What is a Dive Bar?

As the weather turns cold and evenings come just a bit sooner, it seems timely to reflect on the character of “a local.” The local dive bar is as ancient as settlements, and Mark Jendrysik, offers a reflective definition of these iconic places in the American landscape.

What is a dive bar? We can start to answer the question by saying what a dive bar is not. A dive bar cannot proclaim itself a dive bar. It is not a “sports bar.”  A dive bar is not a franchised operation. A dive bar cannot advertise. Any bar that is declared “best dive bar” on a blog or by some local free paper is not a dive bar.

A dive bar must have certain features. First, it must have a clear and obvious ethnic or class identity. (There can be dive bars serving any level of society or profession. In my experience there are dive bars that cater to lawyers and doctors and college professors.) Any bar that has the words “Irish pub” in its name isn’t a true dive bar, since a real ethnically identified drinking establishment doesn’t have to tell you who drinks there. Second, the true dive bar has long-time patrons who form a core, a nucleus of fellowship and who are righty suspicious of outsiders. Third, a dive bar might have music, but it can never be too loud since conversation matters at the dive bar. Conversation reinforces solidarity against the cruel world outside. Fourth, a dive bar shouldn’t have too many windows. None are best since privacy still matters in the world. Fifth, a dive bar must have an edge. There should always be the sense that a fight might break out at any time. By this I don’t mean the fights happen all the time or ever. I mean that a dive bar is one of the last outposts of “honor culture.” The inhabitants of a dive bar are touchy folk. Six, a dive bar is a place to get drunk in the company of friends or at least comrades. It is supportive and has a non-judgmental vibe. The true dive bar is a fortress against an uncaring world.

While a dive might attract slumming “booze tourists” the bar and its denizens should never welcome such people. In a college town this means that the presence of students is endured with an ill-grace. This doesn’t mean there aren’t student dive bars, because there certainly are. But student fashions change and this year’s happening spot is next year’s forgotten sad empty space. A true dive bar endures because its patrons are in it for the long haul.

The author’s home town in Massachusetts (Chicopee) used to (and quite likely still does) present a fascinating ecology of dive bars. The peculiarly rules for liquor licenses in the Commonwealth made such licenses a form of property and helped keep many organizations in business long after their membership had dwindled down to just a few old men. The Polish National Home, founded in the teens of twentieth-century, long outlived its original mission of preparing immigrants for citizenship. There were the ethnic clubs, often named after a saint. You had St. Joseph’s and St. Stanislaus’ clubs in the old Polish ghetto, St. Anne’s in the French part of town, the Portuguese-American Club and so forth. Of course the fraternal originations such as the Elks and Moose had their own establishments, almost always in the basement below the hall. The veteran’s organizations also had their place. The VFW, Legion, Polish-American Vets, Amvets, were all represented in roll call of quiet, dark and semi-private refuges from the world.

Another Massachusetts dive bar peculiarity can be traced back to the end of Prohibition. It seems that the state, despairing of the task of determining who deserved a liquor license, simply gave out licenses to speakeasies. So Chicopee’s oldest bar “The Blue Room” official opened the day Prohibition ended.

An archeologist could trace the rise and fall of Chicopee as an industrial center by the rise and fall of the bars that used to cluster near the now-closed plants of Uniroyal (Fisk Rubber), Spalding, Ames, and the Dwight Mills. Some of these establishments lived on for many years after deindustrialization, catering to the unemployed or retired men who once labored nearby.

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Mark Stephen Jendrysik is a professor of Political Science at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of  Explaining the English Revolution: Hobbes and His Contemporaries (Lexington, 2002) and Modern Jeremiahs: Contemporary Visions of American Decline (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).