Prohibition & 21 Club

Creators
Allison Hall, Ellie Horowitz, and Tal Rozen

Transcript
In 1920 the US Congress passed the 18th Amendment making production, distribution, and public consumption of alcohol illegal. The introduction of these new laws sparked a thirteen year period of Prohibition Era liquor speakeasies. From the start it was clear that outlawing alcohol was an unwinnable war and criminals quickly got involved; most notably gangsters. Tirelessly, police and federal agents would raid speakeasies dumping, smashing, and confiscating the alcohol. Despite the law’s efforts, bootleggers, criminals, and common folk found many unique ways to persist. Hiding alcohol under clothes, in secret rooms, and using code words were common ways people avoided being caught. New York City had an estimated 32,000 speakeasies during Prohibition and crime rose drastically between gangsters wanting to control more and more of the supply. Due to unregulated alcohol being made by bootleggers many people also died consuming it or were left permanently harmed. The United States Government was trying to tame an untamable beast.

One of the most famous speakeasies in New York City is known as 21 Club. Easily spotted from the street the Club’s iron balcony and staircase is decorated and lined with 30 colorful jockeys. The establishment was founded by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns and still remains an icon at 21 West 52nd Street.

Jack and Charlie managed to escape Prohibition without ever being caught by federal agents. This is likely due to an innovative system of pulleys and levers they created. When a raid was suspected they would initiate their system to knock bottles off shelves in the bar and then sweep the glass quickly down a chute and into the New York sewer system. Another reason they managed to avoid police is because of a secret wine cellar which can still be seen today. Formerly hidden by hanging meats and canned goods, the wine cellar is behind a two and half ton door that can only be unlocked with a meat skewer through a small hole located on one of the bricks in the door. The cousin’s went even further in their ingenuity by putting the cellar next door at 19 West 52nd Street instead of at 21 where the bar was. This made it almost impossible for suspicious raiders to find alcohol. Today, the wine cellar holds thousands of vintage wines, rare liquors, and is home to the private collections of famous Americans such as Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Sammy Davis Jr., and many more.

Since December 5, 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, 21 Club stands in place serving as an historic landmark and an upscale restaurant. According to the speakeasy turned restaurant, 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues was nicknamed “Swing Street” as it was once filled with over 30 speakeasies. However, it’s unlikely you’ll find another speakeasy on the block with as much history still intact as 21 Club.

Bibliography and credits
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