Saving the Dive Bars: Give them landmark status

Charles Bukowski, patron saint of dive bars

Charles Bukowski, patron saint of dive bars


Does the bathroom have a working lock? Is it stocked with toilet paper?
Are there more wine options than red or white? Are there growlers? More than one kind of bitters? Is anyone wearing a bow tie?
If you could answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions, it’s not a dive bar.

A dive bar doesn’t serve drinks with fresh herbs, it doesn’t have free wifi, and it definitely doesn’t have the words ‘dive bar’ in its name. What it does have are flinty bartenders and cheap drinks. Its walls exude the decades-old vestiges of smoke and beer; so do the seedy midday regulars who slide down the bar to make way for an after-work cross section of construction workers and executives. It’s also a dying breed.

The death of the dive bar is a familiar story to residents of our increasingly gentrified cities.
Dive bars are neighborhood relics occupying shabby spaces that scream ‘deferred maintenance,’ while commercial rents climb and shiny condo towers rise around them. Eventually they fall victim to a hot real estate market and the disappearance of gritty and grizzled neighborhood denizens, the daily daytime drinkers who are a bar’s purest expression of its divey-ness.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
No gastropub, cocktail lounge, or new-fangled speakeasy can take its place. A dive bar is part of a city’s unsanitized, unhomogenized past. The new urbanism tends to erase and eliminate the very things that give a city its character. When a dive bar closes, a neighborhood loses a little piece of its soul.

In rapidly gentrifying cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, local preservationists hope to safeguard dive bars through landmark designations.
They argue that a city’s legacy businesses should be seen as the metaphorical cousins of architectural landmarks, equally worthy of preservation because of their cultural and historical significance. A landmark designation will usually entitle the businesses and their landlords to preservation funds, special financing, and favorable tax status, which is a tough sell to cash-strapped city governments.

Some residents, city officials, and landmark commissions look at a dive bar and see a sketchy, rundown watering hole that stands in the way of change and progress. Others see a living, breathing emblem of a city’s heritage, and one that can continue to contribute to the intangible but invaluable character of its cultural fabric.

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