Neighborhood Bars: A Center for Community Politics

neighborhood bar

Fort Defiance is a beloved neighborhood bar in Brooklyn.

On a recent warm spring evening, Brad Lander—Council member for New York City’s 39th District, which covers a large swath of Brooklyn—met with a roomful of his constituents to talk about participatory budgeting and local capital projects. As such meetings go, this one was lively and upbeat; staff-members posted flip-chart sheets detailing budget projects that had received the greatest public support (a new dog run at the park, $135,000; a teen space at a neighborhood library, $350,000), and the crowd responded with sincere and occasionally ebullient applause.

Such meetings take place every week across the country, but this one was a little different from what we’ve come to expect. Rather than being held in a public-library conference room or a high-school gym, this act of participatory democracy took place at a neighborhood bar: Commonwealth, in Park Slope (named for owner Ray Gish’s native Kentucky). Did the barroom setting make a difference? Maybe—rather than the Parks and Recreation–style meetings that careen from mundane minutiae to bureaucratic jousting, the event at Commonwealth seemed remarkably civilized, bordering on celebratory. A couple clinked beer bottles together when a favorite project received funding (aquatic weed harvester for cleaning up a park’s lake, $140,000), and kids munched pizza and tinkered with the pinball machine while parents listened to the breakdown of expense projects for schools and senior centers.

As Wayne Curtis details in his feature for our May/June 2016 issue, the neighborhood bar is changing—but in many ways, the role and importance of the neighborhood bar remain the same. It’s a chestnut of American history that the path to independence began in a Colonial tavern, and as the recent meeting in Brooklyn proves, bars remain an integral part of our culture and our politics. And even as neighborhoods develop and evolve, and old-guard bars close or move on, a thirst remains for the kind of atmosphere that only a well-seasoned watering hole can provide.

Back in January, we designated 2016 as the Year of the Neighborhood Bar, and we’ve been celebrating these institutions in the pages of each issue (in addition to Wayne’s feature article in our 10th anniversary issue, be sure to check out David Wondrich’s Quench essay on the stalwart bars in his Brooklyn neighborhood). We’ll continue to look at these places as the year unfolds (and in this presidential election year, keep an eye out for a deeper look at the intersection of bars and politics), and we invite you to join in on Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtags #imbibegram and #neighborhoodbar.