Back to the list

How PubKey Revived Bitcoin Culture in New York City

source-logo  coindesk.com 22 February 2024 20:56, UTC

“Welcome home.”

That’s what Thomas Pacchia said to me as I entered his bar, PubKey, located below street level in Greenwich Village, New York City, one frigid night in late-2023.

Pacchia’s words resonated deeply with me, as I hadn’t yet realized how much I’d come to appreciate that the bar had begun to feel like a home away from home — or at least an oasis — in a jurisdiction that many Bitcoin enthusiasts have fled in the wake of both the implementation of the BitLicense and the onset of COVID.

Thursday night meetups and programming at PubKey (a play on the term “public key,” a technology that uses asymmetric encryption to validate data on Bitcoin) have become a part of my weekly ritual.

The bar’s quirky yet inviting atmosphere makes it a great place to catch up with other Bitcoin enthusiasts. Its dimly-lit and orange-tinged front room, lined with brick walls painted black, has a dive-y feel, though the environment still feels tidy and well-manicured.

Toward the end of the bar closest to the entrance is the PubKey shrine, replete with Bitcoin memorabilia, literature and tchotchkes. Its centerpiece is a “Buy ₿itcoin” sign, number four of a series of 21 from the “Bitcoin Sign Guy”, Christian Langalis, who was famously captured in a photo holding an identical sign while sitting behind Janet Yellen during her tenure as chair of the Federal Reserve.

As you head toward the back of the bar, you pass through a smaller room filled with whimsical bitcoin-themed posters and signs as well as a photo booth and a retro arcade table, before entering the more spacious back room, which Pacchia calls “the attic”, presumably because of the angular shape of the ceiling. This is where the bar holds its Bitcoin meet-ups, and it’s also where you’ll hear from some bigger names in the Bitcoin space who have presented to upwards of 60 people in the room.

I recently attended an event at the bar in which Bitcoin evangelists Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert provided an overview of what they described as the Bitcoin-fueled “Renaissance 2.0” happening in El Salvador and another in which James Seyffart, Bloomberg ETF analyst, demystified the mechanics of the new spot bitcoin ETFs.

It’s rare to catch such notable voices in the Bitcoin space in such an intimate environment.

So, what inspired Pacchia to create this type of venue in a city that’s been anything but kind to Bitcoin?

“New York is home,” says Pacchia, who grew up in New Jersey but has been based in New York for some time. “I love New York. It’s one of the best cities on the planet, and it’s not perfect — like anywhere else. But there’s a lot of good stuff here.”

And maybe he’s biased, but Pacchia simply doesn’t buy it when he hears people say New York’s best days are behind it.

“The only thing that’s been declared dead more often than Bitcoin is New York City,” he says.

He would know just how often Bitcoin has been counted out over the years, as he’s been in the Bitcoin space for well over a decade.

“The first time I read about Bitcoin was in the Wired article in November 2011,” says Pacchia, referring to one of the first major articles published on Bitcoin. “Then, I was very skeptical, but, you know, it was like a mind virus and stuck with [me]. When I reached a certain threshold, I was like, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ That happened in late 2013.”

At that point, he decided to pursue a Master’s in Finance — his third graduate degree after JD and LLM degrees.

The program brought him to Hong Kong, where he witnessed the importance of one of Bitcoin’s most oft-promised use cases — remittance payments.

“In Hong Kong, Sunday is the day off for most domestic helpers,” says Pacchia. “There’s a very bittersweet thing that happens every Sunday where you have lots of women from Indonesia and [the] Philippines [who] would just sort of put out space and party. It was fun and really cool — a lot of karaoke machines and dancing and stuff like that. But in the backdrop was always a Western Union [sign] advertising 20% remittance [fees for payments] back to the Philippines. That was a really galvanizing moment for me.”

Upon returning to New York, Pacchia began working in the finance sector for Bitcoin-friendly companies like Fidelity and Digital Asset Holdings. This was around the time that the BitLicense went into effect.

“I think a decent [number] of [Bitcoin] builders left [New York] because it was hostile,” says Pacchia.

During the years that followed, Bitcoin culture in New York City was mostly kept alive by BitDevs NYC, a community composed predominantly of Bitcoin developers.

“The bedrock of Bitcoin in New York is definitely BitDevs,” explains Pacchia. “BitDevs kept the focus on Bitcoin, which was really important, because in 2016 [through] 2018, there was a lot of money flowing into Ethereum. Consensys [hosted] lots of mixers. There was crypto Mondays and Ripple stuff and Cardano stuff, and there was lots of money being thrown around by VCs to have events. It’s easy for people to get distracted by shiny objects, and Bitcoin didn’t really have a shine to it.”

During this era, Pacchia hosted an event at the bar called Formerly Crow’s — which was at PubKey’s location before PubKey.

“I would [host] ‘Crypto at the Crow’,” Pacchia says. “It would be about 20 or 30 people that had a happy hour here, and [we discussed] almost all Bitcoin stuff. [The meetings] were informal and not necessarily organized.”

That was when Pacchia started hosting Bitcoin meetups for the less technically inclined.

COVID challenged both groups.

“COVID hit [and] a lot of the public-facing influencers went to Austin [or] Nashville,” Pacchia says. “BitDevs wasn’t able to meet. Consistency is key for these meetups, and that shook some people out.”

But in the fall of 2022, Pacchia, along with his two partners, Greg Minasian and Andrew Newman, opened PubKey — without a single one of them having much idea of what they were getting into.

“None of us had any hospitality background or experience,” Pacchia says.

Today, he says the old bitcoiner/new bitcoiner split is about 50/50. But the recent ramp up in prices has definitely brought more And still they’ve made it work, as the bar attracts a steady stream of seasoned Bitcoin veterans and those new to Bitcoin.

Bitcoin-curious through the doors.

“It really started to pick up in October-November [2023],” says Pacchia. “That’s where we went from 20 people at a meet-up to consistently 40 or so. Now, on Thursdays, we get people across the entire Bitcoin [and] crypto industry [as well as those in] TradFi.”

“Being in a Bitcoin environment allows me to meet up with people that are like minded,” says Isaac, a meet-up regular. “If I have a question or I’m interested in something, it gives me an opportunity to brainstorm it with people that are familiar. PubKey has created a very warm environment.”

When I asked Pacchia if he thought it might have been easier to do what he’s done with PubKey in a friendlier jurisdiction outside New York), he said:

“We want to be beachheads. We want to plant a flag in the sand. Bitcoiners need more playmakers. We need people [who] are just going to do stuff. Stepping up and doing a thing is hard, but it’s worth it — and I think that Bitcoiners [get that].”