The Decline of the Chicago Neighborhood Tavern: A Daley and Demographic Legacy

Chicago now has less than ten percent of the number of taverns as it did in the days of the saloon. Two abstemious mayors, the changing demographics of alcohol consumers, and the spread of liquor licenses to other establishments have done them in.

Bob Inn Chicago

 

USA Today has an interesting piece today on the substantial decline of the neighborhood tavern in Chicago. It caught my eye because I was in Andersonville on Saturday and had about an hour to kill, and I wanted to get in from the cold. The Hopleaf was packed as usual so I went up the street to Simon’s; I’d passed the welcoming neon fish in the window many times, so I stopped in. (It’s a fine place, not least because Dr. Octagon came on while I was there.) This morning, lo and behold, the owner of Simon’s was in the paper as one of a dwindling number of tavern owners:

In 1990, about 3,300 Chicago establishments had tavern licenses allowing them to serve alcoholic beverages; places that also offer live entertainment, charge admission or serve food as a primary source of business require different or additional licenses.

The number diminished as city leaders sought closure of bars that prompted police calls or complaints from neighbors, and since 2009, the number of tavern licenses has held steady at about 1,200.

Some of the decline in the number of drinking establishments in the city can be attributed to Mayor Daley, as you might have guessed from the timeframe. In Governing in 2005, Alan Ehrenhalt described his role in curtailing the number of taverns; it was as much a personal crusade as a public policy one:

Both Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor from 1955 to 1976, and his son, current Mayor Richard M. Daley, grew up on the streets of Irish working-class Bridgeport, a South Side neighborhood with a tavern on virtually every corner. But both of them have possessed, if not a puritanical streak, then at least a profound distaste for disorder and unruly behavior. The elder Daley used to stop his limousine on Michigan Avenue to retrieve stray newspapers blowing around in the wind. One of his three rules of public speaking was “Don’t get up with liquor on your breath.”

The younger Daley has been particularly concerned about the disorder some Chicago taverns create. In 1988, the year before Richie Daley became mayor of Chicago, 11 taverns were closed as public nuisances. The next year, there were 49. All told, between 1990 and 2005, there have been more than 1,000 license revocations citywide.

Daley has encouraged many of the 2,700 precincts around the city to take advantage of their vote-dry electoral privilege. In 1998, he made this a personal priority, issuing a brochure for vote-dry activists to use and urging voters to look for the tavern question first when they got their ballots. “A bad liquor establishment,” Daley warned that year, “can tear the fabric of a neighborhood and send it into decline.” And when the votes were tallied, 14 precincts around the city had gone dry, and 42 taverns had been voted out of existence by precinct option.

His father was just as persistent. In 1961, Daley pushed the state legislature to reinstitute home rule over taverns, because state law allowed taverns to continue doing business after licenses were revoked or suspended (on morals charges, for example), pending appeal to the liquor license appeals commission. In 1960, there were 45 revocations, 37 suspensions, and 20 dismissals; in 1961, after the law passed, there were 65 revocations, 53 suspensions, and 28 dismissals. In 1963, 160 liquor licenses were revoked and 117 suspended as part of Daley’s fight against “crime syndicate vice joints featuring B-girls and strip tease acts.”

By 1972, the Trib’s Tom O’Rourke wrote a lament similar to the USA Today piece, “Host One Last Round For the Neighborhood Tavern,” which was giving way to the “‘pub.’” “Say hello to chandeliers, dart games, and Renoir slides. And goodby to banging screen doors, softball sluggers, and the Friday night fights.”

Another [issue] is the plodding hoofbeat of officialdom. In that once upon a time we were speaking of, there were over 10,000 taverns in the city of Chicago. Admittedly, they were not all “neighborhood” taverns. There has to be some place for the “B” girls and the tartan-vested bartenders to make a living, but a goodly number were of the neighborhood variety.

As the number of taverns has fallen off (down to 6,876 in the city), a lump of leadish legaldom has been plopped on blind Justice’s scales. They call it amortization. Some years ago a new zoning ordinance was written for the city. It called for the amortization of all businesses in nonbusiness areas.

The city, however, did not thirst to enforce this law. They were content to wait. Now 15 years have passed, over 3,200 taverns have poured their last drink, and slowly the squeeze gets tighter. Every neighborhood bar that closes now, closes forever.

The casual observer of this sociological phenomenon might be quick to conclude that, since the city is losing taverns and population and the suburbs in the seven-country metropolitan area have more than doubled in population in the last 20 years, that the taverns are just moving farther south, north, and west. A logical hypothesis, but one unfortunately in error. In the past 20 years, the surrounding suburbs have lost over 1,000 taverns of their own.

O’Rourke blamed package stores, noting that alcohol consumption switched from 90 percent on-site to one-third by the 1970s. One of his subjects, Johnny Slowik, owner of a bar at Belmont and Milwaukee, attributed it to a combination of television and package-store pricing.

Another change was the demographics of drinkers. As O’Rourke writes, neighborhood taverns were old-man bars, establishments run by the established: “Your friendly neighborhood tavern keeper introduced you to a shrewd lawyer, a calculating banker, a cunning ticket fixer.” Taverns began to give way to the younger crowd at the pubs, which O’Rourke griped about:

They’re all located in counterfeit neighborhoods, full of art galleries specializing in semi-original prints, Beatle and Paul Newman posters, and Indonesian and Armenian restaurants. From the river north there isn’t a single area east of Ashland that deserves the name neighborhood, and that especially includes Old Town. All that cements these people is a perpetual transience and the common feeling that living in dilapidated apartments somehow sets them above the rest of mankind.

One of the men who profited handsomely from this shift was Butch McGuire, proprietor of “Butch McGuire’s USA” on Division Street, the nation’s first single’s bar. He built it, in part, because the kind of bar he wanted didn’t exist, he told the Trib in 1986:

“My generation had nowhere to drink,” Butch recalls…. “The neighborhood bars in Old Town drew an older crowd, and they didn’t want us; the joints on Rush and Division were mostly what I call ‘bus-stop’ joints, a rip-off with inflated prices, watered-down drinks and dancing girls who wanted to roll the dice with you. So I decided to open a saloon for myself and my friends.”

The decline of the neighborhood tavern also paralleled changes in American drinking habits. Per capita ethanol consumption plummeted from the late 1970s through the late 1990s; that number has risen over the past decade, but it’s still well below 1977 levels, and that pattern holds true on a state level as well. A Gallup poll found that the self-reported drinking rate is at a 25-year high, but that’s after climbing back from a near-record low of 56 percent in the late 90s, down from 71 percent in the late 70s. from And only wine consumption is above 1977 levels; liquor and beer have both declined in comparison. Basically, the late 1970s were the peak of alcohol consumption in America, and we’ve only begun to start imbibing at such a rate again after hitting bottom (or the opposite) in the 1990s.

Put that all together—more drinking at home, more drinking at restaurants, less drinking altogether, two abstemious mayors, and the changing demographics from tavern drinkers to pub drinkers, and the city’s down to about ten percent of its old number of taverns.

My neighborhood does have a neighborhood bar, where everybody (or at least a substantial percentage in these bowling-alone times), knows your name, despite the very young clientele. Well, it has a bar, a glorious old wooden one. It’s a leftover from its tavern days; now they sling coffee over it.

 

Photograph: get directly down (CC by 2.0)

 

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