Death of the Neighborhood Tavern
A small, confusing item appeared at Brewbound today. Chris Furnari and Justin Kendall reported that "one in six neighborhood bars have closed since 2004, according to a new Nielsen CGA report." This was, Neilsen's Matthew Compton said, "a huge figure." I don't actually see how it is. I'm not sure what the data source is and what the comps are, but if you tot up the number of pubs, neighborhood bars, brewpubs, and brewery taprooms and compare that to the figure in 2004, I have to guess it's way higher now. It certainly is in cities.
But the interesting use of the phrase "neighborhood bar" reminds me that there is one major change happening across America's cities: the loss of the old American tavern. I am perhaps in mind of these establishments thanks to my trip down memory lane yesterday, back to the terrible bar food of the 1980s. But the Brewbound piece sent a pang of melancholy shooting through my heart. Those bars are not today's gastropubs and alehouses. They lived on the cheaper fringes of neighborhoods, usually in old, decrepit, sometimes barely-permittable buildings like this:
That photo, and the one at the top of the post come from a little exercise I started six years ago called the Portland Tavern Project. It started while I was writing the Beer Bible and needed to take lengthy constitutionals to clear my mind. I've always loved old bars, which are as crusty and full of character as the people you find inside. As I was trotting around the neighborhood, I'd snap a photo whenever I came across one. It didn't take long before I realized that some of the photos in my collection were taken shortly before a pub closed down. Smokey's, out on Foster Road, and Lucky's, which was just down the street from me, are both gone now.
Bars like this have always been vulnerable, and churn is high. They're low-margin businesses that depend on volume sales and low rent. In cities across America, both trends are working against the neighborhood tavern. With more and more places to drink, dive bars don't get the traffic they did twenty years ago. More significantly, as the middle class leaves the suburbs to return to the city, rents are on the rise in the urban core. Portland has always had a far higher proportion of these old pubs than most cities, but rent in the inner neighborhoods has been skyrocketing for five years. Smokey's is now a cannabis dispensary, and Lucky's is a vacant lot--almost certainly a future apartment building.
A few more ghosts from my collection:
Closed in January to make room for a mixed-use building.
These old watering holes were never the kinds of places that inspired deep love (with a few exceptions), and they vanish without much mourning. There is no doubt that the landscape of drinking establishments we have now is far superior in just about every way. (The food's better, the beer's better, the environment is more family- and community-oriented.) Neighborhood taverns play their role, though. You can find a cheap pint there, and in places like Portland, you'll even find plenty of decent choices. The ambiance of the dive bar is welcome to many of us, who actually like dank little holes lit by the glow of lottery games. I grant that this is a niche aesthetic, but I also love their weird little shapes and sizes.
But whether we love them or hate them, we're losing them pretty fast. It is the way of things. Societies change, and popular businesses sometimes go the way of the automat. I need to get out there and capture images of those that still exist, because many won't be there for long.