Excerpt from AMERICA WALKS INTO A BAR

 

Bars are where people gather and talk. And drink. And alcohol leads to more talking, more drinking, and, under certain circumstances, a heightened level of outrage and commitment to action. Since its early beginnings as a humble one-room tavern with a simple wood bench for visitors, the bar served as an extension of the town hall—an American innovation and its earliest great contribution to democracy. At times, it was the town hall. Going at least as far back as the early eighteenth century, when some Boston rebels began agitating in smoke-filled taverns, groups denied access to legitimate and sanctioned forms of political representation have taken to the saloon.


In an age when everything from tapioca to quilting has been touted as an overlooked agent that has helped shape history, it’s tempting to soft-sell the importance of the American bar. Like its close cousins, the coffee-houses of Paris and London, however, the bar was where the public proved itself—often with less sobriety—capable of economic and political self-determination.
It may be hard imagining bars as serving the same critical function in this age, when we frequent them to enjoy relatively bourgeois pursuits—sampling haute-cocktail creations at the spate of New York bars such as Milk and Honey, Angel’s Share, PDT, and Death & Co.. It’s tasty and fun and can’t help but seem a little frivolous compared with the Sons of Liberty meetings, Democratic-Republican insurrections, Anarchist bomb plots, labor movements, feminist sit-ins and the events leading up to Stonewall, the cornerstone for the gay revolution.


Yet America still struggles with the public space that is the bar. In 2006, for example, when the Katrina Hurricane Relief Bill was passed, a rider was attached, spearheaded by Congressman Frank Wolf, that excluded bars from applying for aid or tax breaks on the grounds that they contributed nothing to the community. Many in New Orleans will tell you the opposite was true, especially those who sought refuge in bars in the many weeks of chaos. In New York and other urban areas across the country, an aging and gentrifying population repeatedly clashes with bar clientele over a number of issues, including the noise, brawls, and vomit that will sometimes spill from these fun houses. The struggle manifests itself in court-induced closures and polarizing neighborhood battles over issues such as babies in bars, sexual assaults, and proximity to places of worship.


No doubt that there are legitimate concerns over the competing needs of urban dwellers—between those who still feel bars poison those who can’t help themselves and those who value them as spaces where grassroots programs are nourished. When I first stumbled on a few seemingly disparate events that spilled out of a bar, tavern, or saloon—the Revolution, the Shay’s Rebellion, labor movements, Anarchism—I decided to embark on a pub crawl through American history. Early research uncovered no end to these seemingly disconnected events becoming connected. It almost seemed as if everything that had ever happened in America had happened in a bar. These events no longer seemed disassociated. The inner logic of the tavern rabble-rousers was, in fact, what produced the early American public sphere. And, after the Revolution, America continued to redefine itself in that same space, be it the country’s numerous taverns, saloons, juke joints, grog-shops, blind pigs, speakeasy night clubs, and, eventually, post-prohibition bars of all stripes.


America, as we know it, was born in a bar. And the struggle over the tavern has been more than just a struggle over where to drink and with whom—it has been the struggle over a nation’s destiny.

 

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