I’m not trying to be sentimental. But I have to ask: In the face of a gentrifying Denver — where new taverns with heated rooftop patios and $12 cocktails are springing up everywhere — is there anything worth saving in the beaten down old corner dives?
Recently, at the windowless Candlelight Tavern in the Wash Park West neighborhood, I struggled to back up my belief that places like this are a part of our culture any more than the newer, trendier places that have opened on Broadway and the other side of the park.
“What the fuck is wrong with this generation’s mindless pursuit of ironic authenticity?” asked fellow patron Scot Kreider, a 42-year-old lawyer and Denver area native. “What is this so-called “opposite” of a dive bar? Please give me an example. Because as far as I can tell, a ‘dive’ bar is wherever a fucking hipster goes so that they can feel authentic, which immediately cheapens it.”
I fell into a deep crisis of self-confidence. Am I a hipster merely because I’m 31? Am I degrading this long-running establishment just by being here, when I was not born in the neighborhood? The uncomfortable feeling that has grown inside me isn’t just about my preference for cheap booze. It is about rooting for the home team, even when they are the underdog. It is about the people’s history of their neighborhoods living on for upcoming generations.
I’ve been drinking here about five years, since I first rented an apartment up the street. I took to this place over the other bars in the area (of which there are plenty) for two reasons:
- 1. The bartenders and regulars were immediately friendly and welcoming.
- 2. I could walk home in five minutes, never having to drive after I’d been drinking.
Practicalities aside, the first reason is what really resonated with me. If I had walked in here for the first time and felt uncomfortable, judged, or underdressed, I would have likely not returned. Instead I have returned more times than I can count, more than enough to feel part of the ‘club.’
I was in my usual seat talking with longtime bartender Scott Hanley. Scott has been behind the bar here for over 16 years. We were venting about changes in our neighborhood and our city when I informed him that Denver was listed on Forbes’ list of the 10 fastest growing cities in the country this year. He snarled at this as he filled me in on some history of our beloved Wash Park West neighborhood. A quick glance at Zillow.com will tell you that home prices have increased an average of 15% over the past year in this neighborhood.
“I used to hang out here well before I worked here and have seen it change from a place that was blue collar, a lot of homeless people and that kind of stuff,” he says. “Since then a lot more money has come into the neighborhood, a lot more younger people.”
The place has served as a sort of people’s museum of the neighborhood, taking in the changes, the growth, and the cycle of changing residents. Although little has changed inside the bar, Hanley has watched the neighborhood — as well as rent and home prices — grow.
“Is the bar still doing alright?” I ask. “It seems like there is a pretty good crowd in here a lot of nights and you guys adapt pretty well, all things considered.”
“The changes that we’ve added are just to make sure it is still a place where people feel safe and comfortable,” he says. “So people of every gender or income can come in and get along without any problems.”
Of course, any bar can serve the purpose of meeting with friends, of sharing a story or laugh over a stiff drink. And any bar can opt out of renovations so as to appear ‘authentic’ and worn and label itself as a so-called ‘dive.’ Considering this, why do we need old bars? Wouldn’t it make sense to support the new?
“Bars have no role to play in resisting gentrification,” says Kreider. “If anything, a neighborhood bar is a contributing cause of gentrification. Bars don’t turn people away, so they will almost always reflect the demographics of their neighborhood.” But what they have that new places don’t is the new culture blended in with the old, the history. “What old bars represent is both a social and a historical anchor in a neighborhood,” says Denver restaurateur John Elliott. “They’re the site of post-workday bullshitting, Sunday football socializing and Wednesday night birthday celebrations. They’re the place that members of the community come to see and talk with one another.”
The next day I visit an old bar in a different neighborhood to see if this debate was all in my head, and if authenticity even matters when a city is growing so rapidly. It seemed only natural to go to the Highlands. This is an area where you’ll still find independent retailers peddling flowers or shoes, but now they are tucked behind brand new buildings with zero-scaped lawns. According to trulia.com, the median sales price for a home here increased 10% in the last quarter of this year alone.
I sat down at the far end of the bar at the Berkeley Inn with owner Lisa Sanchez. She has been with the establishment since the early nineties as a bartender and bought the place in 2012. She expressed concern over what all of the growth will do not only to the future of her business, but to the neighborhood as a whole. “I don’t think the groups put a lot of thought and consideration into what they were doing to the neighborhood,” she says. “They saw dollar signs and that’s what they saw.
“If you speak to some of these old timers, it’s touchy. The whole of Denver has changed. A year ago I would have told you that in five years I was going to still be here and be strong, be doing the same thing. Today I don’t know that I would tell you that. I think the whole demographic of the neighborhood has caused that feeling.”
She tells me that when she started at the bar, they were one of only seven liquor licenses in the area. Now, there are 21 on Tennyson Street alone.
When I left the bar I felt defeated. While stepping through the door I looked up, as instructed, and glimpsed some old mafia-era bullet holes in the building’s façade.