Editor’s Note: To go where everyone knows your name. Ah, it sounds so nice, the perfect urban pastoral. If you’re anything like us here at MwBC you’ve spent a considerable amount of time at your neighborhood bar. The bartenders know what you want, know what you do, and you know about them. It’s more a shared understanding than intimacy—the understanding that everyone needs a place to meet, let loose and quaff quaffables. This week’s installment comes from one of MwBC’s many good friends, Todd Stevens. You can read Todd’s writing at The Daily Cardinal, and the other far reaches of the Internet.
The neighborhood bar is a unique institution in modern society. In a time when most American gathering places have been formalized—school, government, sporting events—the neighborhood bar has remained blissfully informal. It is one of the few centers of socialization where people are encouraged to get together with minimal barriers, and then use the readily provided alcoholic beverages to decrease those barriers further.
Because of this, I’ve paid special attention to my local watering hole as I get acclimated to my new home in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota in the midst of my initial exploration of the area. Whenever I move some place new I like to walk around a lot, often to absurd levels. The other day I walked home from the community housing project north of the State Capitol where I work back to my apartment on foot, which is usually a 45 minute commute by bus. I did it solely out of curiosity and an explorer’s mindset, and it does provide some practical benefits. It’s a lot easier to get around a city when you’ve gotten lost in it, then subsequently gotten un-lost.
But as far as getting to know local character, this doesn’t put a person in any better standard than a common tourist.
That’s what the neighborhood bar is for. My local establishment is a small hole in the wall called The Nook, conveniently located right next door to my apartment. The name alone gives you a fairly apt idea of the interior: small, quaint, charming. As for the area, you can get a fairly complete picture by just looking out the front window. The Nook is directly across the street from a Catholic high school (Cretin Derham Hall, famous as the alma mater of Joe Mauer), down the street from an old-school barber shop and breakfast diner and next door to an antique shop. It’s pretty much exactly what you would picture if you imagined a blue collar middle class Midwestern neighborhood, if blue collar middle class neighborhoods still existed*.
But more so than the personality of this individual neighborhood was how the clientele of The Nook provides insight into the nature of neighborhoods themselves. The Nook has regulars—true regulars, people who have been dropping in every day after work to grab a Summit Extra Pale Ale for the past twenty years.
It’s a remarkable tribute to the stability and cohesiveness that a neighborhood provides, and a striking contrast to my prior stomping grounds of Madison, Wisconsin, where the denizens of the downtown area constantly rotate with the arrival of every new freshman class.
However, this creates another rather counterintuitive contrast of these two different settings, the settled neighborhood and the college campus: while the college campus may be in constant flux, it always stays the same, as an ever replenishing supply of youth comes in year after year. On the flip side, Highland Park keeps its population intact, but that population keeps changing over time.
In a few short years, the kids I see every morning walking past my apartment to school will be onto college themselves, and the middle-aged men imbibing at The Nook will be senior citizens on the verge of retirement. But the patrons of the bars in Madison will still be 21(ish) year olds looking to drink away that D in Biochemistry.
As I myself am unlikely to be in Highland Park for more than a year or two, I won’t get to witness the neighborhood’s stable change in person. The idea remains the same, though. I’ve left the fountain of youth that is college and from this point on there is no stopping the slow and gradual onset of time. But as I have learned from my observations at The Nook, that steady shift of time comes along with a great deal of beer, so maybe it won’t be that bad.
*Highland Park itself is likely on its way to losing whatever remains of this status, as its dominant employer, the Twin Cities Ford Plant, is scheduled to close later this year. Increasingly, more and more of the area is turning into upper tier housing that resembles the mansions of Summit Avenue made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other areas are seeing a rising level of student housing from the nearby campuses of Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas, so much so that the nearby Mac-Groveland neighborhood recently put in place a one-year moratorium on new student housing.
What’s your neighborhood bar? Tell us about it via Twitter (@midwestbeer) and Facebook. We’re also accepting submissions for the feature! Send a 500-700 word essay about your neighborhood bar to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are not accepting essays on The Old Fashioned, everyone already knows how awesome it is.