Here are some interviews with local business owners, historians, and authors interested in the history of Georgetown or in the cultural and social role of bars in America.
Christine Sismondo is a writer and lecturer of Humanities at York University in Toronto. She has written numerous articles about film, literature, drinking, and vice, as well as the book America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. The book “recounts the rich and fascinating history of an institution often reviled, yet always central to American life. Tracing the tavern from England to New England, showing how even the Puritans valued “a good Beere.” She carries the story through the twentieth century and beyond, from repeated struggles over licensing and Sunday liquor sales, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the temperance movement and to Prohibition and repeal. As the cockpit of organized crime, politics, and everyday social life, the bar has remained vital–and controversial–down to the present.” Sismondo proves that bars have contributed everything to the American story. Check out her book here.
America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops: Christine Sismondo: 9780199324484: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
1. Why were you first interested in writing about bars?
I worked in a “local” when I was in university. I was blown away by how strong and vital the community was in that place.
2. Where people ever taken aback by your research topic?
In general, there was an element of surprise, since the first thing people think is about how bars are pick-up spots, sports bars or party bars. But I don’t think anyone was surprised that I was writing about alcohol, since it’s been my beat for a while.
3. If so how did you explain to them the importance of bars in American history?
I always start with two examples – the American Revolution and Stonewall. If people are surprised about the Revolution, I explain to them that the bar was the center of colonial life, since there was little infrastructure. Then I explain Stonewall. And then I say, since two of the most important revolutions in America came out of bars, that got me wondering if everything else that ever happened in America happened in a bar…
4. Your book focuses on the different type of bars throughout history and how each period had a signature type of bar, such as prohibition’s speakeasy or the taverns of colonial times. What would you say was the signature bar of the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and present day?
I wasn’t of legal drinking age for some of that time, but it seems to me that there were a lot of dance clubs and roadhouses in the 1980s. In Canada, pubs really got big in the 1990s. After the turn of the millennium, we saw a lot of focus on cocktails and craft beer. I’m not sure about now but it does seem to me like we’re starting to see a lot of games in bars – trivia, board games, pinball and old arcade games being brought back.
5. With your research have you studied how the legal drinking age has changed bar culture? If so how?
What I can say is that the prohibition of alcohol for certain segments of the population has never led to safer drinking conditions for that segment of the population. Stonewall is an excellent example of this, since the de facto illegality of public drinking places for the queer community forced them to drink in unsafe places run by organized crime. The same thing happens in dry communities, where there are high rates of incidents produced by risky behavior (i.e. buying or making illegal, substandard alcohol or drinking black market liquor in unsafe places, such as outside and risking exposure).
6. Your book discusses how bars acts to synthesize or mix together different groups of people that wouldn’t usually interact if not for the bar, can you elaborate on this?
To force everyone under 21 into this type of risky behavior seems absurd, given that we know that most people develop an interest in alcohol as a part of social life about five or six years before that. I would rather have the kids in the bars. Plus, bars that encourage families (Irish pubs and Spanish patios, for example), seem to have a little bit of a softer edge. I think you’d be more likely to see a brawl at a Coyote Ugly than at a Saturday afternoon music jam open to families.
7. In correlation with the question above, what happens when certain groups of people are denied access to that synthesizing space? What roles do elite bars play in American culture?
Everything I know about this I either learned from the bar I worked at or the book The Great Good Place. It’s not just that neighborhood taverns are the place where you meet people from all walks of life–professors, short-order cooks, cab drivers, weed dealers and lawyers all went to the bar I worked at–it’s that, in that space, when important issues are discussed, people usually check their degrees at the door. It’s not only diverse, it’s also equalizing.
8. What would you say the role of the bar is in a neighborhood, how does it interact with residents?
I think that the stratification of bars is a symptom of increasing inequality and polarization. And I think that will only make that inequality worse, since it turns bars into echo chambers, as opposed to community centers. To some degree, bars are also places in which political and economic power is consolidated since you make connections with people and help them find jobs or economic opportunities. That’s the problem with men’s only bars and clubs and Vice Presidents who don’t dine with women. If you can’t get in there, you can’t acquire the social capital.
In American history, the elites consistently tried to demonize and/or shut down bars that catered to ethnic minorities and working classes. I argue that’s because they were places for those groups to make their own social networks and consolidate power. The best example of this are the Decatur street bars in Atlanta in the early 1900s.
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer neighborhood taverns in existence all the time. At their best, they are places where people establish community and discuss important local issues.
9. What are some other methods you have discovered that people or governments have used to regulate bars?
Prohibition! And, after repeal, zoning is probably the worst culprit. Also municipal tax structures and severe liquor licensing rules. In Ontario, we had gender segregated beer parlors for a long time after repeal.
John Reagan graduated from Georgetown in 1984 and is the go-to historian on all things alumni and sports at Georgetown. He created the website hoyasaxa.com which tracks Georgetown’s football and basketball history from 1996 till today. He is also the recipients of the 2017 John Carroll Award, which is given to an “alumni whose achievements and record of service exemplify the ideals and traditions of Georgetown and its founder.”