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What Exactly Is A "Dive" Bar?

What Exactly Is A "Dive" Bar?

 

I've seen them on television and the movies, and I've even been in them (well, when you're from Cicero, Illinois, you've got to do something), but what exactly is a dive bar? Or more specifically, a gay dive bar?

The ones I have seen on television and the movies sometimes seem like parodies of these places which in some cases are identical with what used to be called neighborhood taverns. You know, the place where working class guys like Archie Bunker and Ralph Cramden would hang out at; remember Kelsey's on All in the Family?
 

All in the Family

Or the one in Valley of the Dolls that Neely O'Hara (on a booze and pills binge in San Francisco) gets kicked out of; this scene (starting at 1:17:16) pretty much parodies the “dive;” tacky or nonexistent décor, which sometimes involves dark wood paneling; aggressive, bawling customers who begin with beer and end up doing shots; lots of smoking; and a jukebox, all as a backdrop for the inevitable fight.

In some neighborhoods of Chicago, in the early part of the last century, there were often three of these places on every block to accommodate thirsty workers from various manufacturing jobs who wanted in to delay going home to overcrowded two- and three-flats filled with screaming children and nagging wives. They weren't necessarily dives, but they weren't doing a high-class clientele, but the local “average Joe.”

Now gay bars, of course, for the greater part of the last century, had to take often extraordinary measures to just survive. The couldn't exactly be open watering holes for Mr. and Mrs. Bunker. (Well, other open holes existed there, but that's another blog.) And to survive often meant being a dive (or pay off the police or the Mafia), because that's all you could afford being, plus looking “rough,” though it could attract a less “classy” clientele, often kept away bigots.Leather Bar, 1978


Early leather bars like the Gold Coast certainly were dives physically, but in cases like that, the “dive” look was a deliberate part of their appeal: rough sex, rugged guys, bikers. The old Touche bar in Chicago on Lincoln Avenue perhaps was more strictly kink and leather (think piss trough), but the beers stacked up by the entrance and the generally seedy surroundings (I remember the floor was dirty, and it was caked in; no comment on how I would know such detail) certainly proclaimed “dive.”


Wells Street, Chicago, 1970s

The Glory Hole on Wells Street when that street was the gayborhood was perhaps more of the pure “dive:” not only the totally rough, thrown-together look, but the backroom (and bathroom) for quickies and more. Perhaps some of the bars that used to bill themselves as “leather and levi” rather than strictly leather (with a dress code) could be defined as more strictly dive, like the now-closed Rawhide in Chelsea, or still thriving, the Second Story Bar right off the Magnificent Mile (yes, it is still there!) and the Granville Anvil on the Far North Side of Chicago, somewhat distant from the trendy, touristy Boystown.

In fact, the Granville Anvil bills itself as a dive bar. From what I gather, based on their Yelp reviews and Facebook page, they've “spruced up” the décor. Did the owners take out the paneling and the plastic flowers covered with dust hanging in baskets from the ceiling, I wonder? I know, because I was there in the nineties, and yes, there was a jukebox playing Cher's song “Half-Breed,” and also, there was a fight in the bathroom. I was indirectly involved. The friend I went with was in the fight. I found out he was pissed because some guy would not leave me alone (those were the days), and then started bugging my friend as well. That night, I also won some lottery tickets as a prize for getting Bingo. I didn't win the lottery.
 

The Granville Anvil

I wonder, in these days when other “divey” places like 24-hour grills and diners have disappeared and were replaced by big box stores and chain restaurants, if the authentic dive bar can survive. Neighborhood taverns evolved into sports bars, and hipsters have set up “divey” places as part their deconstruction of retro; but what will happen to the gay dive bar? I have a feeling it's been replaced by the seedy underbelly of craigslist, minus, so sadly, the both fun and dangerous social interaction in a place where ultimately, a gay man could both hide from and enjoy himself. And share that identity struggle with others over a shot of whiskey while listening to Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” on jukebox that still played vinyl.

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