CHICAGO BEAT :: Neighborhood Taverns Drying Up Across Chicago by Judy Keen

by admin on February 18, 2012

via Gannett News Service

What used to be Johnnie’s Lounge at 3425 N. Lincoln is empty now, though a fading Hamm’s Beer sign still hangs over its locked door. Paulie’s Place at 1750 S. Union is vacant. So is the spot once occupied by MaxTavern at 2856 N. Racine.

Neighborhood taverns, which for generations were cornerstones of Chicago’s ethnic communities, are being squeezed out by the economy, gentrification, changing tastes and city regulations that make it more difficult to operate in residential areas.

“Hopefully, they won’t disappear,” said Scott Martin, owner of Simon’s Tavern at Foster and Clark, which has served patrons in Andersonville, once a Swedish enclave, since 1934.

It’s a cliché, said Martin, 51, but “it’s great to go someplace where everybody knows your name.”

It’s still possible to find old-school taverns that cater to neighborhoods and serve inexpensive beverages, said Sean Parnell, who wrote the 2010 book Historic Bars of Chicago and runs the Chicago Bar Project, which chronicles the city’s bar scene and tracks the demise of such spots.

“There aren’t many of them around anymore,” he says. “You really can’t get a tavern license in areas that have regentrified…and the costs for licensing and insurance have really gone up.”

Bob Smerch closed Sterch’s at 2238 N. Lincoln — which combined his name with that of a partner named Stern — a couple of years ago with great reluctance after 38 years in business. “It was a neighborhood joint where everybody knew everybody,” said Smerch, 70. “I miss it horribly.” Today, he said, “people want bars now that focus on 20- or 30-year-olds and are so different from the ones that were.”

In the days before television, people — mostly men — sought diversions in neighborhood taverns, said Michael Ebner, history professor emeritus at Lake Forest College.

“There was a degree of camaraderie there and a sense of neighborliness as well,” he said. “The social bonds that evolved…were quite enduring.”

Home-cooked meals often were available at taverns, which became hubs of political activity and, eventually, places to watch sports events on TV.

“The tradition lives on, but in sharply diminished proportion,” Ebner said.

In 1990, about 3,300 Chicago establishments had tavern licenses allowing them to serve alcoholic beverages; places that also offer live entertainment, charge admission or serve food as a primary source of business require different or additional licenses.

The number diminished as city leaders sought closure of bars that prompted police calls or complaints from neighbors, and since 2009, the number of tavern licenses has held steady at about 1,200.

There are about 5,000 businesses in the city that sell alcohol, including package goods stores, taverns, clubs and restaurants.

Opening or buying a tavern in Chicago can be complicated, said Mike Costanzo, a real estate broker with Jameson Commercial. Aldermen can seek liquor license moratoriums in areas as small as two blocks, and buyers are required to purchase the corporate entity that owns an existing tavern and license, he said.

“Getting a new tavern license issued in a residential neighborhood is brutal,” Costanzo said. “It’s virtually impossible.”

Ebner hopes Chicago’s remaining taverns can survive. If people stay home instead of patronizing neighborhood pubs, he said, “it really fosters a sense of personal isolation.”

Martin says the survival of the city’s sense of community is at stake. When he bought Simon’s Tavern 17 years ago, he found a shoebox containing $80,000 in IOUs. When a longtime patron died, he and his other customers gave the man, who had no family, a funeral.

When he was growing up in the neighborhood, Martin said, there were 15 bars on the street where Simon’s Tavern is located.

“They’re all gone,” he said.

—Judy Keen

Courtesy of our Chicago Guy, Paul Ciminero; from The Chicago Sun Times 2/18/12.

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