"Oasis of lawlessness," "physically revolting," "a celebration of self-loathing." These are just a few of the phrases used to describe the now-shuttered dive bar Siberia in Jack Bryan's new documentary Life After Dark: The Story of Siberia Bar, which premiered at a KiptonART-sponsored screening at Soho House last night. "Siberia was the last stronghold of the New York bohemian," said Bryan. "It was sort of a place lost in time."
The bar first opened in 1996, in the 50th Street and Broadway subway station. After being evicted by the landlord there, owner Tracy Westmoreland, a former lifeguard who once worked the back door at Studio 54, took it to a bigger space at 40th Street and Ninth Avenue. There he reigned until September 2007, when the joint was give the boot for the last time. "Siberia was a high-school reunion of nasty," he told us fondly.
"The first time I went down into the basement I thought, How can there not be a body down there?" said author and book publicist Sloane Crosley. "It looked like Silence of the Lambs."
The dank watering hole served as a postmodern Algonquin club for "Page Six" reporters and struggling writers. Former "Page Six" reporter Ian Spiegelman opens the film: "I don't even know how you could make a documentary about Siberia," he says. "I don't know how people have any memories of what happened there."
Siberia was the kind of place you went to drink to forget. "It's where I went to forget that earlier that day I showed up to cover a party for Freddie Prinze Jr. and Freddie Prinze Jr.'s publicist told me that he wasn't doing interviews," offered Spiegelman.
But some memories remain: "One time Tracy interrupted our conversation to go throw some guy in a Dumpster and then returned to our conversation," says former "Page Six" scribe and current Maxim editor Chris Wilson. One of his fondest recollections of the bar is the night he did shots with CNN's Lou Dobbs.
Another is the time when, just for fun, Westmoreland ordered his clients to hurl his entire inventory — several thousand dollars worth of alcohol — against the wall. "I put it up in the pantheon with Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Mudd Club," said Wilson. "I think they all occupy the same shadow of awesomeness."
The film includes interviews with everyone from The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli to chef Anthony Bourdain and party snapper Patrick McMullan, a testament to the cross section of New Yorkers who were attracted to the bars skanky-chic appeal. Sure, It was filthy, an island of lost souls. But everyone was lost together.
"Siberia was where you took your drunken freakness," Spiegelman explains.
The beginning of the end came in January 2007, when a fire tore through the bar in and the place became flooded ("I don't think the bar has ever been cleaner," Westmoreland observed). Nevertheless, he kept Siberia open and started pouring shots. It was business as usual for the next eight months until the place was forced to close owing to rent disputes.
"Siberia wasn't good for me, but it was great for me," says New York Observer writer George Gurley. "I'm glad it's over, but I miss it. I got a lot of great stories out of that place." —Noelle Hancock
For more on Siberia, see Grub Street.