Drinking at a Crossroads: Neighborhood Bar Tour 2005-2006
About this series: As you may have read recently, the city of Portland is at a “crossroads.” One path leads to a “yuppie playground,” where everyone lives in a condo and considers kayaking a fun leisure activity. Down the other lies the Socialist Revolution liberal newspaper editors secretly hope for. I mean dread. We dread that.
Anyway, in at least one respect, Portland is at an important intersection. City officials will soon consider zoning changes aimed at keeping bars out of residential areas. The direction the city takes from here will have a profound effect on our cultural and social lives for years to come.
Are neighborhood bars a scourge that must be stamped out before good citizens who drink in the privacy of their own homes see their property values slip from quintuple to merely quadruple what they originally paid? Or are local pubs the key links that keep our community together and make the six months of frigid dusk at this latitude tolerable?
The Bollard is launching a special investigative series called Drinking at a Crossroads: Neighborhood Bar Tour 2005-2006. Our staff will travel — on foot or by designated driver — to neighborhood bars throughout the area and conduct in-depth research to help us answer these important questions, or at least better understand whatever the hell the regulars at these places are mumbling to themselves all day.
18 Hampshire St., Portland
This past weekend marked two years since Adam Sangillo Sr. passed away. Sangillo was in his mid-80s, and had spent roughly half his life running a tavern at the foot of Munjoy Hill. For four decades, this man provided a warm, friendly place for neighbors to gather, gossip, drink and laugh.
Most of those years were spent on India Street, in the space now occupied by the Breakaway Tavern. In the early 1990s, Sangillo’s shared a building nearby with Micucci’s Grocery, but in 1996, the grocery’s expansion forced the bar to close.
Sangillo grew up in this neighborhood, but lived in Saco at the time, and told thePress Herald he could easily have opened a bar down there or just retired. Instead, he waited until another location became available in the same East End neighborhood, and soon re-opened Sangillo’s Tavern a block away on Hampshire Street.
“I like people. I like to converse with people, and staying home for me is a no-no,” Sangillo explained to Press Herald business reporter Eric Blom a few years back.
The kind of development pressure that forced Sangillo to relocate from India to Hampshire Street now seems quaint.
Sangillo’s will soon be in the shadow of the massive Westin Hotel and condominium complex being built this year across the street. The complex, expected to open in the summer of 2007, will include nearly 100 luxury condos and over 200 high-end hotel rooms. It will rise nearly 100 feet, and occupy just about the entire city block bounded by Middle, Fore and India streets and Franklin Arterial, where the shuttered Jordan’s Meats plant now stands.
Next to this towering $110 million project, Sangillo’s will look like a run-down hamburger joint sitting in front of the Taj Mahal — and will undoubtedly be just as unpopular with the Westin’s guests and residents as Big Macs are among upper-caste Hindus.
Last summer, the daily paper quoted economist Charles Lawton saying the Westin project will generate $70 million “in indirect spending at stores, restaurants and service providers in the area.”
I’m no economist, but I predict Sangillo’s will reap about $7 of that $70 million. That’s the cost, including tip, of the cocktail or two an especially brave real estate developer may spend if he or she stays for a drink while inquiring if the bar’s for sale. The day bartender told me those types are already sniffing around. (Sangillo’s leases the squat brick building it occupies, a former meat market, but neither it nor the business is for sale.)
Here’s another economic angle on the situation. Prospective condo buyers must put down 10 percent of a unit’s price to hold that unit until a formal sales contract is drawn up. With prices starting at $550,000 for one-bedrooms with limited views, that’s $55,000 just to have the option to live in the cheapest condos there.
According to city tax records, the building Sangillo’s occupies is worth $31,680. Throw in the scrap of land it sits on, and the total value is $73,620, a sum less than the 10-percent down payment necessary to hold an option on a median-priced condo across the street, where larger, upper-story units could go for $5 million.
I fear the Westin’s rise will be the downfall of this neighborhood bar.
It’s not that the Westin residents don’t like to drink liquor, or that the project’s developers don’t encourage would-be buyers to hit the hard stuff. As anotherPress Herald business writer reported last December, during a gala reception held for prospective condo owners, the developers raffled off a gift basket with $5,000 worth of caviar and champagne. “Everyone else received a gift-bagged martini shaker when they stopped by the coat room,” Tux Turkel reported.
The problem is, these blue bloods won’t mingle with the blue-collar crowd at Sangillo’s. Most will fear them. Most will literally look down upon them from their hermetically sealed windows in disgust. Our society has its own caste system when it comes to drinking gin.
Their fears, of course, are unfounded. Sangillo’s patrons may be a little rough around the edges, but the place lives up to its claim as “The Friendliest Neighborhood Bar in Portland.”
The regulars are an extended family, and like any big family, this one is full of characters. These characters tease each other, confide in each other, sometimes argue and fight with each other, but also love each other (sometimes in ways I prefer not to imagine) and support each other in a spirit of genuine brother- and sisterhood.
Walking into Sangillo’s as a first-timer is not unlike entering a roomful of new in-laws. You don’t know these people, they all know each other, they are naturally suspicious of you, and vice-versa. But if you relax, have a drink, eat some potato chips and just be yourself, chances are you’ll be accepted and embraced. It worked for us.
I hadn’t been to Sangillo’s for quite some time when Bollard Art Director Mich Ouellette (The Fuge) and I stopped in on a recent weeknight. The place was fairly full of regulars who shot us looks the fight-or-flight part of my brain interpreted as falling somewhere between a stare and a glare.
When the jukebox stopped playing some new country crap, I made a move and punched in a mix of Metallica, Pink Floyd and the Stones. The normally jarring transition from Clint Black to Cliff Burton didn’t seem to register in the room. But when Floyd’s dissonant “One of These Days” kicked in, a guy down the bar spoke up.
“Who played Pink Floyd?” he asked, and I claimed my selection.
The man swung around on his bar stool and fixed me with narrowed eyes. His right hand made a fist, which he used to slowly punch the palm of his left hand twice – the universal sign of an impending ass-kicking. He was not smiling then, but I thought I saw him smirk a little as he swung back around, his message delivered.
Sure enough, a song later he walked over to me, and it was soon clear we were actually kindred spirits. Turns out he’s no fan of new country, either, and likewise gets a kick out of playing songs alien to the regulars’ twang-tuned ears. He thanked me, and so progressed an evening as relaxed and full of good cheer as any I’ve ever spent at a Portland bar.
When I came back another afternoon, I met Adam Sangillo Jr. He’s the spitting image of his father, whom I’d met five or six years ago sitting at the same end of the bar where his son now stood. Sangillo the Younger owns the tavern now, and has maintained the same atmosphere and sense of community his father fostered for 40-plus years.
Adam Jr. is well aware of the challenges neighborhood bars like his face these days: development pressures, skyrocketing property values, indifferent city officials, new neighbors who consider bars a nuisance and a blight.
“We can’t lose the neighborhood bars,” Adam Jr. said solemnly.
I told him I agreed.
— Chris Busby
Sangillo’s is open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-1 a.m. No credit cards accepted.