Closing time for the corner bar?

I'm all for neighborhood revitalization, but there comes a time when those doing the revitalizing go a bit too far. According to a June 20, Associated Press story, I think this might apply to what's going on in Chicago — and what I sincerely hope doesn't one day happen here in Detroit.

In a nutshell, it seems Mayor Richard Daley is trying to kill the neighborhood bar. Why? Well, naturally it's because bars aren't "family friendly" places where happy-happy parents can bring their happy-happy children to engage in such wholesome activities as eating vegetarian pizza, bobbing for apples in purified mineral water and watching such family-fun movies as Cinderella and Bambi (as opposed to the cult classic Bambi Meets Godzilla). Bars, as we all know, are dark, dangerous, evil places where you can't even get in if you don't know how to sin. Bars are where lost souls go to blissfully waste away in a haze of cigarette smoke and beer foam.

As George Bush the First would say, bars are bad — very, very, bad. The only alternative appears to be to toss the bars and pubs of America into rehab clinics where they'll learn the error of their ways, find salvation and emerge reborn as bistros and outdoor cafés. To be honest, these places aren't exactly family-friendly either, and if you're able to decipher the oh-so-pretty and clever names of some of the hip and happening entrées served on the menu, you just might discover that Bambi is being served with a side order of sprouts by a waitress who looks eerily like Cinderella.

Just something to think about.

As the Associated Press reported, "The city that once boasted as many as 7,600 taverns in the early 1900s has just over 1,300 today. Now Mayor Richard Daley is pushing an ordinance that would make it easier to close taverns — the latest volley in a battle against the kinds of liquor-selling establishments that some say are magnets for everything from prostitution to littering. ... It's a similar story in other cities, including Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston. One official thinks the trend will continue, in large part because elected officials don't want to be seen as advocates for bars."

When Chicago's current Mayor Richard M. Daley — son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who created one of the most powerful big-city political machines ever — first took office in 1989, there were still a hefty number of bars and taverns in the city, but since that time he's been steadily slicing and dicing, trying his best to "pretty up" a city by divorcing it from its working-class industrial roots.

The reason is that working-class neighborhoods — or what used to be working-class neighborhoods — where working-class people lived and raised families, are now being viewed by considerably more wealthy Chicagoans as really neat places to live. The term most heard to describe the magnetic appeal of many of these older neighborhoods is "character." The suburbs have their appeal for various reasons, but none of them can match the city when it comes to "character" because cities — and city neighborhoods — have remarkable histories and stories that are etched into the bricks and mortar of each and every structure. These stories aren't always pretty and wholesome, but they add flavor to an area. They add spice.

Younger families — and singles — tired of commuting from the suburbs to city jobs, and who lust for the edgy appeal of urban living, are moving back to the 'hood in Chicago and other big cities, and that, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. Many of these neighborhoods, like so many of the neighborhoods right here in Detroit, have been deteriorating and falling apart for years. And for years the only folks living in these neighborhoods weren't there because they were seeking urban adventure; they were there hanging on by the skin of their teeth because they had no place else to go. Some of these folks, no doubt, could be found in neighborhood bars practicing the age-old survival skill known as "getting drunk off your ass." And some of these folks undoubtedly got drunk enough to the point of violence that could be heard and seen by the neighbors. Other times, maybe someone could be seen stumbling around outside with his pants unzipped trying to water the fire hydrant.

As a working musician with more than 20 years of bar experience, I've seen just about every imaginable bar scenario, believe me. And as a lifetime city dweller — and I lived on Chicago's South Side for four years — I can certainly understand the appeal of city life and am well acquainted with the charms — and frustrations — of older homes and long-established neighborhoods. I can also understand why someone who moved into such a neighborhood, and who possibly spent thousands upon thousands of dollars renovating an older home with "character," might feel entitled to have a bit of a say over what goes on in that neighborhood. And, finally, I actually agree with those who say that one of the best ways to revitalize inner cities is for folks with means to move in and stake a claim. Stable families create stable neighborhoods, and nobody will fight for a neighborhood with the same ferocity as someone who lives there.

But, that being said, I also believe there has to be a better way for the newcomers and the old-timers to meet halfway and peacefully co-exist than to erase some of the very structures that in many cases have created the neighborhood "character" that the newcomers claim is so appealing to them.

To put it more bluntly, attracting young wealthy families to urban centers shouldn't become such a highly desperate priority — in Chicago or anywhere else — that it's considered OK to totally reinvent the neighborhood just for them. This is not to say that bars and taverns make the neighborhood, nor is it to ignore the fact that sometimes bars do become a serious nuisance.

What I am saying is that the willingness to shut down bars and replace them with bistros is sorry evidence of a trend to confuse the so-called "upscaling" of a neighborhood with uplifting it. Bistros aren't necessarily my thing, but some folks like them and they do have their place. But bars and pubs have their place as well and serve an equally important function — letting people blow off some steam and relax. As a matter of fact, I think it's safe to say that without bars there never would have been a bistro.

A bistro is just a bar with a better set of clothes. A bar has never pretended to be anything other than what it has always been.

And there's no need to kill one so that the other may live.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]