Culture | The dying breed of dive bars

A search for authenticity in the urban nightscape

It was one of those cold nights on Parc, the kind that leaves your eyes with a tearful glaze. Frustrated with the bitter wind, I dipped into the warm refuge of Bar Primetime for a quick kick to keep me going. Drifting past the clattering echoes of the pool table, I settled down amidst the ranks of older men lining the wooden bar and ordered what I considered a classic – rye and ginger. “What the hell is rye?” the bleary-eyed waitress laughed, staring at the liquors behind the bar in utter stupor. Evidently, drinks were not their specialty.

Finally, a bearded gentleman lifted his gaunt finger from the weathered pages of a book to point out a hidden bottle. “It’s the rye content that gives the whiskey its name,” he muttered as he tucked his head back down. Anita, the waitress, prepared the drink, asking what brought a young girl to the bar by herself. Upon mentioning my interest in dive bars, she took one quick glance around the room and winked, “Well, honey, you came to the right place.”

The topic of dive bars elicits a multitude of reactions, most drenched in mild apathy. “Oh, the greasy spoon of bars,” remarked Rebecca Borkowsky, a U1 English Literature student, “Yeah, I don’t do those.” While some students would never step foot into the dark depths of an elusive dive, others praise them for their eclectic atmosphere, cheap beer, and impressive collection of nineties rock. “I’ve revealed some of my deepest secrets over a pitcher at this place, usually to the soundtrack of a soft-rock ballad,” recounted Aaron Vansintjan, a U4 student in Joint Honours Philosophy & Environmental Studies and the current chair of the DPS board and former Daily design and production editor, during a night out in the dim wooden tavern of Aux Verres Stérilisés.

The quintessential image of rustic grit associated with a neighbourhood dive can be either appealing or appalling, depending on perspective. For some, these residual spaces are seen as archaic and anarchic in contrast to the postmodern veneer of gentrified brandscapes. For others, these misconceptions of blight are folded into a portrait of urban authenticity, inspiring nostalgia for an unspoken history.

As I took a sip of my drink back at Primetime, a young guy by the name of Neal Wilder jostled up next to me wearing a suit and tie, asking for a pen. Having grown up in the area, he gave me a brief history of the street, “All of Parc used to be owned by the Greeks, with parts of it being bought out by the Jewish communities. It wasn’t until the past 10 or 15 years, though, that you began to notice a real change.” As the rents were driven up and storeowners could no longer afford their units, a wave of traditional shops closed down. Primetime was one of the few bars that managed to resist the postmodern push of gentrification. “If you’re looking for an authentic experience, this is it,” Wilder insisted, “one of the few places that stayed true to the authentic spirit of Parc.”

What puts these dives on the “cutting-edge” of the fast-paced, post-industrial bar-scene is, ironically enough, their resistance to the forefront of change. These alternative nightlife spaces aren’t the work of designers or expert mixologists. Rather, they’re socially constructed and collectively imagined by a marginal voice – those members of the community who may elsewhere feel isolated, but here, feel at home – evoking a strong sense of place beyond their gritty façades. When Wilder returned to his game of pool, the well-dressed man sitting beside him picked up where the conversation left off. He went by the name of Marco, and claimed to be a “secret partner” of Primetime. “It’s the politics of dive bars that give them their character,” he explained, “these face to face interactions between the patron and the owner create authenticity.” Anyone who has spent a night out at Plage Montenegro (formerly Miami) can relate to this, with the owner’s infamous reputation for pouring free drinks to keep the conversation flowing.

And it’s these conversant proprietors who are our city’s true historians, scattering obscured chronicles of drinking cultures across the city. Back in the day, the advent of advanced dishware sanitation was a major attraction for drinking establishments in Montreal. Taverns in the 1930s and 1940s would hang large billboards boasting “Verres Stérilisés” to all who walked the streets. Yet as the years moved on, these taverns were torn down, one by one, until only the façade of “Aux Verres Stérilisés” remained on the corner of St. Hubert and Rachel. “This bar has been open since the 1940s, passed down from grandfather to father to son,” the bartender explained in broken English, as he placed a single white rose on the cash register. “People are gathering from the neighbourhood, they’re drawn by the conversations and the cheap drinks.”

When I ventured out to St. Henri, a similar trend towards neighbourhood identity was taking place. The dolled-up waitress at Le Black Jack Bar would go back and forth between answering my questions and fact checking with the regulars, creating an unconventional sense of community.

This is not meant to glorify dive bars as the last saving grace of community spirit. While these bars might stand in solidarity against the problem of public alienation, they are not always doing so in legal terms. The limited profits accrued from VLTs, jukeboxes, pool matches, and inexpensive drinks often suggest alternative means of income to sustain business. “It’s a controlled environment, but it’s corrupt,” Wilder hinted. Fortunately for the dives, dystopian representations of the urban city often entice the younger crowds in search for a cheap thrill. “The real problem arises when you reach a certain carrying capacity,” Marco warned, “If too many students started coming to Primetime, it would no longer be true to itself. It would kill the spirit.” As a result, these holes in the wall must limit their advertising schemes to word of mouth and unassuming awnings. It’s a strategic game of survival, maintained by an age-old cautionary tale: With any public declaration of authenticity, an obituary is soon to follow.