Dive bars: social sanctuaries in transitional neighborhoods

Sometimes at noon, sometimes at 3pm, industrial metal doors roll up in the East Village, revealing the glass walls, glowing neon signs and dimly-lit interiors of its dive bars.

Half church, half carnival side show, opening time transforms this post-ghetto neighborhood into a floating world of virtue and vice. The bars attract patrons as much by their graffiti, their grit, their subtle aura of disrepute, as by the alcohol they dispense. No Heaven Hill or PBR here, however …craft beers on tap and premium whiskeys, instead.

The darkness inside doesn’t imply a deficit or a void. Nor does it mean concealment. Here, the dark envelopes and beautifies. It dissolves boundaries and invites social connectivity impossible in the everyday world. Habitues shed their outside skins and adopt a persona for and of the dark.

The bartender, high priest and ringmaster, sets the social tone, keeps glasses full and listens to whispered confidences as regulars mingle. Pool tables and video games keep sightseers entertained.

Near dawn, the dream dissipates …only to be reborn nine hours later.

Though a transitional neighborhood staple, dive bars are by no means accidental happenings. They may occupy the same premises as nineteenth-century ghetto saloons and nostalgia may be a key part of their appeal, but their ambiance is carefully orchestrated, calculated to cater to (pander to?) and intensify the fantasies of their customers. The illusion’s edges sometimes fray, but customers don’t mind …or their need is so strong they don’t want to notice.

East Village dive bars are especially interesting for the key role they play in shaping—and revealing—the fantasy world their customers inhabit. The looming spotlight of gentrification is threatening to leach away their magic, however. It’s important to document the neighborhood’s bars before they disappear, as their counterparts in the West Village and Chelsea did a generation ago.

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