The Match: The Netherlands v. Argentina
The Date: Wednesday, July 9
The Venue: Bier International in Harlem
The New York Philharmonic played a free concert in Prospect Park on Wednesday evening. Attendees draped table cloths over their small folding benches and drank from wine glasses. Baguettes poked out of countless canvas totes. Young couples in Toms pushed strollers from the subway to the park — the Nouveau Brooklyn on parade.
A few hours earlier, a bunch of stylish, upwardly mobile New York City transplants gathered at Bier International in Harlem to watch Argentina defeat the Netherlands on penalty kicks in the World Cup semifinals. The two crowds were indistinguishable.
It’s the Soccerification of Harlem.
In most of the world, low-income city-dwellers play soccer. Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Zinedine Zidane, for example, all grew up in depressed neighborhoods in Western Europe. These poor or working class European kids catch the eye of local clubs who then try to groom them. In the USA, boys from underdeveloped and underserved urban areas typically play basketball or football. The stars get picked up by well-connected AAU teams and prep schools.
Meanwhile, soccer reigns in the suburbs. Many suburban kids raised on soccer are now urban hipster adults eager to consume soccer in their new neighborhoods. Thus, a place like Bier International A) exists in Harlem and B) fills up for a late-afternoon World Cup semifinal.
Bier International brands itself as “Harlem’s first beer garden.” The owners seem a little confused. The name of the restaurant is in German, but their website calls a “biergarten” a “beer garden.” So I’ll go with that.
The beer garden starts in a clean, gray cubic room with a cement floor and brushed steel fans hanging from the ceiling. A projector screen filled the back wall. On another wall, the word “beer” is scribbled in several languages.
That language lesson reflected the diversity of the restaurant. A guy dressed like Brother Mouzone sat near a balding, long-haired yippie with a beard and briefcase. Another man in jorts had dreadlocks down to his belt. I stood next to Kiki, a tall, Central European man with white hair and Sambas. I noticed a young guy in the back corner with an Astros hat perched on his head like a yamaka.
A forest of taps — there are 19 — stands opposite the Wall of Babel. Seeing an ordered row of multi-colored, funky taps reminds me of opening a box of Crayola crayons. Pondering the foreign mystery lagers and locally brewed IPAs is like the first time I discovered razzmatazz, robin’s egg blue and shamrock tucked inside the 96-color expansion pack back in 1993.
Long slats of wood line the wall behind the bar. You know those cheap, mass-produced nylon soccer jerseys that you find at most 99¢ stores, the ones where the English word for the nation is emblazoned in block print across the stomach? (The Real Federación Española de Fútbol doesn’t write SPAIN on its kits) Those shirts hung from the wooden slats. Meanwhile, a DJ with a Macbook and turntables chilled at the end of the bar. He played West Indian music during intermissions.
The beer garden stretches onto the sidewalk for about twenty feet. A small fence separates customers from pedestrians. During the match, several passersby, who mostly seemed West African, stood along the partition to watch the match inside.
I settled in front of an ATM near the DJ and observed the crowd while I watched the draw unfold on-screen. The match was a tale of of two tables that seem representative of Harlem’s changing demographics.
At one table, a diverse crew of Argentina supporters in albiceleste jerseys reacted to every play by shouting or pounding the table. Many of the men were from Argentina, but they were joined by an American friend in a Lavezzi jersey and a number of West African guys who spun abrasive metal noisemakers after exciting moments.
The neighboring table featured a flock of smartly dressed young urban professionals (this is a loaded term, but in this sense I mean modern, socially progressive cultural elitists who get produce from a CSA, donate to WNYC, may or may not be graphic designers and/or web developers and move into traditionally underserved neighborhoods that have been reconstructed by wealthy management companies) in floral-print dresses, polos, denim oxford shirts and chukka boots. They seemed less interested in the match and more interested in the ambience and the opportunity to meet up and drink tall, metric-system glasses of German beer at 4 pm. The table reacted late to Gonzalo Higuain’s 2nd half goal and their cheers lingered a little too long after the assistant referee signaled for offsides. I often noticed they weren’t watching the match at all.
I think it’s awesome that the World Cup provided so many spaces and opportunities for friends to meet up. The World Cup joins NFL Sundays and the early rounds of March Madness as the only afternoon events that attract casual sports fans to public viewing spaces.
Yet, soccer viewing experiences can still seem pretty exclusive. Soccer shouldn’t be part of the gentrification experience, reserved for people with disposable income and access to BeinTV or Fox Soccer channel. I wonder when soccer will become more popular among the young, low-income residents of New York City.
Sure, many working-class Latin Americans and West Africans play soccer in parks and on concrete courts, but basketball still reigns in Northern Manhattan, Eastern Brooklyn and countless other low-income neighborhoods. I hope this World Cup exposed New Yorkers of all income levels to the sport.
OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 5/10 for a laid-back crowd at a clean spot with a cool DJ. Bier International seems like a better place to meet friends on a warm Saturday afternoon than to watch a high-stakes soccer match.