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Mourn not the passing of the dive bar

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Williams Tavern in Boston.
Williams Tavern in Boston.(The Boston Globe)

Earlier this month I got one of the most bittersweet e-mails a writer can ever hope to receive. A couple of readers had been conducting a pub crawl based on all of the bars I mentioned in my 2011 book "Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in Beantown." It had taken them two years to hit all of the bars, from the "sketchy," as they explained it (Croke Park and the Chelsea Walk Pub), to the "charming and historic" (Doyle's and Charlie's Kitchen). Each bar, they told me, had its "own unique personality," succinctly capturing what's appealing about dive bars in the first place. There was just one impediment to their running the dive bar table: Too many of them had closed since the book was published. By my count, of the 90 bars I mentioned, at least 32 have long since cracked open their last bottle of cheap domestic.

No writer exactly relishes being told their book is aging into obsolescence. But, in truth, obsolescence has become an unfortunate reality for dive bars. That's not just true of Boston, but in rapidly-developing cities around the country, from Austin to New York City, where an alchemy of exponentially rising real estate costs, an influx of wealth, and a surfeit of young professionals, with their penchant and, more important, willingness to pay premium prices, for craft beer and cocktails, has helped usher the dive bar into extinction.

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It's not like I didn't see this coming. As I wrote at the time, noting that a handful of bars had closed over the course of my research, that contradiction is emblematic of the nature of the dive bar: It's a bar that's stood the test of time, but isn't long for the changing world.

Coincidentally, the Globe's Beith Teitell talked to me, among others, for her recent story about the vanishing dive bar scene, and her findings were striking: In some neighborhoods, like South Boston, where most of the traditional neighborhood bars lingered much longer than one might have expected, real estate prices have surged 75 percent in the past five years. Liquor licenses city-wide have likewise jumped to around $400,000. You have to sell an awful lot of $2 Miller Lite drafts to stay afloat in that environment.

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It's hard to blame an owner for succumbing to that sort of pressure, especially when they can walk next door and see a competitor selling the now ubiquitous "small bites," aka one-third of what used to be known as an appetizer, for $10-$12, and craft beers for anywhere between $9 and $20 a bottle.

And yet, I can't say that the shuttering of every dive bar is a tragedy. To be sure, many of them are rather miserable places, plagued by low quality product and lower-quality service. In fact, I haven't found myself spending much time in dive bars in recent years — that could be because I overdosed on them in my research. But for all the lionizing we do of the good old days, it's often very easy to blur longevity and tradition with hagiography. It certainly doesn't help that so many of my favorite bars today — Deep Ellum, Highland Kitchen, and Trina's Starlite Lounge, to name a few — had in their previous incarnations been dives. Their transformation inspired all manner of there-goes-the-neighborhood handwringing. As someone who's enthusiastically covered the craft cocktail and bar hospitality renaissance for the past decade, in the pages of the Globe and elsewhere, I'd more often than not rather pay $12 for a cocktail made with a sense of care, in a welcoming environment, than save a few bucks drinking swill.

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As in anything else as delicate as a city's drinking ecosystem, there needs to be a balance. The days of a dive bar on every corner are never coming back, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make room, even cherish, the ones we've still got. A dive bar closing is akin to any other small neighborhood business closing — a local bodega with character turning into a CVS, or a mom-and-pop hardware store becoming a corporate chain. It's not necessarily the place itself that we mourn when it's gone, or its history, although it is often that too, but rather the encroaching, pulverizing anonymity of the homogenous. Let the old bars give way to the new, then — let's just try to make sure they're telling their own individual stories about the neighborhood, not the same ones being told on every other block in every city around the country.


Luke O'Neil is journalist who's covered the bar scene in Boston for many publications, including the Globe. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.