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In Defense of Bars in “Last Call at Coogan’s”

In Defense of Bars in “Last Call at Coogan’s”

  • Our review of "Last Call at Coogan's: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar" by Jon Michaud.

The consumption of alcohol is falling, particularly amongst the young. Despite the persistent image of college life as four years of intoxication interrupted by occasional classes, 28% of 18-to-22 year-old American students do not drink. Amongst those who do not attend university, the figure is 30%. The pattern is repeated across high-income countries, with 26% of British 16-to-25 year-olds now teetotal and 23% of young Europeans. Books such as Sarah Levy’s Drinking Games, a recent contribution to the rapidly growing genre of sobriety memoirs, represent themselves as bravely rejecting a culture of excess, but the long-term decline in drinking is well-documented and has significant commercial as well as institutional support. While states focus on public health, with the Canadian government now recommending people consume no more than two alcoholic drinks a week, the “wellness” industry, “dry bars,” for-profit counseling services, publishers of self-help books and autobiographies, and online content producers represent giving up alcohol as a form of self-development. Focused on the “sober curious” rather than recovering alcoholics, this monetization of temperance constructs it as an investment in the self that aligns with neoliberal discourses. A new generation of non-drinkers are not questioning the dominant culture, as they often claim, but embody its logic.

Both the emphasis on “clean living” and the broader individualism of which it is a product have added to the already considerable pressure on bars. Yet as George Orwell observed, their decline is “only a cause for rejoicing if one believes, as a few Temperance fanatics still do, that people go to pubs to get drunk.” Jon Michaud’s Last Call at Coogan’s is a welcome reminder that bars are primarily communal centers, especially valuable for those who have access to few other public spaces. For most of their customers, alcohol is a means, not an end. It is always cheaper and easier to get intoxicated in private; people go to bars to be in the company of others, to celebrate and commiserate, flirt and argue, to reinforce and extend their social networks. At once intimate and open, they are at their best places where drinkers encounter different people and perspectives, something increasingly rare in technologically-mediated society that allows us to meet only those like ourselves. Michaud’s history of Coogan’s, a bar and restaurant in Washington Heights, New York City, that operated from 1985 to 2020, emphasizes this quality, describing a diverse space that “fostered connection and interaction among people from different backgrounds” and “helped strengthen the neighborhood.” He represents it as one of those “democratic institutions… which are open to all and encourage the co-mingling of people from different backgrounds.” It was never merely a place to get drunk.

There could be few places in the United States that needed an inclusive communal center more than Washington Heights in New York City in the eighties, and few places where one seemed less likely to succeed. Even Coogan’s founding manager initially dismissed the idea of opening a new bar there as it was “loaded with drugs.” Crack devastated the area, and by the early nineties there were more than a hundred murders a year in Washington Heights and neighboring Inwood. Michaud’s text repeatedly emphasizes the “contrast between the warmth inside Coogan’s and the sense of danger on the neighborhood streets,” but it took time and considerable effort before what he calls a “sanctified space of warm greetings, inebriation, laughter, music, and storytelling” was used by everyone. The bar initially relied on the custom of the nearby Columbia-Presbyterian hospital and was subsequently adopted by local law enforcement; as one regular observed, it had an early reputation as a “cop bar.” The management used a variety of strategies to attract a broader range of customers, from hosting karaoke nights that “bought in neighborhood folk who had been leery of entering” to supporting local athletic organizations. Its active involvement in the community established a widespread goodwill enabled its use by distinct, sometimes opposed groups, even during times of crisis. After police officer Anthony Pellegrini shot sixteen year-old Kevin Cedeno in the back, Coogan’s hosted an event for the Community League of the Heights, a grassroots organization protesting the killing, without losing their “law enforcement regulars.” The bar functioned as a political space, where differences could be negotiated and positions sometimes shifted.

In many ways, Coogan’s was not a typical bar. It hosted Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in 1996 and its owners received invitations to two White House St. Patrick’s Day parties after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. When it was threatened by rent rises as Washington Heights gentrified, Lin-Manuel Miranda helped rally support to keep it open. In other ways, it was typical, a representative example of those valuable drinking establishments that both “reflect and create their communities.” It finally closed early in the pandemic, a period that demonstrated the need for open communal spaces and the impossibility of replacing them with technology. Browsing social media is no substitute for an evening in the bar.

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Eighty years ago, Orwell argued that the decline of pubs was symptomatic of a movement “away from creative communal amusements and towards solitary mechanical ones.” Alcohol is only one of the things such places provide but it is part of a complex, shared experience and it seems unlikely that juice bars or coffee shops can fulfill the same functions any more than online “communities” can. Bars have long been part of the fabric of individual and collective lives. Their decline should trouble us. Michaud’s book can be sentimental about the “safety, community, and solace” Coogan’s provided and sometimes gets too caught up in the details of its management, but it successfully communicates a sense of loss and shows a generous sensitivity to its subject. Often, it reads like a work of salvage anthropology, an attempt to preserve in words a vanishing communal institution we will all be poorer without.

Last Call at Coogan’s
By Jon Michaud
St. Martin’s Press
Published June 6, 2023

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