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Under the Traffic, Where Whitman Drank and Dreamed

Karen Karbiener in the basement of Han's Deli

On a drizzly January afternoon, NYU Liberal Studies professor Karen Karbiener lingers on a bustling stretch of Broadway near the northwest corner of Bleecker Street, gazing up beyond the green awning of Han’s Deli at the worn 1840s-era tenement overhead. High above the crush of professionals streaming out with sandwiches and coffees, the facade offers a rare reminder of the neighborhood’s roots, when this section of Greenwich Village was just emerging as the cultural heart of the city.

Yet to really understand this spot’s radical significance, Karbiener says, “We’ll need to head underground.”

Somewhere beneath the sidewalk here—in a leaky basement at 653 or 647 or 645 Broadway, depending on whom you ask—is the former site of the smoke-filled room where poet Walt Whitman hung out with the likes of leftist writer William Dean Howells, members of the Fred Gray Association of gay men, and Ada Clare, the actress, writer, and free-love advocate who often showed up with her illegitimate son in tow. Opened by Swiss immigrant Charles Pfaff in 1855 and modeled after the German-style basement beer halls then popular in Europe, it catered to a mixed crowd at a time when most American bars were segregated by gender and class.

From 1858 to 1862, Pfaff’s Cellar was more than Whitman’s favorite watering hole—though Karbiener’s research suggests that he did cultivate a taste for champagne and lager beer there. But more important than the bubbly, for a poet who lacked university education and lived much of his life as a loner, was the close-knit social and intellectual coterie that Pfaff’s provided.

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Karen Karbiener in the basement of Han's Deli

After obtaining permission from the proprietors of Han’s (“I always take chances just asking!” she says) Karbiener folds up her umbrella, sidles past the busy counter and descends the steep, slippery, concrete steps to the basement, which now serves as the deli’s tidy warehouse.

“I know it doesn’t look glorious, but for me and some of my students, just being here is a kind of spiritual moment,” Karbiener reflects, quietly surveying a long metal shelf where Pfaff’s wooden bar might have stood. “They say that space has memory—that it continues to cultivate a certain feeling. When I do poetry readings here with my classes, it takes on an aura of maybe what it once was.”

She walks down yet another narrow set of steps near the front of the building, to the deepest part of the basement, where a Han’s employee trims flowers to sell upstairs. Water steadily drips from a vaulted ceiling supporting the weight of traffic overhead. Whitman, in an 1888 interview for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, described this very space as a “the cave under the sidewalk” and recalled that “there was as good talk [there] as took place anywhere in the world.”

Karen Karbiener in the basement of Han's Deli

Carving out such makeshift cellars was a common (and illegal) practice during Pfaff’s time—overburdened ceilings frequently caved in—which may be the root of New Yorkers’ long-standing tendency to associate underground space with illicit activity.

“It’s tough to imagine, with the Fiji water bottles and the fluorescent lighting, but this was probably dimly lit with gas lamps that reflected off of the arches above,” Karbiener says, “and beneath were these cool guys and women and illegitimate children giving birth to radical culture in the city.” She speculates that Whitman, emboldened by the Pfaff crowd’s open acceptance of homosexuality, may even have had sexual encounters in the bar’s shadowy corners. It’s a hypothesis supported by a passage from Leaves of Grass in which the poet sketches a wintry barroom scene starring “a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand.”

With journalist Henry Clapp as their leader and the recently deceased Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) as their countercultural patron saint, Whitman and the Pfaffians published news and culture in their New York Saturday Press, which became an unofficial weekly record of their underground discussions. Reports on their Bohemianism, which Clapp modeled after Parisian cafe life, also found their way into publications like Harper’s Weekly and the Brooklyn Daily Times.

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Walt Whitman at Pfaff's Cellar in 1857

In bittersweet contemplation of his own legacy, Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.” And as a self-described “public scholar” of literary New York, Karbiener has taken up that charge, leading students and fellow scholars to look for traces of the poet in the often gritty old haunts he left behind. Neither the Pfaff’s site nor the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, house where Whitman completed the first edition of Leaves of Grass is landmarked, and Karbiener’s ultimate goal is to celebrate and protect each without making sterile museums of “living buildings” that have been in continuous use for more than 150 years. “That Pfaff’s is now a deli is actually gorgeous and so New York,” she says. “Putting up a plaque here would seem to be a no brainer.”

This semester she’s teaching a course on archives—but with the goal of getting out of the library and into the streets. “I tell my students that archives aren’t just things in boxes—a ceiling tile or a floorboard or a step can tell you a lot about what a place used to be,” she says. And if you believe, as Karbiener puts it, “in the magic of place,” it’s no coincidence that the site of the original Pfaff’s, which folded in 1868, has enjoyed more than a century on the front lines of various countercultural movements—including a stint as the pioneering gay-straight disco Infinity in the 1970s.

In 2011, a subterranean bar created in Pfaff’s image—complete with a 150-year-old oak bar, 1850s furniture, and an original 19th-century fieldstone wall—opened at 643 Broadway. Its menu, printed on newsprint and resembling The Saturday Press, even offered a cocktail called Leaves of Grass. Karbiener and her students visited this Bohemian shrine often, chatting with staff about its meticulously researched historical details. But the revived Vault at Pfaff’s has since closed its doors, and construction has already begun to convert the space into a new underground venture. In our New York, as in Whitman’s, nothing lasts forever.

Eileen Reynolds

Top photos: Karen Karbiener in the basement of Han’s Deli

Bottom photo: Walt Whitman (seated) at Pfaff’s, 1857 (Library of Congress)

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