If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

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.

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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.
















9 comments:

J Tom Field said...

Darn it! Opium and prostitution was what I should have been doing to keep the doors open.

Pete Dunlop said...

I think it is definitely true that the recollection of grubby, often seedy taverns helped drive beer consumption into homes following Prohibition. Improved packaging and transportation also helped with that. This happened everywhere, including Portland. It seems to me craft beer got people back in pubs, now brewpubs, which were, as you say, clean, open, better-lit, family-friendly, etc. Taverns never full went away in post-Prohibition Portland, but our modern pub culture owes much to craft beer. Places like the Black Cat became largely obsolete in the new landscape, for better or worse.

Rick said...

Cruised past Dreams and Memories this weekend, and its name looks to be more literal than figurative at this point as well. Viva El Gato Negro, it was a decent place to catch a buzz.

Gary Gillman said...

Excellent article. However, I truly believe a bar is a bar is a bar. The 1800's pubs in England and their successors, glittering or not (and America had its counterparts to the gaudy gin palaces particularly in Nevada and California) were places where some people enjoyed a drink and some people abused it. Just like in those Western saloons and their clapboard post WW-II successors.

I like the word "provisional" though, very good.

Gary

Gary Gillman said...

And I like the friendly commercialism of the "Reel 'Em In" name, that's good.

But Jeff: in a lifetime of casual interest in regional American foods I never heard of a "jo-jo". Can you explain?

Gary

Morgan said...

Actually, windows of bars/taverns were boarded up in post-prohibition because the state mandated it. I think the legislature repealed in the late-1970s. Many old bars had full plate glass windows underneath a false wall of plywood and stucco. For example, the Laurelthirst got it's widows back when the current owners took it over in 1990.

ElGordo said...

I'd say the notion that the older taverns don't serve any useful purpose is a bit classist. True, you and I may only have frequented them in our younger days because they were affordable there was a lack of better options, but there's a lack of a barrier to entry to these places that makes for a bit more interesting and diverse clientele than many of the craft-focused establishments tend to attract.

I spent a good many nights at the Black Cat back in my school days, and many more nights at the Lutz on Woodstock. Getting to know the staff and the old timers in those places was a pleasure (even if they disliked us Reed kids for slumming it). Folks like that aren't really hanging out at the Laurelwood these days, or even the Horse Brass. And even so, as the ongoing series over at A Pint for Dionysus points out, a lot of the old school taverns now sport decent beer selections. Cheap, convivial, downscale places are likely to always have a role in all but the fanciest neighborhoods in town. The fact that a lot of them are going away and being displaced by more upscale options points to a parallel trend of increasing economic stratification in our society.

Jeff Alworth said...

Gary, I can't agree with you there. Every country has a different pub culture, and pubs fit in a different way in every culture. Old American taverns are definitely not the same as English taverns (or German beer halls or Belgian cafes).

El Gordo, on the "classist" comment, I think you're right. The thought passed my mind as I was musing about these, and I sort of decided the difference was as much aesthetics as anything. But that's just clearly wrong. Part of it is the way different classes of people use drinking holes. In a way, session drinking happens a lot more at old-school taverns than at brewpubs where many/most people drop in an have a couple pints.

I still drop into the odd old tavern, but the Black Cat's too far south to visit anymore. I have been impressed by taplists, too. I had in the back of my head this idea of issuing challenges to other cities about how good the beer in their dive bars are. I was thinking of selecting a few that are really divey and quite far out and heading in to see what was on tap. My guess is they have better selections than many pubs in the center of other cities. Like so many ideas, I haven't gotten around to it.

Ben said...

Your comment about the role of taverns in U.S. history may be true for Oregon, but it sure doesn't apply everywhere. In America's first "Western" frontier--the Allegenies and the Ohio River Valley--taverns served a respectable role. Families could eat in taverns. Community meetings were held there. Hell, most of the time court was held in the tavern.

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