A portrait in the Half King of the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who died while on assignment in Libya. Credit Photographs by Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
By Derek M. Norman
It was a late-April evening in 2011 when news broke that two photographers were killed by a mortar blast in the besieged city of Misurata, one of the last anti-Qaddafi rebel strongholds of the Libyan civil war.
Calls were made. Texts were exchanged. Word spread that these two seasoned conflict photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed in action, and their closest friends and colleagues were meeting to regroup and attempt to digest the tragic news together at a familiar spot: a small bar nestled just below the High Line on the corner of 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.
“We’re meeting at the Half King,” a text would read. Before long, the shocked and devastated had arrived to grieve at this impromptu meeting place by the hundreds. Friends and colleagues cried together. Acquaintances embraced in grief. And strangers shook hands, bonding over tragedy.
“It seemed like there were hundreds of people there, without exaggeration,” said Timothy Fadek, a New York-based photojournalist who was close with Mr. Hondros. “But when I think about who was there, I can’t even remember it. It was all such a blur. We were all just so enveloped in our grief. That was really telling about the Half King — how it organically developed into a locus for war photographers and photojournalists.”
A spotlighted portrait of Mr. Hetherington equipped with his camera and standing in front of armed Liberian rebels has since hung alone on a portion of the wall at the far corner of the bar.
The Half King, a bar and restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, has been for the better part of two decades a watering hole for writers, photographers and filmmakers. On a given afternoon, you might have seen journalists and their editors discussing projects over coffee at one of the pub’s wooden booths. You may have passed publicists sharing baskets of jalapeño poppers with prospective authors in the adjacent dining room. You may have overheard war-hardened combat photographers swapping violent scenes of faraway places over $5 happy hour draft beers along the lengthy stretch of bar top.
But after Jan. 26, the Half King, along with its in-house reading series and photography exhibits, will permanently close. With the bar’s rent having nearly tripled since it opened almost two decades ago, the market value of the neighborhood’s commercial real estate had finally caught up to the owners, and the bar, according to them, had become financially unsustainable.
“For the last few years, the only reason this place still existed is because we loved it,” said Sebastian Junger, a co-owner of the Half King, longtime war journalist and author of “The Perfect Storm.” “We wanted to take one last stand against the ‘generification’ of New York City. It finally got to the point that we were actively losing money and we just couldn’t sustain that for very long. I can’t imagine opening another bar, because we’d face the same headwinds that this one is being forced closed by.”
While not the only bar in New York City that caters to the arts — KGB Bar still hosts regular readings and bars like the Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor in Greenwich Village organize art exhibits — it filled a unique niche.