Death of a Tavern

The Black Cat Tavern died over the weekend.  It was somewhere north of 70.  When England loses pubs, it makes the national news (and apparently has for decades).  Those institutions are a part of the fabric of society, and they are often splendid, wood-paneled, fire-heated old spaces in historic buildings.  When they close, a neighborhood mourns.

Old American taverns have a much different status.  We were a drunken, frontier country and taverns--especially those out on the western fringes (like Oregon)--were often dangerous places that did side businesses in opium and prostitution.  They helped beget Prohibition, which had lingering effects in the Depression era that followed. Taverns had a marginal status, and cities didn't want them in proper neighborhoods.  Breweries were busy separating themselves from saloon culture and "evil" liquor, too.  From its very earliest days, Anheuser-Busch offered its product in special corked bottles, and after prohibition, canning allowed breweries to continue to promote home consumption.  Breweries didn't show drinkers at a cozy pub--they showed them enjoying the beer at home.

Unlike English pubs, American taverns have always been located in cheap, often provisional buildings.   They often had no windows, boarded up windows, or at best small windows--not so patrons couldn't see out, but so respectable people couldn't see the evils within.  Craft brewing has had a fantastic influence on drinking culture in the United States, and even more so in Portland.  The McMenamins have been busily buying up some of the city's most interesting properties.  Brewpubs are airy and well-lit, children friendly.  The old taverns like the Black Cat are throw-backs, places for canned beer and cigarettes in an age when it's illegal to smoke and people want better beer.  They have been going through the same kind of attrition English pubs have, but there's no nostalgia for them, no mourning the loss.

I spent many a fine evening in what we now call dive bars in my youth--and I spent quite a few in the Black Cat in my twenties.  I'm not entirely sure that it offered anything today's twenty-somethings can't find in better brewpubs and ale houses, and I don't know that these taverns serve any useful purpose.  The Black Cat's owner is tearing the old building down to make way for "a four-story building with street-level  retail and 21 apartments."  This is the fate of taverns as their neighborhoods become less fringey and the land begins to have real value.  (Look at that picture of the Black Cat--the building's a wreck.)  Of course, if you did spend any time in those old places, you can't help but feel depressed when one comes down.  Over the course of the rest of my lifetime, I suspect most of them will be plowed under--and few newspaper articles will lament their loss.  It's a better beer world we live in now, but still.  But still.


About two years ago, as a way of clearing my mind while working on The Beer Bible, I would walk around the city.  I've always loved the bizarre architecture of old taverns, and I started snapping photos with my phone on those walks (a practice I've continued).  I'll put a few of those below the fold so you spend a few minutes in your own nostalgic reverie.