new york beginnings

How Union Pool Became the Horny Utopia of 2000s Williamsburg

In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.

In 2011, I moved to Brooklyn from Oakland, leaving behind a cheap apartment and a nice boyfriend who patiently agreed to enter into a long-distance relationship while I went off to forge a career in magazines. For this kindness, I — unable to withstand the emotional discomfort of cross-country love — tortured him by going to Union Pool every weekend and calling him to say things like, “What are you doing this weekend? I’m probably going to Union Pool.” Or, worse, texting him, digitally slurring, “Whatcha doin?. I’m outside Union Pool and I’m soooooogg drunk. LOL.LLLL. I LIVE HERE NOW.”

This boyfriend had never lived in Brooklyn and only visited a handful of times — but even he knew what it meant to “go to Union Pool.” When he broke up with me, about a month later, he was surprised that I cried and resisted. “Why did you keep going to the Union Pool if you actually wanted to be with me?” he demanded. “Everyone knows why you go there!

Ah, yes. In a few short years, the lore of Union Pool — premiere boyfriend store of post-hipster Brooklyn — had spread to fixed gear ’n’ beanie enclaves across the land. And in the immediate hours of my breakup devastation, I went back to Union Pool for the exact reason everyone knows to go to Union Pool. That night, I met a hot guy in a poncho and linen pants, and got thrown out of the bar for breaking Union Pool’s only real bylaw: Only one person in the bathroom at a time.

According to owner Zeb Stewart, back in 2000, when Union Pool opened under the BQE, nobody wanted to go beneath the underpass. But it was also one of the only bars around, and, as such, the grimy corner it occupied became a Williamsburg center at a time when Williamsburg was still very cool and hip and full of good-looking cool and hip people. The booze was cheap because it had to be. The bands were cool because bands were still cool then. Everyone knew that everyone else would go there, largely because there was nowhere much else to go. Thanks to early write-ups in local publications, word of mouth, stories of the famed Halloween parties, and a bar vibe that matched the general lawlessness of the area at the time, by 2005, UP’s mythical status as a pickup bar was pretty much established. (This predated neighborhood favorites like the Woods and Home Sweet Home.) Stewart would go on to help found other Williamsburg mainstays, like Hotel Delmano and Cafe Colette; and bands that played small, pre-fame shows at Union Pool, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, would go on to define a golden era in the neighborhood’s cultural history. Union Pool remained a horny Neverland.

I personally have been going to Union Pool for the express purpose of getting laid without much effort since 2006. That was when, during my junior year of college, my much cooler, more culturally advanced friend Ada recognized a post-breakup funk and announced she was taking me to a place where I could “meet boys.” I put on some Cheap Mondays, rode the subway for an hour, and finally we stood at the bar and looked over the crowd. It was like Mufasa standing with Simba on Pride Rock and explaining that everything that the light touches would be his, except in this case Ada pointed to the Shadowland and said go forth. And it was grody and great and plentiful. Now, at 32, I’ll still sometimes demand my friends “take me to the boyfriend store.” Only on weeknights, though. After a beer and some queso, I’ll go home by myself by 12 — but still, an itch is scratched.

I am not alone. Most people within a certain New York demographic — the demographic with Cheap Mondays and PBR in their past — also have a Union Pool story, and if they don’t, then a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a co-worker, or a roommate does.

People report going there in times of sadness (“he hit his Saturn Return, ended our ten-year relationship, and I went straight to Union Pool”), in times of desperation (“I needed a place to stay for the night because I was locked out of my apartment, so I went to Union Pool”). Some people go to find lovers; some people bring dates; and some people start the night with one date and leave with another arrangement — like my new hero, Rachel Bell, a Brooklyn writer with a Drake tattoo. She recently went to Union Pool for the first time, on a Tinder date. “Showed up, it was Tinder Guy, Tinder Guy’s Best Friend, and Female of Nebulous Relationship to Tinder Guy and Tinder Guy’s Best Friend,” she explained in an email. “So I’m like, cool, a double date, okay. Female of Nebulous Relationship to Tinder Guy quickly leaves and I am now on a date with two men. Who proceed to try to convince me to have a threesome with them. And I was high-key interested, honestly.”

Others report nights they’ll never forget, nights that ended in various sorts of “only in New York” calamity. Like J — who wishes to remain unnamed, because his current girlfriend might be mad. He recalls, “It was a running joke that Union Pool always had ‘a lot of eyes’” —meaning, he explains, that “you could be there chilling and just catch eyes with somebody — what would happen next would be up to you.” On one memorable night four years ago, he arrived with friends, “and it was pretty standard fare: music blasting, cheap drinks flowing, and hotties running around in their early-mid-20s. So, we got in there and started our bullshit.” They had a look around, ordered some Modelos, and wound up in the bar’s back room.

“They were playing some good music and I break it the fuck down on the dance floor, so I was into it.” And then, he writes, “There she was: this little long-haired brunette with an ass that almost made me cry tears of joy. I locked in, and started throwing some vibes around heavily.” A familiar story: The two went home together. But on the way to her place, J left his phone in the cab, and —hookup complete — he was obliged to spend about six hours the next day in the apartment of a stranger who no longer wanted him there, waiting for his cabdriver to come back from Queens and drop it off. “The classic New York hookup story,” J writes. “Provided by Union Pool.”

“The morning after I went home with a young woman from Union Pool for the first time, [my roommate] said to me, ‘Aw, you’re a real, live New York boy now,’” remembers Eamon O’Neill, 30. “The Union Pool hookup is a young New York rite of passage.”

In a city where it can be surprisingly hard to meet someone, even just for the ephemeral purposes of hooking up and never talking again, Union Pool has provided a consistent service to the fine people of Brooklyn for about 13 years now.

How, exactly, did this bar become the stuff of horny legends? And how has it remained the stuff of horny legends, well after Williamsburg basically turned into Manhattan? (Union Pool’s bathrooms “may well prove to be the Chelsea Hotel of our generation,” a Complex writer once argued, on a list of “The Best Bathrooms in NYC to Have Sex In.” They might actually qualify as a historical landmark at this point.)

“Well,” says Melanie Koch, 40, “it was really the first bar to cater directly to the students and artists who were flooding in. It was a hookup bar from conception, wasn’t it?” She’s lived in Williamsburg since 2001, right around the corner from the bar.

Stewart, the founder, has a “scientific” theory for Union Pool’s success at bringing people together. “You have the front door, then you have the backyard. And you have this zone that’s kind of, like, private doors on the way out to the backyard — but basically you have to walk through that zone to go to the photo booth, to the bathrooms, to the pinball machine, to the taco trucks, you know, anywhere.” And so, he explains, “it creates all this natural movement where people are constantly, casually grazing by each other, holding the door open for each other, saying hello to each other, smiling at each other, and it mixes people up, makes them interact.”

He’s aware of the bar’s reputation, he says. “I have friends who’ve met at Union Pool and gotten married. I’m sure we’ve also ruined some relationships.” He attributes some of that chemistry to the vibe he reinforces at Union Pool. “We have bartenders looking out for creeps— people get blacklisted from the bar. I feel like women are kind of running the show. You know, we work hard to kinda create a warm environment where people feel comfortable.” (Like, really comfortable.)

Over the years, Union Pool has sometimes been identified as a punk bar, sometimes as a rockabilly bar. (“Oh, the rockabilly days,” groans Stewart.) On the strength of good booking practices, it’s also a bar where you can say you saw famous bands “before they were big” — ever the favorite brag of former hipsters, and current music nerds. (In addition to the YYYs, Union Pool saw performances by Grizzly Bear, !!!, and practically every band that ever booked a CMJ showcase.) But throughout, it was always a bar where you could meet, mingle, make out. And while its reputation was swiftly established, its peak didn’t arrive until perhaps 2004–2007 — funnily enough, the years when it was still socially acceptable, maybe even cool, to shop at Urban Outfitters. “Those were the best days,” Koch says.

In those halcyon days — before the Apps, before the one-person-in-the-bathroom-at-a-time policy, and back when that girl still sold tamales from a cooler — it felt like a club and a house party, reminisces Stewart: both environments conducive to free … interactions. In terms of hookup accoutrements, it offered a reliably good dance party (bodies on bodies), plus the “romantic” allure of a fire pit in the backyard. “So many people reminisce about going home smelling like smoke,” Stewart says. “We could still get away with something totally illegal like a fire pit back then.”

It was a dark bar with plentiful hidden corners: “Oh, I think the dimly lit area and the labyrinth of rooms makes for a mystery,” says Ilana Rubin, 28, a comedian and actor. “You never know what corner you’re going to turn and encounter two people very sneakily trying to finger each other.” (“Under the skirt and everything!” she added, with a sense of wonder undimmed by the passage of time.)

A quick survey of the comments section on Brooklyn Vegan reviews of the mid-aughts shows at Union Pool reveals less conversation about the bands and more discussion of the threesome someone had in the bathroom. When New York wrote up the bar in 2005, the reviewer noted that “weekends get crowded in a thirsty kind of way” — which was either a reference to how long it took to get a drink, or else a stunningly prescient use of 2018 slang.

By 2008, Union Pool’s habitat was changing. High-rise condos were opening nearby; Kellogg’s, the 24-hour diner down the street, had gotten a slick makeover; and American Apparel was at its peak, selling sexy hipster spandex in 200 stores worldwide. It was around this time that Union Pool made an appearance in an infamous piece of hateable-hipster lore: the tale of Kari Ferrell, a.k.a. the Hipster Grifter. Ferrell scammed her way from Utah (where she was wanted for fraud, theft, and writing $60,000 in bad checks) to Brooklyn, where she lied her way into a job at Vice, and proceeded — with the help of her “I [Heart] Beards” tattoo — to pick up men across the borough, only to lie to them, manipulate them, and eventually just steal from them. Ferrell is a legend, and naturally Union Pool featured in her tale. In 2009, the Observer described one of her would-be marks: “A guy named Troy was at Union Pool, the Williamsburg bar, when the bartender passed him a note from another customer. It read, ‘I want to give you a hand job with my mouth, and was signed ‘Korean Abdul-Jabbar.’”

As Williamsburg emerged from the aughts and into the teens, Complex spent a couple years mocking the decline of Union Pool. In a 2012 listicle of the “25 Lamest Hipster Bars in NYC,” the magazine wrote: “Though previously a legitimately cool spot where you might see the Rapture perform unannounced, it’s now a poor simulacrum of what once was. Look no further than the pulsing heart of the bar: a taco truck — yes, a truck — permanently caged inside the yard’s walls like a hipster culture mausoleum. It’s a faint assurance of the eventual decline of this culture, or perhaps this civilization. Decent tacos, though, all things considered.” By 2013, perhaps reflecting the neighborhood’s demographic tilt toward “bro,” Complex reclassified it among the “douchiest.” By 2014, Urban Outfitters had opened with a trendy restaurant and a liquor license over off the Bedford L stop.

But, even though a cluster of euro-bro EDM clubs and a Sweetgreen have all but wiped out the remnants of hipster civilization, somehow Union Pool endures. It still appears on Time Out New York lists for best bars to hook up in, as “ye olde hook-up classic.” If you Google “Good bars, New York,” or “where to get laid in New York,” Union Pool remains a top hit — much to the chagrin of Union Pool bartenders, says Kerry Lacy, who’s worked there since 2012. “To be honest, the ‘meat market’ aspect of Union Pool is by far the least interesting thing about it. We all pretty much ignore it.”

But “meat market” sounds dark, and instead there’s something almost heartwarmingly optimistic, sort of democratic, about the reliability of Union Pool. At Union Pool, anyone can feel a little like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: You get older, and Union Pool stays the same. Maybe it’s the comfort of a placebo effect (of course things’ll work out tonight — you’re at Union Pool!); maybe it’s just that people will always want places to dance, drink, and try to get laid. Or maybe it’s that there are just enough honest-to-god Union Pool success stories to give it a sweetly scuzzy, STD-laced sense of hope.

Take Connie Wang, 30. “My future husband and I had met once before and didn’t hit it off,” she remembers. “It wasn’t until we found each other six months later, under the influence of Union Pool and all the booze, bad judgment, and bonfires that come with it, that we both saw each other in another (okay fine, hornier) light.”

Classic Union Pool.

Order Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant, Despicable: 50 Years of New York, a celebratory book chronicling the magazine’s history with powerful images and behind-the-scenes stories from staff and subjects.

An Ode to Union Pool, the Best-Worst Hookup Bar in New York