By definition a dive bar has no definition.
If you ask someone to define a dive bar, their answer won’t be about a dive bar it will be about their dive bar. Whether it’s the drab basement bar where they first sucked down a one dollar High Life, or some one-light-bulb hole in the wall where they continue to drink away the post-work hours, everyone’s vision of a dive bar is inherently personal.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I can’t tell you, but you feel it.” I imagine Dickinson was describing love (or just as likely despair) with this line, but her sentiment is just as true for a dive bar. Yes, there’s a certain atmosphere that all dives share. The outdated decor, the dusty bottles, the stone-faced bartender, the stench of stale domestic beers, a dirt cheap prices (often because the beer is just so damn bad.) We’re all familiar with these dive bar tropes, but what really makes a bar a dive is a feeling. It’s the sense that the world outside has disappeared, and for however long you sit on that raggedy polyester stool everything else can wait. It’s just you, a sweating bottle of beer, and your compatriots. Even if those compatriots are just the thoughts in your head.
But is this something that I’ve actually felt myself or am I just pretending? Have I experienced this feeling or am I merely regurgitating some scene that I once saw in a movie? Is there even such thing as a real dive bar anymore?
That final question is one that more and more bar-goers have been asking lately here in New York. In the face of rising rents and the general homogenization of the city, many of NYC’s most beloved dives have come under threat or been forced to shutter altogether. Mars Bar, Miladys, Blarney Cove, the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. And that’s just those that have actually closed for good. Max Fish was forced to relocate. Holland Bar was at risk in 2008, but managed to survive. And then there’s The Subway Inn which could seemingly close at any moment.
And yet, a search for “Dive Bar in New York” on Yelp reveals over four thousand listings. The disparity between actual dive bars, and the commoditization of dive bars gets back to the look vs. feel distinction. There are now countless bars, new and old, but mainly new, that masquerade as dives. Or rather, they masquerade as the sort of bars that people, primarily of my generation, mistakenly identify as dives. What we seek out now is a warped version of a dive bar, one that has been standardized until any semblance of actual grit or character has been washed away.
Call it the Instagramification of the neighborhood watering hole. Our notion of a local community bar has been contorted thanks to the expansiveness of the Internet. From upstart indie magazines to individual Instagram photos, the dive bar aesthetic has become a commodity. My generation (those who still have memories, albeit hazy ones, of their twenty-first birthdays) might relish dive bar look – the seventies pinball machines, the faded upholstery, the archaic jukebox, and any other kitschy ephemera that might garner a few more likes on Instagram – but we don’t realize that a bar’s character is less important than its characters.
This attitude is in line with our general push to Brooklynify everything. It might look pretty, but it’s all surface level, and along the way we’ve forgotten that too much of a good thing just makes us sick. Now, I should take a step back here, because I am not trying to come at this topic as some archaic curmudgeon or blind hater of Brooklyn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t frequent craft beers bars and cocktail boutiques with denim aproned bartenders and Edison bulbs tuned just so. But, we’d all be lying if we didn’t pretend like this “Brooklyn aesthetic” (because yes, once someone opens a “Bed-Stuy Cafe” in Amsterdam it is a full-blown aesthetic) has become a stock template for all things tailored toward the young, urban-dwelling populace.
Woodsy furnishings. A copper bar. Cocktails with literary names. Mismatched chairs. Faux quirky accents like thrift store books or board games. It’s paint by numbers of a Brooklyn bar, and it’s trying so desperately hard to replicate the character of a dive bar. We even call these places dives. But this is not character, it’s the appearance of character. What a dive bar has, or really had, is character.
Bars like Milady’s and Mars were both the center of a community and a member of that community. They had this organic, palpable character that bars simply do not have today. A new bar might be able to mimic the Milady’s look, but they’ll never recreate the spirit of a Saturday night down on the corner of Prince and Thompson. The contemporary bar is designed more for a audience pleasing Instagram photo than a meaningful conversation. Truthfully though, I cannot imagine many twenty-somethings who would even be able to sit by themselves and have a drink without the aide of their cell phones. We’d rather refresh Twitter than talk to our neighbor these days, even if that neighbor is our best friend, and this is the real issue. We’re so glued to the world’s that exist in the palm of our hand, that we miss the world right in front of us.
And so the death of the dive bar might not phase most people my age, but it should, because we need dives. A dive bar allows us to escape, whether into our own heads, or into the arms of our friends. In a city like New York, with so many people, yet so little interaction, a dive bar should be a cornerstone of any neighborhood. Now more than ever, with the endless demands of this digital world, we need these places where you can shut down, and connect with someone on a real level. Sometimes you just need to leave the pretension behind, have a watery beer, and just shoot the shit with a stranger.
Or better yet, with your friends.
When one of the regulars at The Holland Bar died in ’96, his friends at the bar pooled their money for his cremation. They didn’t do it for any reason other than that they were friends, and they were friends because of the bar. It brought them together, as only a true dive could.