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Inside Los Angeles' Mandrake Bar.
Inside Los Angeles' Mandrake Bar.
Stan Lee

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What’s Happened to the Great American Dive Bar?

These neighborhood staples are slowly vanishing

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Gray wafts of cigarette smoke clung to the wooden ceiling inside the Flamingo Sports Bar on a warm mid-March evening. A pair of locals with wiry gray ponytails stand on opposite ends of a pool table, each wielding a cue stick in one hand and a pint of golden suds in the other. Gut-busting "Ooooohhweeees" reverberate throughout this historic St. Petersburg, Florida haunt, the prized possession of Dale Nichols, which he’s operated since returning from Vietnam in 1969. Here, the "Jack Kerouac Shot and Beer" special runs $2.25, barely enough to make a dent in patrons’ wallets.

Such a scene could have been ripped from some B-rated '80s flick or your uncle’s memorable heydays. But this gem of a dive is alive today, testifying to the former ubiquity of the home-away-from-home, where $20 was more than enough to silence the stress of real life, at least for a moment.

"This is the way it looked like when got it—haven't done much to it, maybe paint it once in awhile," says Nichols, the owner. "I keep the outside nice and clean, the inside’s clean, but it’s just old-looking."

Over the past decade, millions of people in cities around the nation have witnessed firsthand a growing epidemic: the closing en masse of dive bars, largely due to rent hikes. While dive bars are thriving in rural areas that have yet to encounter astronomical real estate surges (and also where people are more likely to actually own their business properties), the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable community development, reported commercial rental listings in cities saw double digit increases between 2015 and 2016: 12 percent in Cleveland and 20 percent in Nashville. In their wake, new, upscale facsimiles cater to recent college and post-grad transplants, sans grit or odor, and with fully-functional toilets and sinks. Venues that have managed to endure the onslaught of real estate price gouging have begun to incorporate upscale liquors and craft beers into menus that, while unaffordable for their longstanding regulars, provide profit margins high enough to pay the bills and cater to the tastes of neighborhoods’ newer, wealthier residents.

St. Petersburg's Flamingo Sports Bar. [Image via Facebook]

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for what, exactly, defines a dive bar. But the age-old phrase goes, "You know it when you see it." Somewhere, however, there probably exists some gold standard of the dive bar, decked out in cracked linoleum floors which have endured one too many downpours of two dollar American lagers or halfway-digested pizzas. Dim lighting accentuates the tension of pool games in the back. Afternoons are soundtracked by fuzzy blaring of Foreigner or Elton John from the neon-lit jukebox in the back corner, and regulars—blue-collar workers just off-the-clock that sleepily stare into the bottom of the glasses while shooting the shit with their fellow patrons or bartenders—can still smoke Marlboro Reds to their doctors’ discontent, leaving trails of ash and cigarette burns in their wake. Variations on this dive bar exist in reality, but all provide a democratic experience available to anyone of any social or economic background through cheap beer and an atmosphere that's the opposite of pretentious.

The often-cited Shorter Oxford English Dictionary notes an 1871 issue of the New York Herald as one of the first documented uses of the term "dive" bar. According to the SOED, dives were illegal drinking dens in the lower levels of a building, like a cellar or a basement. And patrons would "dive" into the venue.

Such establishments stood in contrast to their less-sketchy counterparts: saloons. Eventually, the term "dive" became obsolete, and the contemporary blanket-definition of a dive is generally held to that in a 1961 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language: "a disreputable resort for drinking or entertainment." The "disreputable" ties back to dives bars as places where drug sales and prostitution took place until the late ‘90s when crime rates began falling.

In short, dive bars have been around as long as it was possible for a drinking establishment to be beaten down by life. These once iconic institutions that dotted urban landscapes as after-work hangouts are closing up in droves. The Boston Globe reported earlier this year that 20 out of the city’s 70 reputable dive bars that were included in Boston’s Best Dive Bars had shuttered over the past five years, noting the 75 percent increase in rent during this period as a major contributing factor. This past December, amNew York informed readers about the imminent closings and forced relocations of dozens of dives in the Big Apple. Dive bar owners interviewed by amNY stated that profits from selling dirt-cheap food and drink couldn’t cover the quadrupled rent increase.

Dive bars have been around as long as it was possible for a drinking establishment to be beaten down by life.

"They can't cover the rent on a two dollar bottle of beer—it comes down to that," explains Johnathan Miller of MillerSamuel, a New York-based real estate firm. "Unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the replacement, as a generic statement, is something that is more expensive for many of the locals nearby. It’s a part of this general gentrification process. It correlates with the decrease of affordable housing in the city."

Outside Los Angeles' Mandrake Bar. [Photo by Stan Lee]

Walking through any city center, however, residents might be led to believe that dive bars are still alive. These faux-dive bars, where imbibers have the option of sipping on a $6 Lagunitas draft, can easily deceive transplants and tourists looking for a real down-and-out drinking experience. From a visual appraisal, they have the cliché signs: neon Budweiser signs, an LCD electronic jukebox on the wall, and maybe some specials for $2 PBRs. But Jeremiah Moss, author of the blog "Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York," describes them as harbingers of fabricated cookie cutter sameness that derives from the neo-liberal, winner-take-all mindset permeating cities (see: yuppies shrieking with glee at the opening of an artisanal coffee shop, cocktail lounges playing Top 40 hits, kitschy diners serving $13 alcoholic milkshakes). The Dive Bar chain in New York, Bar DeVille in Chicago, and the Mandrake Bar in Los Angeles epitomize this contradiction.

"It’s not gonna stink, and it’s not gonna have the age, it’s not gonna have the history, and it’s gonna have cutesy cocktails called ‘The Skidrow,’ or something," says Moss. "There’s this co-opting of poverty, really, and turning it into a theme park for people with money," he adds. Moss notes that businesses like Ireland-based Irish Pub Company have commodified the traditional Irish pub by providing would-be bar owners the option to pick one of seven "traditional Irish public house" designs that will draw patrons who are looking for an "authentic" Irish pub experience, albeit one with a hefty price tag for a draft Guinness.

A Darwinian analysis can be applied to these small businesses subjected to external economic pressures in order to survive. Moe’s and Joe’s Tavern in Atlanta, Ga.’s Virginia Highland neighborhood recently experienced a dramatic makeover after years of running on a steady supply of foamy $7 Pabst pitchers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that, along with taking on the new bar manager Mike Keating, changes at the Southern drinking institution, founded in 1955, include "a full bar with liquor and cocktails, more craft beer, and more seating inside and out on the popular sidewalk patio."

Faux-dive bars deceive transplants and tourists looking for a down-and-out drinking experience.

On the other coast, dive bars in the greater Los Angeles area are experiencing a similar necessity for adjustment. Paul’s, one of Orange County, California's oldest standing bars, was once favored by the biker crowd as a go-to hangout where one could enjoy dirt cheap draft and bottom shelf liquor while legally smoking cigarettes. Nowadays, it is the preferred drinking establishment for what locals like Tommy Donlyuk, a bartender at nearby Bottle Logic Brewing, describe as "those hipster types that read Kerouac," who fetishize the long-banned practice of smoking within the bar’s commercial premises.

Moe's and Joe's Tavern in Atlanta, Georgia. [Images via Facebook]

Paul’s manager Tish Pabst believes the expansion and increase in student population at nearby Chapman University is partially to blame. "The bikers come through, just not as much, and not as many as they used to," she states. "At night, we are still a neighborhood dive bar, but it's become more of—I don't want to say younger crowd. I mean, we still have a wide range, anywhere from 21-year-olds to 50 and 60-year-olds."

Drinks at Paul's are cheaper in comparison to those served at other upscales venues, like the District Lounge next door, and Pabst states that her local craft beer selection—over thirty West Coast brews—rivals other bars' variety.

Of course, all of this is not to say that dive bars are a completely dead institution. Rural and working class neighborhoods largely untouched by the waves of "Brooklynization" are still home to these stripped-down watering holes. One such neighborhood is College Point, in Queens, New York, a former rubber and manufacturing "town," where College Point native-turned-emigrant Rob Bellinger and his friend host the annual College Point Class Conflict Bar Crawl. The annual "survey" explores the neighborhood’s cheap haunts like the College Point Yacht Club or Bar 131, regularly patroned by long-standing residents and retired New York City Police Department officers.

"Whenever we do the pub crawl, people always ask us: ‘Why aren’t you on Bell Boulevard, in Astoria, [Queens, NY], or in the city,’ because they still call Manhattan the city, in College Point," says Bellinger. "They’re surprised to see anyone in there under fifty."

Bellinger, however, explains that dive bars, even in blue collar College Point, have begun to shutter. Although no new bars have opened, he says that over half a dozen of these hangouts have closed down in the past ten years because many former residents have fled to the suburbs, like Long Island, thereby starving the dive bars of its source of revenue.

"[The dive] has fled the city center, but it’s still a danger where it lies," he states. Outside the Flamingo Sports Bar, as the night carries on, folks continue popping in and out. Frizzy-haired bartenders sass patrons who they’ve known for years, almost like—forgive the cliché—a South Floridian painting of "Cheers." For them, this place is a second home, one that Nichols doesn’t ever want to let go.

"I make decent money here," he says, "and as long as I can keep going, I'm doing it."

Editor: Kat Odell

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