Drinkin’ good in the neighborhood
Good citizens of Portland, prepare for war — full-on cultural warfare. The spirit of our city is at stake: the convivial spirit that flourishes in our good old neighborhood bars.
As became frightening clear during the last City Council meeting, many (if not a majority) of our nine elected representatives are keen to make the neighborhood bar a thing of Portland’s past. It was chilling the way these local lawmakers waxed indignant over the very idea a tavern could open on, or even near, a residential street.
Citywide rezoning that could keep alcohol-serving establishments hundreds of feet from any human dwelling may be on the agenda in the coming months. The few existing neighborhood watering holes would likely be grandfathered in, but once shuttered after years or months of increased scrutiny and dwindling business, the taps will never flow again.
The establishment that sparked this rhetorical firestorm, The Tree, doesn’t even exist yet, and most likely never will – at least in the form originally envisioned by Jill and Joe Cooper, who own the Danforth Street building last known as Sisters. It’s also a stretch to call the area around the former Sisters building a residential neighborhood. Light-industrial businesses, a huge office and retail complex and vacant/parking lots dominate the urban landscape at this end of Danforth Street.
Sisters closed last February after over 10 years as a bar and nightclub catering primarily to the local lesbian community. The Coopers bought it with the intention of turning it back into a live music venue akin to Sisters’ predecessor, The Treehouse Café (a.k.a. The Tree). The couple do not intend to make The Tree a bar – the place probably wouldn’t even be open most nights when no show is scheduled.
Furthermore, as councilors learned at that Nov. 21 meeting, structural issues related to the building’s renovation have compelled the couple to withdraw their liquor and entertainment license applications indefinitely. But that didn’t stop Councilors Karen Geraghty, Will Gorham and others from voicing strong opposition to the concept of a bar operating anywhere near – gasp! – a house.
“It’s just not a neighborhood that’s appropriate for a bar,” said Geraghty, apparently referring to the two or three residential buildings cramped together along one side of Maple Street, a short byway next to Sisters’ old space.
“I concur,” said Gorham, a former Maple Street resident from way back. “It makes no sense whatsoever to ruin it.”
Incoming Mayor Jim Cohen said he’s ready to examine the Portland zoning map with an eye toward identifying areas that allow both houses and bars, and then making changes as necessary to keep beer-drinkers and potential hell-raisers away from decent, law-abiding homeowners. “Let’s work on it,” he said.
One wonders where this work will lead us. Will drinking, talking, watching sports on TV and listening to music at the local pub continue to be part of our neighborhood social lives? Or will our sense of community be further eroded as people spend more nights in their individual living rooms, watching their individual televisions, drinking their individual six packs and bottles of wine?
Luckily, if councilors do pursue these zoning changes, they’ll face some daunting logistical challenges. For example, how do you make the distinction between a bar and a restaurant that serves booze? Will the city have to start auditing sales receipts again to determine what percentage of an establishment’s revenue comes from beverage sales, as compared to food sales? (This happened a few years ago, when the council passed a local law banning smoking in “restaurants.”) How far must a bar be from a residence? Does it matter if the residence is a home, or apartments, or condos? What about residents of the Old Port? What if a housing complex is built next to an existing bar?
There are already laws on the books that address noise levels in residential areas. There are legal mechanisms in place to sanction establishments and patrons that routinely cause public disturbances. True, the council doesn’t like to spend time dealing with problem bars, and since the authority to revoke a liquor license rests with the state, councilors often feel frustrated by the tedious process they must go through to put a bad bar out of business.
To which I say, with all due respect: Tough shit.
Zoning pubs out of existence will do nothing to make life more peaceful in Portland – not so long as your next door or upstairs neighbor can still get loaded in the Old Port and come home banging on the bongos at 2 a.m.
The neighbor who spoke against the Coopers’ plans at the last council meeting cited the possibility of “smokers loudly conversing” and “drunken patrons fighting” outside the new Tree. Again, we have cops and liquor laws to address those problems, should they arise.
If you really want to address noise issues in the West End (where I live), shut down the hospitals and move the damn jetport to Gorham. Ambulances and airplanes are a much bigger affront to peace and quiet than smokers or the occasional scuffling drunks. And what about all the loudmouth kids around here? Don’t get me wrong, I adore these little angels, especially at 7 a.m. when they throw temper tantrums and bounce tennis balls off the house across the street. It’s enough to drive you to pour PBR over your corn flakes.
Folks, we need more neighborhood bars in this city, not fewer. We need more pubs where we can hoist a glass with our fellow Portlanders and discuss the local issues of the day. (Perhaps this is what the councilors really fear – citizens getting together to vent their grievances about the government and getting fired up on beer in the process. When this happened around here a couple centuries ago, a little thing we call the Revolutionary War followed, and the stuffed shirts and bureaucratic oppressors got run out of town at pitchfork point).
Unless neighbors who enjoy one another’s company in a local bar’s lively atmosphere speak up, the nearest “neighborhood bar” will soon be the Applebee’s at the local strip mall. If this possibility doesn’t alarm you, you’re already too far gone.
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.