A Park Slope Bar: In The Shadow Of The Nets Arena

Home Brooklyn Life A Park Slope Bar: In The Shadow Of The Nets Arena
Walter Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran, and frequent patron of O'Connor's, a bar in Park Slope, holds a photo of himself in uniform. Scott Eidler/The Brooklyn Ink

Toward the back of a Park Slope watering hole, patron Walter Johnson alternates between three drinks: an apple cider, a whiskey and a glass of water, for good measure. He and the bartender reminisce about the old days, just five years ago, when it seemed like a betting parlor stood on every street corner.

“When I go home tonight, I want to see if there’s a place where I can play,” Johnson, 67, said. The Kentucky Derby, the first horse race in the Triple Crown series, is this weekend. “Forget about the websites, with the credit cards.”

Much more than Johnson’s gambling is changing around O’Connor’s, the bar located on 5th Avenue near the Barclays Center, where the Nets will play in September. When the season starts, the arena is expected to draw thousands of sports spectators to Park Slope and alter the dynamic of many of the neighborhood spots.

The pub, now a popular stop for commuters heading home to Long Island and the construction workers who built the arena, is poised to pick up the pre- and postgame crowd come basketball season. And the bar, around since the 1930s, is already preparing for the new business.

Construction workers are building up, developing a second level where patrons can drink outside — “a Taj Mahal,” as Johnson puts it. The contrast between the new and the old is stark. A two-tiered beige terrace, with large glass windows now sits atop a barren, black structure.

The bartender, Chris Jones, 57, hopes that the renovations, which are aimed at modernizing the bar, will be completed before the Nets’ season opener. But Johnson, who said he doesn’t go to O’Connor’s that often anymore – “just two to three days a week,” he said – knows what that means. The prices, he suspects, will rise, so he’ll have to find a new neighborhood hangout. Or stay home.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Johnson wears a commemorative hat, a dog tag around his neck and, just in case anyone doesn’t believe him, he carries his separation papers with him in a tote. Though he lives in public housing in Red Hook, he doesn’t frequent the bars there. He’s lived in that neighborhood for more than 60 years, back when it was crime-ridden and full of “dope heads.” But that’s all changed. Brownstones replaced framed houses, and tenements are now co-ops.

“In the long run, how many people get displaced?” he wonders. “How many people, how many mom-and-pop stores are lost?”

Johnson’s days at O’Connor’s, if prices rise, may be numbered. The same goes for the construction crews, who over the past few years became regulars.
“I’m going to miss my guys who put this place up,” the bartender Jones said, referring to the arena.

But Jones is confident the bar will keep up. “Things evolve,” he said. “That’s all right. I have no control, whatever it is, it is.”

Late in the afternoon on a recent Thursday, two men sat down a few seats away from Johnson. One carried an orange tape measure with him. They were local construction workers. A few baseball games played on television screens in the background.

These are the men Jones fears he’ll lose. “I’m going to miss the working crowd,” he said. “I’ve done the American Express crowd. I like the guy who works real hard all day and has a couple of beers.”

When Johnson walked downstairs to use the bathroom, Jones started to chat with the workers while filling up pitchers of ice, one by one.

After a few minutes, the men got up from their stools. They thanked Jones, paid him, and then added a few extra bucks. “Buy a drink for Walter,” one of the workers said, referring to their drinking buddy Johnson, before heading for the door.

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