America’s Dive Bars Face an Uncertain Future
Crowded, cramped, and a little wild, dive bars are at odds with social distancing-and struggling to reopen.
BY LALE ARIKOGLU
August 24, 2020
When Jimmy’s Corner temporarily closed its doors on March 13, it symbolized as much to New Yorkers as the shuttering of the Broadway theaters it shares a block with. The bar, named after its owner Jimmy Glenn, a famed boxer and trainer, had operated for nearly 50 years out of its narrow Midtown space, serving everyone from lost tourists and weary office workers to Frank Sinatra and Michael Jordan. The drinks menu-made up of cold beer, hard liquor, and not much else-is about as cheap as it gets in Manhattan. Even at age 89, Glenn could regularly be found perched on a bar stool, with posters and memorabilia charting his illustrious career displayed behind him. Jimmy’s Corner felt special because it defied the odds, remaining a rare, no-frills sanctuary at the core of an ever-mutating Times Square.
Then, on May 7, Glenn died of complications from coronavirus. The funeral service was live streamed on the bar’s Facebook page a few days later. One commenter wrote: “If NYC wasn’t [sheltered-in-place] right now, this service would be to the rafters. I’ve never known a more loved man because I’ve never known a man who gave more love.”
Dive bars are tricky to define, but you tend to know one when you see one. The tables are cramped. The floors are sticky. There are often, inexplicably, Christmas lights. You’ll be hard pressed to find any food beyond a bowl of cheese puffs, but if you’re lucky there will be a jukebox. The best ones have been around for decades, just like Jimmy’s, with an owner who anchors a neighborhood’s past to its present. Some of my favorite travel memories have taken place in dive bars: karaoke at Santa’s Pub in Nashville; whiskey shots at Snake and Jakes in New Orleans; a wedding after-party at Matador in Santa Fe. They are places for you to sit and commiserate with your co-workers after a shitty day, but to also sing “Islands in the Stream” at 4 a.m. with strangers.
Yet all those things that give dive bars their indisputable character also make them entirely at odds with social distancing amid a pandemic-and they are suffering exponentially because of it. Fancy cocktail bars and restaurants have been able to adapt by adding patios and al fresco menus without losing their identity. But a dive bar’s DNA lies within its dark interiors.
“Dive bars were already on the endangered species list and sadly there will be more and more favorites closing permanently in the months to come,” says Brad Parsons, a Brooklyn-based writer and author of Bitters, Amaro, Last Call, and the forthcoming book, Dives. “If you’re a bar [and] your only options are takeout drinks or sidewalk seating, both of those aren’t necessarily services in the spirit of a dive bar.”
Like most bars across the country, Joe Jost’s in Long Beach, California, has had to pivot according to reopening laws, setting up folding tables and chairs in the parking lot and serving beer at a reduced capacity-the latter only possible due to its somewhat legendary food menu of hot dogs and pickled eggs. At almost a century old, the bar is a Long Beach staple-it’s been featured in Levi’s and Budweiser commercials, and a scene in the The Bodyguard-and has weathered its fair share of storms, too. During the Depression, founder Joe Jost, a Hungarian immigrant, would turn off the lights to save on electricity, only switching them back on when he heard a potential customer approaching in their car. But even with its storied past, and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, things aren’t easy.
“[Because] we received the PPP loan, we have not had to release any employees,” says owner and Jost’s grandson, Ken Buck. “However my staff would have been financially better off if I had let them go and they could have received unemployment and [the additional] $600 per week.” There is comfort, however, in knowing that Joe Jost’s continues to serve a purpose. “We represent the stability many people long for,” says Buck.
While Joe Jost’s has managed to reopen, others have chosen not to. Santa’s, which occupies a double-wide trailer, has been closed since mid-March, with owner Denzel “Santa” Irwin paying his staff in full through July. And for many bartenders, whose daily presence often offers customers that sense of stability cited by Buck, work has almost entirely dried up. “A lot of people are just trying to figure out how to survive,” says Nixie Bombardier, who’s been bartending for five years in New Orleans, at bars like The Saint and One Eyed Jacks. “Bartenders have already seen a decrease in income over the past few years. No one knows if they’re going to make it through this.”
With more and more dive bars teetering on the precipice of closure, the question of what America’s cities could look like without them is a prescient one. “You go to a bar because you know all your friends are going to be there,” says Bombardier. “But it also offers a bit of our culture, the mystique of New Orleans, to people who are traveling and want to experience it firsthand.”
A glimpse of that future can be seen in New York’s East Village, which currently looks like a neighborhood missing its teeth. Many of its dives have remained shuttered, including the long-running Sophie’s and Mona’s, leaving pops of darkness along what were once 24-hour blocks. With the pandemic dragging on, and reopening mandates proving unnavigable for many, locals like neighborhood blogger E.V. Grieve fear more will hit the chopping block-taking some of the city’s spirit with them in the process. “Neighborhood bars give any city character and provide a representation of the communities they serve. I’m always disappointed when I travel to other towns or cities and find that the local bars are either chains or generic pubs filled with beer distributor doodads that could be found anywhere.”
Jeremiah Moss, creator of the blog Vanishing New York, which documents the changes and closures across “a city that’s been made over to cater primarily to the very wealthy,” share’s Grieve’s concerns. But a recent drink at Vazac’s Horseshoe Bar has left him hopeful. “The drinks-to-go window was really novel and fun. There was a wild lawlessness to it, to get a cocktail in a plastic cup and bring it into the park-it felt like the pre-Giuliani days, before the crackdown on public drinking.”
Of course, the to-go drink still doesn’t fill the hole of walking into a strange, dimly lit bar in a new city, with no idea of what the night will hold. And it definitely doesn’t replace the local spot that serves as an extension of your own living room. “I live above Montero’s, a historic longshoremen’s bar in Brooklyn Heights,” says Parsons. “Their iconic neon sign hangs outside my windows and I miss its steady red glow illuminating my apartment. I’d love to walk downstairs and pick up my mail at the bar like I used to, and have a beer or two.”
It’s regulars like Parsons who “will provide the spirit” when bars are able to reopen, Grieve believes. And if that is the case, then maybe they aren’t lost after all. Rather, those that make it through will continue to provide enclaves of community within cities left unmoored by a pandemic-and welcome travelers as they begin to trickle back in, offering them a place to drink and, more importantly, an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers once again.
“Dive bars are democratic, egalitarian spaces,” says Moss. “You don’t need a lot of money to be there. You don’t need to be fashionable or pretty. You can be poor, ugly, eccentric, badly dressed, and you’re welcome at a dive bar.”