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July, 2003

Is the Corner Bar Doomed?

My Dad never goes to bars. That may seem strange to people who know me, and it's true: this acorn not only fell far from the tree, it rolled down the hill into a stream and floated right out to sea. But I have my own confession: I've never been a regular. When I was single, I never settled down in a place long enough to become a regular. Now that I'm married and rooted in a house, I may never get the opportunity. Circumstances are conspiring to kill the corner bar. It's a little complicated, and I don't really have a good solution, but you need to learn about this.

First, step out on my front porch with me and look around. I live in a subdivision. South of me is another subdivision, north of me is another one, east is another, west be honest, I'm not quite sure what's over there. None of the subdivision's roads go that way. I kind of hope it's the local Rod & Gun Club, if only because that would explain the constant gunfire over the last 10 years. Houses everywhere, except for a public school, a church, a hospital, a farm, a convent, a park, and a prep school. Sound idyllic? Okay, excepting the gunfire?

It's hell. We can't walk to anything except the school my kids don't go to, the church we don't go to, and the hospital we'd just as soon stay out of. Lately I've discovered I can ride my bike to the park, but it involves ducking through a hedge and bumping over 150 yards of meadow. The point is, to get to a bar, I have to drive. The nearest licensed establishment is about a mile, and to walk to it would mean a long walk by a narrow-shouldered busy two-lane road...and the place sucks, anyway. So I've got to shovel my butt into the Jetta, drive to the bar, drink, and then drive home. Great, just what no one wants me to do (including me).

Who's the villain here? Zoning and NIMBY. Zoning is NIMBY, which is policy-speak for Not In My Backyard. No one wants the factory over their fence, no one wants a bar in their backyard.  Zoning, originally championed by Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce under Harding, was designed to make more efficient use of city space: put industry in industrial zones, commercial activities together, and housing in its own enclaves. Anyone who's ever played Sim City gets this: if you put an industrial zone next to a housing area, no one's going to want to live there. Okay, that makes sense. Isn't it an overt use of state power to tell private land owners what they can do with their land? Yes, but the Supreme Court decided in 1926 (Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co) that the public's interest in avoiding nuisances overrode the interests of individual property owners. Note that word: nuisances. Got it? On we go.

Fine for cities, but zoning went crazy in the suburbs. All those subdivisions were obvious residential areas, so that's what they got zoned as. Levittowns sprang up with lots and lots of houses (with garages), and not a grocery store, coffee shop, hair salon, or bar in sight. In the city it wouldn't have been as important because of the population density. That many people living together in the city still leaves room around the edges for shops people can easily walk to. But the suburbs sprawl for miles, and every store, every shop, every bar, needs parking. 

So what? So you park, big deal. Well, parking costs. Space in a plaza/strip mall/shopping center costs. And at least in Pennsylvania, sprawl means fewer tavern licenses in an area and that makes the price go up. Liquor licenses are based on population: one license per so many thousand people. In the city that puts bars everywhere, in the country that spreads them out. As the population goes up in the suburbs, you get a few more licenses (you don't, actually, but that's too complicated to go into right now), but a lot more territory to cover. 

This relative scarcity means the price of a license goes up. Even though it's a low fee to the state for a license, they're transferable, so license holders can charge what the market will bear. That's $300,000 and up in some places: just for the piece of paper. There's also competition for those licenses from the chain restaurants, because they all want licenses so they can sell what their sales department has decided is the optimum blend of big-brand beers and booze. 

All these things make the cost of running a bar go up. When the costs go up, bar owners are forced to raise prices and compete with other attractions: lottery machines, DJs, live bands, karaoke, happy hours. All things that make the corner bar less of a place to meet friends, have a meal with the family, get together to talk. Bar owners are trying to jam in 21 to 35 year olds because they drink the most.

It's a recipe for a nuisance. What you've got is a noisy bar that's creating drunks. The owner may not have had that in mind, but that's where business and zoning has driven him. Bars are caught between rising costs, public disapproval, and stiff chain competition. Is it any wonder that corner bars owners are cashing out left and right, taking big bucks for their licenses and folding up?

Here's what I'd like to see instead. If we're going to live in the suburbs, I'd like to see subdivisions with an in-built commercial area: a grocery store (not a supermarket, a grocery store, with food), a coffee shop/deli, and a bar. And they'd have no parking. None. Just bike racks. You'd have to walk or ride there. The bar would have to close at 11, no loud music allowed. It would be a special license, a neighborhood tavern license: non-transferable, stuck to that address, and cheap, say $300 a year. They'd have to serve food: simple sandwiches, soup, stews, salads. It wouldn't be a nuisance, it couldn't be a nuisance. 

Sound like much ado about nothing? After all, do you really have to have a neighborhood bar? Consider this. Do you ever get together with neighbors and talk politics? Have you met your state legislators, your township supervisors, your school board? Your parents did, your great-grandparents did, the country's founders did: at the local tavern. Air-conditioning, television, and "get 'em in, get 'em out" fast food joints have cost us dearly in terms of political discourse, and we don't even realize it. That's why people go to talk radio so much, they've nowhere else to go! A neighborhood tavern would be a public good.

This is important. Think about it, and think about how to fix it. Then think about this, from Ray Oldenburg's "The Great Good Place," an excellent book on all the benefits of bars and coffee shops (and old-time barbershops, etc.).

"If developers intentionally built communities without local gathering places and good sidewalks leading to them from every home, and did so for the purpose of inhibiting the political processes of the society, we would call it treason. Is the result any less negative without the intent?" 


Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: October 31, 2003