Tavern Trends

In 1947 there were nearly 7,000 taverns in Chicago, a number that has dropped to just 1,321 today. In Los Angeles, the number of bars has dropped from 866 in 1989 to 497 today, a decline of 43% in 15 years. In Boston the number has dropped 24% since 1978 and in Philadelphia, the number has declined a full one-third since 1971. These drops reflect a decline in alcohol consumption among Americans.

The pattern is even more pronounced in African-American neighborhoods throughout Chicago. There is an average of only 13 taverns per black ward compared to a citywide average of 27. On the other hand, in Hispanic wards the average is 31 bars.

Dr. Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, views the decline in taverns as yet another example of the decline in Americans’ civic and social involvement. Dr. Putnam says the weakening role of taverns in American life is a problem because they have historically served as community builders. “You show up for one reason, but while you’re there, you chat with people and engage in discussion of public affairs - and that’s important for democracy” he explains.

As a bartender in one Hispanic tavern observes, “It’s pretty close-knit. It’s almost like a family. They keep each other up to speed on things.” The owner of another Hispanic tavern describes his place: “It’s not a club, but it looks like a club. There’s always the same people. We know each other.”

Taverns serve as informal social clubs or gathering spots that help create a sense of community. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg of the University of West Florida has identified bars as examples of what he terms “third places.” Such places are not associated with either family or work, and are where people informally gather, get to know each other and form small communities.

During the American colonial period, taverns were considered so important to the community that laws sometimes required their establishment, and often specified that they be located near churches and meeting halls.

But today taverns face the growing challenge of a powerful and well-funded neo-Prohibition movement. As historian Perry C. Duis says, ‘I think there might be, deep down inside of people, a Prohibition mentality that liquor itself is evil.” One tavern owner recognizes that the service he provides isn’t as widely appreciated as it once was. He describes the time his 12-year-old son came home after attending the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program and made reference to alcohol being a drug. Implicitly, his father was a drug dealer rather than an honest businessman and good member of the community.

No wonder there are fewer taverns.


References and Readings:

  • Reardon, Patrick T. Tapped Out. Chicago Tribune, 6-17-04.
  • Duis, Perry C. The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Problems: Alcohol, Culture and Control. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.
  • Oldenburg, Ray. Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You through the Day. NY: Paragon House, 1989.
  • Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

filed under: Economics