began, basking in their mutual achievements.
“There was Hawaii at Alaska night,” Abrams began. “Oh right, Hawaii night!” Petersen recalled.
“So Zak brought a pineapple on a weekend night for some reason,” Gabel recalled. “He propped it on the shelf above the beer taps. Well, the next Monday I opened the bar to see that the stupid pineapple wilted just enough as to fall onto the taps, emptying two full kegs all over the bar… I hated that pineapple.”
They told me of the “Drunkest Person Ever” party (Ileana won that, they decided) and the “Whiskey Idiotarod” (Toney won); how they lit Tim on fire after the first actual fire and sent him running through the bar; how they locked a regular in overnight as an April Fool’s joke. Then there was the “Pali Party,” a surprise birthday party for Lizarraga, where they all donned masks in his likeness. I still spot these masks about town, a year later.
While these may seem like unexceptional feats to an outsider–I disagree. They made something at Alaska, even if that something only lived for four years within those walls.
“It definitely felt like Alaska took up the mantle of a place you could go to forget about the outside world and lose yourself for a few hours,” patron Sophie Weiner explained. “I think it’s important for there to be places like Alaska where you’re allowed to break the rules and no one knows what might happen. It’s important to have a dirty, wild place to go.”
The wild place will always burn itself at both ends, this we all know. The end was palpable in the air there, in the days before closing. The last time I went was the Wednesday before their Sunday closure–till 4 AM, of course–feeling like I needed to give the family space to mourn in private. Someone brought a coffin in four days before the end. On the Saturday night before the end, most of the regulars stayed there until 1PM the next day–soaking up the last of the insanity, riddled with some toasts to the time that has passed among friends.
Late nights, total debauchery, not one but two fires, events thrown only for the amusement of the Alaska regular, or loyalist, if you will. Dice thrown till the sun rose, bathrooms that were actual biohazards, groups of people chain smoking outside, a perma-night atmosphere all overlooked by a taxidermy fox with rabbit ears. It was dingy, but these are the spaces and moments most deserving of a memorial. The ones that bred community, a make-shift family for the young-ish and weary in Brooklyn.
These sentiments make it hard to know that this particular place for friends won’t be there anymore, and where will these contingent of people go? Sure, other bars exist–find them at Sunnyvale, Birdy’s, Alphaville–but can you really replicate a moment in time?
“I feel like I’ve forgotten more things than I can remember,” Insler concluded.
“There are so many people in these four and half short years that made Alaska what it was and I am so grateful for all of them. That’s what makes a bar–the people who work there and the people who drink there.”