(So not to single anyone out, I decided to not include any specific names or locations.)
Let me preface this by saying that I like what we generally classify as dive bars. They’re easy going in terms of functionality and generally easy to fit into as long as you’re not an asshole. By definition, they’re non-pretentious, cheap, blissfully simple in terms of beer selection, and at often times convenient for chain smokers who are looking for a cheap buzz in a casual social setting, not to mention that you’re likely to have a genuine conversation on any given topic with the person you end up sitting next to. In short, they serve their much needed purpose.
However, that purpose is slowly changing due to Philly’s golden era of gentrification. As the local beer demand for up-and-coming neighborhoods change from Schmidt’s beer and Citywide specials to craft IPAs and special ales (not to mention the increasing expense of property tax and rent), what were once known as the neighborhood dive bars are being put in an awkward position to slowly keep up with the increasingly varied requests for something “more hoppy” or “more palatable” to the incoming millennials that are becoming the predominant client for these “quaint” and “tucked away” booze houses.
Let me ask you something first… What traits do you consider make a bar “divey”? Telling by the age of the person I ask that question to, I’ll get one of two answers. The first being from a 20-something-post-grad named Mark that I met at what I consider to be a deceitful dive bar (a deceitful dive bar is a bar for hipsters to pay premium prices for beer, a full menu with items such as Duck Poutine Fries, and very little decor, giving off the impression that the bar has no time, or money, to improve the general ambiance when they actually do). Mark was a slim-fit city punk with an intense stare that explained his sculpted physique and bulging veins. His arms resembled those of someone just finishing a free-weight workout with dumbbells that his body couldn’t handle if it weren’t for sheer anger and intensity. What I assumed was his natural sitting stance gave off the impression that he was ready to fist fight me had I stared at his homemade Bad Brains T-shirt for too long. When he overheard a friend and I discussing this very topic, he intervened with “How the fuck is this not a dive bar? And how the fuck would you know?” After I pointed out the price point on his beer and the ludicrous profit margin on an artisan grilled cheese with Brie and sliced pear, he didn’t take long to make his rebuttal:
“It’s better than going to these hipster wine bars that’re taking over. You’re telling me that if I’d walk into one of those places I wouldn’t be stared down by all of those scumbag yuppies?”
For the sake of discussion, I humored Mark and let him go on about the quality of people of which he is accustomed to seeing at his bar of choice. In short, they resembled people like himself in terms of income, attire, and social demeanor. So let’s say that Mark did, in fact, walk into one of the new wine bars that are “popping up” in various neighborhoods going through the same gentrification as his. Let’s also say that he was immediately greeted with the very same odd looks and stares that he claims he would receive from the supposed usual suspects at said wine bar. Patrons like the yoga instructor fresh out of class, the law students who are much too busy to look up from their tinder profiles, the metropolitan mothers with baby strollers in tow, and the random guy with the well-tamed ponytail that I seem to run into at every hip booze spot. Would receiving such treatment validate his generalization of non-dive types? Would he, in return, treat anyone resembling this criteria with the same confused looks and stares if they came into “his” bar? Telling by personal experience, I’d say that Mark would greet those suspects with the same judgmental cynicism and intense looks he originally greeted me with. It seems as if this notion of exclusivity, belonging, and not belonging, burrows itself into any bar with a predetermined class of clientele, regardless of what kind of bar they are.
On the other hand there’s Sharon (pronounced “Shern” by her preference). A food service member in her early fifties who I asked this very question to while waiting to meet some friends who lived near her self-proclaimed “spot” near Temple Campus. A bar that I could see was in the beginning phases of evolution (or downfall, depending on how you look at it) telling by their extensive beer and food menus and varied clientele of undergrads, bar crawl joggers¹, and, well, me. When I asked her about what made this place in particular a dive, she smirked before downing her second shot of house tequila and playfully winking at a man at the juke box who clearly chose the right song.
“I don’t give a fuck what [a dive bar] is. This place is cheap and I just drink here to get fucked up before work.”
There were two more instances where I received the same answer in similarly decorated bars. What I mostly noticed was the indifference that a dive’s long-time regulars associate with their neighborhood watering hole. Whenever I got far enough into a conversation with one of them and asked what was important to the ambiance of a bar, they’d more or less shrug in indifference and immediately stress the importance of pricing.
It seems that the only people I’ve seen that were so passionate about the details of their local bar were people like Mark. Millennial hipsters who romanticize the structures they see as manifestations of their status in society, whether it be a hole-in-the-wall dive in Kensington with six beer selections or a rooftop cocktail bar in Center City with a “mixologist” serving drinks instead of a bartender.
If our preference in bar decor is a representation of who we are as individuals, then we should embrace the fact that there’s a bar for everyone in Philadelphia. What we shouldn’t embrace is the exclusivity that some of us (and our bars) try to implicate. Not to sound like Mr. Fucking Rogers, but the notion of treating someone as if they’re out of their element by coming into “your” bar or club is, for the most part, bad for business and counterproductive towards expanding our collective culture as Philadelphians. Much like those long, dehumanizing lines outside of a night club you’d see in Center City, a lot of us are alienating others from joining us for a beer as well as a possibly enlightening conversation.
I’m not so much making an argument that there aren’t any real dive bars in Philly anymore, because that’s not the case. Although it may be harder and harder to find it as we gentrify our neighborhoods, you can still enjoy a cheap buzz with a genuine conversation in any Philly neighborhood. What we can’t deny, though, is that with the changing of neighborhoods comes the changing of clientele. And with the changing of clientele, comes the changing of local demand. If that demand is anything like what I’ve noticed, it’s up to both the bars and us as patrons on how we approach this changing market and help create what will become our local drinking scene.
¹Jogging Bar Crawls are a relatively new concept to me where like-minded running enthusiast get together for predetermined routes that are peppered with various stops at local bars. Not to sound like Ron Burgundy, but apparently you just run… for an extended period of time… and drink beer. It’s supposed to be wild.