Is it last call for the independent neighborhood tavern?

“Steve believed the corner bar to be the most egalitarian of all American gathering places, and he knew that Americans have always venerated their bars, saloons, taverns, and ‘gin mills,’ one of his favorite expressions. He knew that Americans invest their bars with meaning and turn to them for everything from glamour to succor, and above all for relief from that scourge of modern life—loneliness. He didn’t know that the Puritans, upon landing in the New World, built a bar even before they built a church.” — “The Tender Bar,” J.R. Moehringer
 

In his 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar,” J.R. Moehringer recounts how the local tavern in Manhasset, Long Island, where he grew up, served as his home away from home, with all of the people who frequented it nurturing him and helping him grow into the man he is today. “Americans have always venerated their bars,” Moehringer writes.

That is, until recently. Times change, and so does, apparently, where Americans like to stop for a drink. For better or worse, the independent neighborhood tavern is disappearing from the American landscape. According to a recent article in USA Today, “Neighborhood taverns, which for generations were cornerstones of Chicago’s ethnic communities, are being squeezed out by the economy, gentrification, changing tastes and city regulations that make it more difficult to operate in residential areas.” The article goes on to say that in Chicago, the number of tavern licenses has dwindled from 3,300 in 1990 to about 1,200 today.

And the U.S. is not alone. Even in the U.K., where the neighborhood pub has been even more important to the social fabric, a similar trend is playing out. Six British pubs were closing every day, according to one recent survey, a trend attributed to the smoking ban, the huge discounts for alcohol offered by retail chains, and, of course, the effects of the recession on extra spending money.

Here in the U.S., a big part of the reason also has been the proliferation of national chain restaurants, with their flashier, brightly lit bars and big-screen TVs. I’d venture another reason as well—the rise of social media. In “The Tender Bar,” Moehringer describes how the other bar-goers became his extended family. Log onto Facebook today and our lists of friends have become the digital equivalent. That’s not to say we don’t still want to see them in the flesh to hoist a real, not a virtual, pint. But with all that Facebooking, friending, Tweeting and FarmVilleing, how much time does that leave for a trip down to the neighborhood bar?

Is this for better or for worse? I’d argue it’s for the worse. America has become a country where people of different political persuasions or different social strata rarely come into contact with one another. And that is an important ingredient for a healthy democracy to function. To mull this issue or that over a beer with your neighbors at the corner bar used to be as important as the U.S. Senate debating and filtering down the latest piece of legislation. Just think of all the mulling we’ve been missing. 

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