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Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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You can blame it on reality TV, maybe, but for some reason or another the city's landscape has been spotted with derivative establishments meant to emulate some sort of urban-rustic style or fashion to better serve a growing hipster clientele. Urban Outfitters is the biggest culprit: they purposely fashion their stores to look as if they broke into a warehouse and set up an overpriced boutique. Take the UO on Clark near Fullerton. Exposed ceilings, "cracked" cement floors and roughly hewn wood abound. This is after, of course, you pass through the "shattered" glass door. Real such places exist: Ragstock, for example, was built up from nothing and has been around forever.

The dive bar is another fascination of the hipster crowd. So many false "dive bars" have popped up and become popular in the last three or four years that the situation has become critical: people are beginning to blur the line between reality and reality's shadow.

Now, the term "dive" bar came about because these bars were usually in the basements of buildings and one had to walk down steps to get into them (like Ira's in the Warehouse District). Eventually it came to mean any late-hour bar with seedy atmosphere and cheap prices. Because of what I call the Trucker Chic (also Ugly Chic) movement that has taken hold of many of Chicago's young urban professionals, an aesthetic was created that demanded a "shitty, cheap," bar wherein faded jeans, ironic t-shirts, and foam front/mesh back hats would seem more in place.

But the hipsters didn't want to hang at real dive bars. Such places can be intimidating and more often than not are located in shady neighborhoods.

This is fine: its the fashion of the day, and if you condemned everybody who did something trendy (as this hipster crowd surely is), you'd be a lonely person. The trouble is, the places they call dive bars are absolutely not that. They are dive-knock-offs. More accurately, they're Hipster Bars, designed to accommodate hipsters as much as Neo (Clark north of Belden) is designed to accommodate Goth kids.

So, what is a dive bar?

♠ It should be cheap. But remember, a real dive bar's volume is going to be much lower than that of a Hipster Bar, and therefore it may actually be slightly more expensive than the Hipster Bars you frequent.
♥ It should be simple. Dive bars won't have themes and rarely will have specialty jukeboxes; if they do, it'll be outdated and usually be tailored to an ethnicity or the neighborhood and not a subculture.
♣ Surliness. Any bar in Bridgeport will be a quick leson in surliness. The staff (the single bartender, usually the owner or relative of the owner, and sometimes a busboy/barback) will probably stare at you curiously, as will the clientele, who will be lifers from the neighborhood.
♦ Sports. Wanna strike up a conversation? Try sports. Just don't let the conversation turn to ethnicity, since old-timers are likely to have serious issues with some race or creed.

The biggest rule, of course, is that it can't be a widely known and frequented place that pulls in people from all over the City. People from the neighborhood will probably just call it "the bar." The Rainbo Club on Damen near Division, once a popular hang-out for post-war era Polish toughs and drug addicts, is not a dive bar anymore. Want a place that's still popular with that crowd? The South Loop Club, 600 or so South State, usually has a small coterie of drug dealers and pimps on a given weeknight. Or, if its the Polish themselves you seek, I'm a fan of Tina's, 5708 S. Western.

The L & L, on Clark near Belmont, try as it may, is not a dive bar, but the favorite of any number of hipsters. If you're looking fo ra similar feel, with the added bonus of live music a few nights a week, try 5105 Club, at 5105 W. North Avenue in Austin (try to wear a Blackhawks shirt or UNLV hat -- this is Vice Lord territory, and the Hawk has an upside-down fork on his forehead, and UNLV is backwards for "Vice Lord Nation United).

Along with Trucker Chic comes the style one could call Cowboy Chic, a rebirth of the Urban Cowboy movement of the 1980s with less intensity and more punk-rock roots. To fulfill your cowboy dreams, skip Hogs n' Honeys (1500 or so North Sheffield). You can try A&J's at 6336 South Harlem (Garfield Ridge, next to Summit), or you can stay up there in the Great White North and try Carol's in Uptown (4659 N. Clark), a Southern dive bar featuring real-to-life southerners. Just don't mistake it for Carol's Place. This is a less-than-surly dive in Garfield Park, around 3900 W. Madison. Good place for a game of spades and cheap booze--but not that cheap--but talk of the Bulls can quickly turn to uncomfortable conversations about conspiracies and certain paler races. Friendly folks, though. Also Vice Lord territory, so don't show the One and don't be shy to break forks.

The Exit, a former biker bar north of Ranch Triangle on North Avenue, has a reputation as a "dangerous" place, perhaps because of its biker heritage. For some real danger, you can come with me down the Green Line to La Keeler Lounge at 4200 or so West Lake, in the neighborhood Twista called home: K-Town. But wear a UI jersey -- the U and I represent a fork going up, which the New Breed-Triple L sets would appreciate; or an SF Giants jersey--for Super Folk Gangsters. La Keeler is hit-or-miss; it can be crowded or sparse, and the prices seem to vary. I've only been a few times, always with someone from a nearby neighborhood, and I always had fun. As far as dives go, not a bad choice, if you're willing to throw forks when dared. On the way there, anyway.

Of course, these are just a few examples. In any given inland neighborhood, you can find places with an Old Style sign and "Piwo" or "Cerveza" scrawled beneath it. That is, of course, if you're looking for a dive bar. If you're looking for cachet, Phyllis', Gold Star, Club Foot, and/or Black Beetle serves you fine, anyway.

• Richard's (Grand and Halsted, across from Funky Buddha)
• Al's Tap (8657 S. Commercial --South Shore)
• Papa's (3506 W. Montrose)
• Clinchers (uh...somewhere in Pilsen)
• Flo's (5436 W. Montrose)
• Regency (5600 W. Belmont)
• Uncle Remus/T&T Lounge (Lake and Halsted, SW Corner)
• Ethyl's Party (2600 S. Wentworth)
• Water Hole (1400 S. Western)
• Bob Inn (Near Fullerton and Western)
Anywhere in Stone Park, especially the flesh joints.


Alejandra / July 18, 2003 8:07 AM

And don't forget Helen's 2 Way Lounge, on Milwaukee off of Fullerton, near that shady looking "Royal Restaurant/Banquet Hall."

It's been family owned for over 20 years.

Andrew / July 18, 2003 10:29 AM

You seem to imply that dive bars can only be in areas that are gang-controlled or economically depressed. I disagree. Dive bars are everywhere, not just in dangerous neighborhoods, and the ones in popular neighborhoods *haven't* all been co-opted by the hipsters.

The Edgewater neighborhood has at least a half-dozen dives, including Ollie's on Berwyn, The Sovereign on Broadway at Granville, The Double Bubble on Broadway at Glenlake, and Memories on Clark a block south of Devon.

Even in Wrigleyville, there's the Nisei Lounge, which used to fill up with hipsters for the last couple hours of the night, but since a fake-Irish bar opened up two doors down it's gone back to full-time dive status. Also the little bar attached to Clark Dogs in the crotch of Clark and Halsted.

Whet / July 18, 2003 11:00 AM

One thing worth mentioning about Carol's: *Outstanding* bar band on the weekends. The lead guitarist can bring it, and they seem to know most any song you can request. More so than the dive aspect, this is what makes Carol's worthwhile.

Cinnamon / July 18, 2003 11:13 AM

See, I've been to the Bob Inn, and it seems to be undergoing a hipster transformation. They have a good jukebox with a really varied selection, and there are trucker hats on guys who have a stool and trucker hats on kids drinking up till its cool to hit the nouveau dives you mention.

And, don't forget Harlo's on Clark a block north of Granville. Very divey and very diverse. Heard three languages besides English last time we were in there.

kegz / July 18, 2003 11:55 AM

I go to bars to have a good time, talk, drink, and watch the people. Whether I go to Hopleaf, Carol's Pub, Lakeview Lounge, the Daily Bar & Grill, or bowl at Timber Lanes, I could really care less if I'm getting the "real" experience. If I need to flash gang signs (which I have no clue about) to feel comfortable, then I'm definitely in the wrong place. I don't want to wear colors any more than I want to wear fancy clothes to go to a place like N9ne or Sauce or whatever well-dressed bars are out there now that I don't know about.

The rules you've noted for what a "real" dive bar is sound as ludicrous as the rules hipsters follow for what makes a place hip.

Just listen to the music and enjoy yourself, there's nothing critical about the situation.

Phineas / July 18, 2003 12:04 PM

I'll second that. If I have to start worrying about if my dive bar is authentic enough to please you I won't have nearly enough time to worry if my trucker hat is ironic enough. Un-hipper than thou is just as irritating as hipper than thou. Just shut up and drink.

miss ellen / July 18, 2003 12:10 PM

the dive bar status is so fleeting, IMO. while i don't think dive bars necessitate a dangerous location, maybe that's the only way to keep the hipsters at bay.

really, hasn't just about every up-n-coming neighborhood been overrun with "hipsters" in the past few years? in the words of jane's addiction, i'm "such a classic girl...", and the abundance of hipsters make me long for some of the bars down on western ave in beverly.

at least with these places, you'll find aunts and uncles mingling with underagers, die-hard sox fans, and NO mesh hats or arm bands in sight ;p while they don't pass for true dive bars, they aren't passing themselves off as one, either.

Marc / July 18, 2003 1:01 PM

Half of the people that run this site could happily fit under the *hipster* umbrella - why do you wield it like a slur?

"Un-hipper than thou is just as irritating as hipper than thou. Just shut up and drink."

truer words never spoken - hear, hear Phineas!

Shylo / July 18, 2003 1:27 PM

The only hard-and-fast rule I've found separating dive from non-dive is price. A swanky bar will always cost more than the hole-in-the-wall.

Now, I'm going to go over here and listen to Death Cab for Cutie while I sip this Blatz. Word up.

Mark W. Anderson / July 18, 2003 1:47 PM

God forgive me for the potential disrespect that appears to land on anyone's ideas from my response, but here goes:

Debating the aesthetic merits of “dive” bars betrays a fundamental lack of social consciousness that goes beyond notions of whether or not sufficient authenticity exists in any particular establishment to be worth the potential drinker’s time. Throughout this admittedly brief conversation so far (of article and comments), the implicit assumption seems to exist that some bars – based on their location, appearance, or clientele – are nothing more than yet another set of consumer choices to be made by a group of people who have absolute and complete choice in the matter of not only where they drink but also, in many cases, of where they live. Get beyond the visceral excitement of “keepin’ it real” for a generation raised on simultaneous beliefs about inherent rights of safety and security and the need to accumulate “authentic” experience, and you’ve very likely got a set of older, less prosperous people occupying a particular “dive” bar who, if asked, would no doubt resent being discussed as nothing more than mere backdrop for “hipster” attempts at playing the game of being grown up. Urban decay and the damage it does to communities is not simply another set of aesthetic choices. Instead, it is often a repository of lost chances and long-forgotten opportunities - and in many cases broken lives and closed futures -even if the decay in question is a somewhat “unrespectable” bar in an otherwise gentrified neighborhood.

Put another way, the people who might count as regulars at a “dive” bar often frequent the place because they have no other choice if they want to participate in the same social interactions we younger and more prosperous members of the community take for granted. Dive bars are “cheap” in large part because people without steady incomes usually can’t pay $5.00 for a Guinness. They're dirty or broken because the owner realizes that his customers aren't in a position to demand better. Owners and patrons may be "surly" because they know first-hand what it's like to be dealt bad hands in life. It happens, and society finds a way of congregating these people the same way it congregates the successful. On the other hand, those who can afford Guinness, demand better appearences, and laugh at the easy joke, I would argue, shouldn’t treat the kinds of places in question as another set of choices for a Friday night out.

Rasmin notes that “people are beginning to blur the line between reality and reality's shadow.” To order to effectively understand the depth of such a statement would require existence on the other side of the reality divide, not a mere visit or two.

I liked Mr.(?) Canon’s piece. My apologies to anyone who may think I am being unduly harsh.

Mark W. Anderson / July 18, 2003 1:51 PM

BTW: the phrase " 'hipster' attempts at playing the game of being grown up" was not directed at the participants of the current conversation, but on my own, previous experiences with acquaintances who have had similar conversations.


Wiz of Odds / July 18, 2003 2:38 PM

A lot of people are taking the point backwards. By pointing (tongue in cheek) what a real dive bar is, the thing being emphasized is that it doesn't matter. If you really, really want to go to one, I offered some suggestions (tongue-in-cheek). The most interesting part is that people apply things to themselves that obviously shouldn't. If you don't treat the pseudo dive bars as such, then obviously you are not under any illusions. Therefore the above text doesn't apply to you.

Never is there an implication that there's something wrong with going to places like L&L etc. If you have fun there, go. It's no worse or better than going to White Star or Biology or Transit. That's kind of the point: there is no difference.

Mr. Anderson's contention that all dive bar patrons are surly because they've been dealt "a bad hand" is a bit patronizing just as it would be to say they're all "hard-bitten," etc. Most of the folks I met at these places are generally content working class people with a neighborhood hang out.

I'm not going to make an apologia for myself or present a resume. But I also know that you can learn a lot from talking to people, without ever walking in their shoes. To believe otherwise is solipsism. The idea of the shadow becoming reality was employed to discuss pop entertainment in general.

I'm not sure exactly what I'm being accused of in Mr Anderson's post, there, but it seems exactly like what I'm accusing others of. I don't hang out in dive bars, excepting the period when that was where I made my money. Un-hipper Than Thou is ridiculous, and I personally don't think there's any cachet in hanging out in real or fake dives. People are not props. Which is exactly my point. Don't worry about whether your favorite watering hole is a dive bar, just enjoy it for what it is.

You don't need to fabricate experience. You shouldn't smirk at the scantily clad women and open-shirted men shivering in front of Rive Gauche, and you shouldn't roll your eyes at hipsters crowding the bar at the L&L. It's the mindset of a select few I was making fun of, not all hipsters-in-general.

How often have I been at parties or bars where I was treated like a Neanderthal because I don't like Material Issue and am having a conversation about Bartolo Colon's top speed come August? You'd be surprised. But that's okay, as long as we all abstain from taking ourselves too
seriously. How often do any of you use the phrase "yuppie bar," like a slur? Is it different when its you?

They're just bars. There's no poetry or beauty or life lessons in bars, because whether its in Garfield Park or Edgewater (my old neighborhood) the diversity of people in there will be so deep that any generalization will fall short. It's just a bar. This was just an essay poking some fun. Take it easy.

Because, you know, the people who take themselves too seriously are the people who are the easiest to laugh at.

Wiz of Odds / July 18, 2003 2:46 PM

I'm wondering if I may be in danger of icy stares and hurled danishes at tonight's party...


Wendy / July 18, 2003 2:52 PM

Hey, kids! Let's all rent a school bus and go to Stone Park!

Okay, I'm kidding. I appreciate the discussion.

Mark W. Anderson / July 18, 2003 2:53 PM


You said "This was just an essay poking some fun. Take it easy" and you're right. I'm not trying to accuse anybody of anything, and debated quite a bit whether to post my response or not. Maybe I should have made the other choice. But I live in a city and a time when I see much of the history and the social fabric that makes the city so appealing being torn down and sold off wholesale to the very people mentioned disparagingly in the article, and I don't know what to do about it. I actually read the piece as more journalism than "tongue in cheek" and perhaps that's my fault.

My apologies to any readers who may be disappointed in what looks like an attempt on my part to turn a nice discussion into a contentious issue, and to the author who doesn't need my issues clouding his work. I meant no such intent.

Andrew / July 18, 2003 3:20 PM

(Fear not. If anyone throws a danish at you, Ramsin, I'll kick'em out.)

If the point of the column was "it's just a bar, don't take it so seriously," it's an odd way of communicating it to compare hipster hangouts with "real" dive bars in a way that makes the former out to be an insincere parody of the latter. Taking a stab at defining what a real dive bar is obviously drew attention away from what you were really getting at.

I don't pay any attention or preference to whether a bar is cool, I go for a drink or two with friends. If I can find a seat, even better, which means I'm up for a lot of places that Trixies wouldn't set foot in. Whether I'm treated well or not determines whether I'll be back, and I have to say, dives like The Sovereign and Nisei have tended to be much more appreciative of my business than L&L or Black Beetle.

As for how to react to the people "tearing down" the social fabric of the city, Mark, keep in mind that social fabric is tearable for a reason -- society is not stagnant, and it's not conservationist. We're not the first generation to ignore the history of a place, and if new blood wasn't brought in to replace the old, your cherished landmarks would close and decay much faster. Professional drinkers can only live so long before their livers give out, and some of these hipsters will be the ones to take their permanent seats at the bar.

Wiz of Odds / July 18, 2003 3:59 PM

Well met, Andrew. A reordering of the paragraphs would've helped. The reason I picked the places I picked--like La Keeler in K-Town--was to show the silliness of seeking out a dive bar. And since you don't seek out a bar that's "cool," (or "dive-y" in this insistence) the essay wasn't directed at you. It was directed at those who do--and believe me, such people exist.

And, Marc, just because half the people on the site could happily call themselves hipsters, doesn't mean the site was meant exclusively for hipsters, does it? Isn't this meant for the people of Chicago in general? Those are the Chicago flag stars in the title, not the nautical stars currently being inked on the backs of so many people's arms.

brian / July 18, 2003 4:50 PM

Well, if it helps at all, I'm going to buy a 6-pack of something in a can at a tap room before I head over to the Block party. Perhaps I'll stop for an extra drink too.

Personally, I think a dive bar is as much a feeling of a place as a place. Like pornography, I "know it when I see it".

Morgan / July 19, 2003 8:51 PM

Why would you recommend that people flip the forks and rock lords shit? That's a terrible idea. It's not like anyone's going to mistake you for a member of their gang and be extra cool to you -- if anything theyre going to kick your ass for fronting. You just added that crap to make it sound like you were down. Congratulations, you know what a gang is. Does that mean you're not a hipster?

Wiz of Odds / July 20, 2003 4:30 AM

Suggested on the assumption that no one would do it. To illustrate a point. I do know what a gang is: they were all over the neighborhood I was born in--yet I'm neither down nor a hipster. You seem pretty down though. Will you be my friend?

clodius / July 20, 2003 7:26 PM

My rule of thumb: A bar that contains restroom advertising from Zoom Media or others of their marketing ilk is not a dive. A dive is a place where the patrons aren't considered worthy of being targeted.

Cinnamon / July 21, 2003 11:29 AM

"you say you're a gangsta/but you never popped nuthin'/we say you wanksta/and you need to stop frontin' "
Who knew 50 cent would be appropriate for this discussion?

potsie / July 22, 2003 1:07 AM

Give it up to your quintessential generational dilemma: how do we know what we're doing/thinking/wearing/buying/drinking is really authentic and not self-created? It's pretty obvious that just the act of _____ing isn't authentic enough for our divided minds. We're all just cynical and jaded and suspicious enough to question the motivations of our motivations

Ah, the scintillating schizophrenia of a generation who's been marketed to since birth . . .

Mark W. Anderson / July 22, 2003 6:52 AM

Did 50 cent really use the term "wanksta"?

Cinnamon / July 22, 2003 11:24 AM

Yep, Mark. "Wanksta" is the name of this rather catchy ditty that I hear the neighborhood kids booming from their cars. It was on the 8-mile soundtrack. And, while parts of it aren't exactly pro-strong women, the catchiness of it is causing it to live in a section of my brain that I can't quite clean out.

mike zapata / July 23, 2003 11:53 PM

"Let's go to a dive bar. Dive bar, eh? And i forgot my swim shorts and poverty back at Paradise Hotel. Damn"

Chris Lee / July 28, 2003 1:20 AM

I think the term "dive bar" is used mor loosely within most social circles than your used to. You seem to have become paranoid, or simply just annoyed with the term rather than its actual connotation. If I have friends in from out of town who consider Club Foot to be a dive bar, which it's not by most standards. Dive bar seems to be a term your obsessed with because hipsters like to use it. I don't think it's the mis-use as much as the over use that bothers you. Then again

antichrist / September 26, 2003 2:54 PM

It's much smarter not to waste your time with the philosophy of "dive bars" and hipsters. I appreciate this page and the original writing for sharing opinions of neat places to hang out. However, I enjoy these places because they are discovered by me, or by word of mouth from friends, or through exploration and unique interest in a neighborhood. The people that can't find these places don't deserve this checklist. Many of you are the people who ruined Carol's by pushing all the locals to the back while dancing and acting like a bunch of glutonous maggots on fresh roadkill. Now it's a bunch of wanna-be's that think they've discovered the real "Hideout". It's very sad. You're the same people who buried the Checkerboard in your post-swank bar mode, having picked up a girl and gone to a "real blues bar" (2am stupor). I guess my point is this. Thanks for sharing your secrets, over-philosophing something that should come naturally and killing and gentrifying the world with your hipster mentality.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon exposes the soft underbelly of the city at CHICAGO: Howtown on the Make.

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