By Christine Sismondo
“Where everybody knows your name.” Easily one of the best phrases ever written.
That string of five words summed up the idea of the “local,” a refuge from the dynamism of modernity where a small clutch of people get together nearly every day to shoot the shit over a pint — or four. At the time — it first appeared 31 years ago, on 30 September 1982 — the phrase succinctly introduced the basic premise of the show, Cheers, and, today, still brings Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Cliff and Coach to mind, the staff and regulars from what may be the best-known bar in the world.The engine that drove the plot forward was the tumultuous and unlikely-seeming relationship between a former ball player-turned bar owner and his waitress, a pretentious graduate student who is at loose ends. The mismatched pair is, to say the least, from different worlds. But so is everyone else at Cheers: a tough-talking single mom; an underemployed accountant; a postal worker; an old-school, dim-witted baseball coach. This group would eventually be joined by a pompous psychiatrist and a sweet and innocent …well, bumpkin, from Indiana. It’s an eclectic group. And, yes, their differences sometimes produce conflict. But they are also community that looks after one another. Even Carla would defend her clan — especially if it was under threat from the gang at rival Gary’s Old Towne Tavern.
Cheers is a fictional show, of course. But anybody who has ever been a regular or worked in a neighbourhood bar knows that the show did a great job at capturing the spirit of the “local.” Funnily enough, though, the show’s debut came around the time that the neighbourhood tavern was becoming an endangered species. Ray Oldenburg, in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, would write about the rise of BYOFs (Bring Your Own Friend Bars) and how they were replacing taverns. Oldenburg argued that American cities were losing one of their important institutions in this transition, since, along with coffee shops, bookstores and barber shops, bars act as ventilation units in the modern urban landscape, where people establish community. Heading to the local is a very different activity from going out after work with the rest of the office (a valuable activity in its own right). The neighbourhood tavern encourages people to mingle with people from outside their regular work and social circles. Like they did in Cheers.
While plenty of local taverns still exist, their numbers have dwindled, largely due to the rise of car culture, which has meant that, for all but those of us who live in one of a handful of walking cities, bars are simply too hard to get to — or, rather, to get home from. Even in urban areas, where bars thrive, the majority of new bars — be they cocktail dens, faux-dives, or sports bars — are moving away from the model of cultivating a community of regulars and are instead aiming to become destinations in their own right. People don’t tend to go to these places on their own; they’re the new face of BYOFs.
And, hey, a range of options is great. I’m certainly never going to argue that the downside of gentrification is that I now have a bar with a great deejay, solid cocktails, and oyster nights at the foot of my street. But it’s too bad that it seemed to come at the expense of the local.
At the end of the day, they may have much better drinks than Sam Malone ever made, but nobody down there is ever going to know my name.
Christine Sismondo is a writer and lecturer in Humanities at York University in Toronto. She has written numerous articles about film, literature, drinking, and vice, as well as the book Mondo Cocktail, a narrative history of cocktails. She is the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.