A world was ending. Some wept openly, one woman danced the worm so hard she thinks she might have shattered her knee, and the next night at least two people had sex in the basement. We’ve all got our own ways of grieving.
The Day of the Dead, Nov. 1, was the last night of Slabtown, a cavernous punk-rock and pinball bar that sat in the shadow of the I-405 overpass for nearly a half century. When it closed, it was the last independent all-ages rock club on Portland’s westside. For some, it was more of a home than the place where they actually slept that night.
“One guy did two hours of karaoke all on his own,” says Doug Rogers, the last of many owners of Slabtown, of the final evening. “There were people sitting in chairs unable to move, people crying. It was intense.”
Bands played on a small stage in a dim room, each one singing cover songs of bands who’d lost a member to overdose, suicide or heart defect. Sad Horse covered Nirvana, and the Gnash did Elliott Smith. It was an elegy sung in the words of the dead.
If we add up all the stories WW has written about closings, they’d rank near the top of our most-read stories this year.
If we had to hazard a guess why, it’s that these old bars serve as canaries in a coal mine. Aside from their place in the memories of Portlanders who grew up in a much more rough-and-tumble city, their death signals a change in Portland that many have already come to feel is irrevocable.
“Every good bar, everything you see is going under,” says Jason “Plucky” Anchondo, a bartender at underground Ethiopian-restaurant bar Langano Lounge until that venue closed in May. “Everything’s going straight to shit.”
The number of liquor licenses in Portland, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, keeps increasing. Over the past four years, there’s been a steady uptick of about 100 new liquor licenses each year, to about 3,000 today.
But Portlanders with a sense of history have been unnerved by the recent rash of closures, says Jen Lane, owner of the BarFly website and bar-tour buses. “Somebody just arriving here, obviously they’re not going to notice it,” she says. “But the places that are closing, these are places that have played vital roles in our lives.”
At BarFly’s Christmas party, a packed house at Tonic Lounge raised a glass to this year’s fallen bars. That’s not an annual tradition, but this year it felt right.
When the old, time-unchanged bars go away, it strips away a sense of shared history and landscape that belongs to several generations. Once gone, it’s lost forever—because there will never be another place like Magic Garden.
In Old Town, where police take on the role of dorm RAs, and guys with vape pens patrol the streets luring packs of drunken men with strip-club coupons and promises of Portland’s hottest women, the half-century-old Magic Garden was like finding a Fugs LP at Hot Topic. The rare strip club that’s more a friendly and low-key dive bar than hall of sin, it’s a place where couples might shoot pool all night and where dancers often skipped a song or two without any complaints.
And it, too, is going away, on New Year’s Eve.
Bartender Patty Wright is Magic Garden’s most beloved figure. She has worked there 23 years, and legend has it she’s never been late to a shift. When WW instated a Mayoral Madness tournament pitting prominent Portlanders against each other in a faux mayoral race, Wright beat Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson and a successful tech CEO in online voting.
But the Suey Wing building that holds Magic Garden was declared unsafe by the Portland Fire Marshal in inspections between 2008 and 2013. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association sold its crumbling building to Urban Development + Partners.
On a recent Thursday, patron after patron leaned across the bar to pay their respects to Wright.
“It’s kind of scary,” she says. “It’s sad, because we worked so hard to turn this place around. They write about us in newspapers, this little hole in the wall. In New York magazine, in Playboy.
“We tried to make this a nice neighborhood place, with naked ladies. And now they’re going to take it all away.”
It’s true that if you tell any Portlander a food cart or a hot-dog stand is closing, they spit out the word condo like the pit to a cherry. Others mention the money brought in by New Yorkers and Californians. But Lane says she’s seen it firsthand, on a visit to Hawthorne District mainstay the Space Room in the early 2000s.
“There were literally these sleazy real-estate guys from L.A., straight out of the playbook, saying, “‘You don’t know what you have here,’” she recalls.
“My friends wouldn’t come see me,” he says. “I remodeled, and every year there was new ownership. The first three years, I lost money. I almost gave up. A new owner comes in, and I say, ‘You’re number five.’”
When new construction transformed Chopsticks’ section of Burnside for a more desirable demographic, Chow’s newest landlord didn’t let him renew his 20-year lease.
“I pay every time, no problem,” he says. “They say I’m a good tenant. If you’re a good tenant, you don’t get a good result. I don’t know why, but she must not like me.”
Lisa Lucas, his landlord, says Chow has indeed been a good tenant. But the neighborhood had changed, and her company could make more money with a different business on the property. Chopsticks will close in August 2015.
Historically boozy Club 21 on Northeast Glisan Street—home to packed-house rock shows both free and local, as well as an almost seizure-inducing density of ‘70s beer kitsch—may have avoided a similar fate only because its lease is still good for another 12 years. Its landlord, real-estate firm ScanlanKemperBard, submitted designs to the city of Portland to demolish the bar’s distinctive witch-castle architecture, an artifact of the building’s time as a Russian Orthodox church, in favor of a towering, 220-unit apartment building with a parking-lot basement.
To save the bar in the future, says Club 21 bartender Bradley Shaver, the owners are considering moving the entire building to a vacant lot before their lease expires.
Meanwhile, rock dive the Know’s building on Northeast Alberta Street is also for sale. A ramshackle, graffitied, dirt-cheap drinking hole that has become Portland’s most reliable home of punk and hard rock, the Know has two years left on its lease, after which owner Ryan Stowe hopes he can continue business as usual. The auto-upholstery business next door already had its rent doubled this year under the current owner, he says.
“We had an empty lot across the street from us for almost eight years,” Stowe says. “Then a bunch of stores went into the Acme Glass building, all these places that had been there for generations. The owners saw dollar signs and sold the building.”
He says it’s scary not knowing what the future will hold. “But we kind of knew this was coming,” Stowe says. “If it comes down to it, we’ll have to find somewhere else.”
East End was lost to an electrical fire, and the East Bank Saloon (home for years to the best masters basketball team in the nation) and the Grand Cafe (home to the old manager of the Portland Mavericks baseball team) were sold by owners ready to retire.
Landlords in better economies also become more recalcitrant about terms: Both Slabtown and the Matador were lost, in part, to disputes over who was responsible for building improvements. And although Ethiopian restaurant-music venue Langano Lounge was closed to become apartments, those apartments are run by the bar’s former owners, a retirement-age Ethiopian couple. According to Anchondo, the bartender, they’d grown tired of fighting their neighborhood association over noise complaints.
For Rogers, the end of Slabtown isn’t just the end of a bar. It’s the end of an idea, a vision of Portland in which a bar is a reflection of its neighborhood and its owner’s personality. “What we’re seeing now,” he says, with the bars closing, “is the chickens coming home to roost from gentrification.”
He says Portland has recently courted an upwardly mobile, white, technical class of transplants, and this leads to a homogenization of a city once based in eccentricity. “Those neighborhoods frequently have all of the same businesses,” he says. “Little Big Burger, Pine State, Salt & Straw.”
Tony Mengis, co-owner of upstairs-downstairs music venue East End—an equal-opportunity home to punk, glam and metal that was just as famous for its restroom lines as its taste in music—says he has a hard time understanding what Portland has become in the meantime. Mengis plans to move to Amsterdam by early 2015. In November, he sold almost everything he owns.
“I see Portland changing,” he says, “and I don’t know how to change with it. And frankly I don’t care to. I don’t know what people with beards want.”
When the old bars finally fail, the bars that replace them often reflect a new set of values. The site of longtime dive Hal’s Tavern is home, as of this year, to a bar called There Be Monsters, filled with British Empire maps, distressed walls and barrel-aged cider; the city’s best shuffleboard table has been moved from the front to the back of the bar. The new owners of 20-year dive Madison’s taped over their neon sign’s “I” and burned the Declaration of Independence’s signing into the bar to become Mad Sons, a bar themed after the American Revolution that has both nitro coffee and root beer on tap, alongside artisanal cocktails. A rotating array of failed sports dives at Southeast 20th Avenue and Division Street became an Old West-style bar called Double Barrel.
Oddly, all of these bars took considerable pains to make themselves look older than the ones they replaced.
“There’s a particular element about the Portland subculture,” Marchi says. “When a ship catches fire, the rats can swim to another ship.”
In the early ‘90s, Marchi says, the Americans with Disabilities Act caused a number of bars to close; in the late ‘90s, a building boom did the same.
“They’ll appropriate another place that will suit their needs,” Marchi says. “There’ll be a transmogrification of some steely-assed, meth-induced biker bar. The loss is what will fuel them to congeal in another place.”
The bars will live on mostly in the memories of the people who went there. Unlike successful restaurants—which may make careers, and garner attention from national media—the old bars belong only to the people who go there most. Like churches, they aren’t just a building but a gathering of the faithful, and they can inspire near-equal devotion. And like all things sacred, they come with a reliquary.
On the last night of the Matador on West Burnside Street in September, people took most of the bar out the door with them. The bar’s final owner, Casey Maxwell, ceded the bar’s many velvet paintings to valued regulars and staff.
“He said we could have everything except Scott Bakula,” says bartender Nathaniel Hubbard.
Those paintings have since spread around town—although not at Maxwell’s other bar, the Conquistador. One painting hangs above the entry door of Star Bar on Southeast Morrison Street. The Matador’s old hand-painted sign hangs above the kitchen door at Club 21. Other toreador paintings are in the homes of the many bartenders who passed through the Matador over the years.
Some of the bars may live beyond memories, and actually revive elsewhere.
“We’ll be back,” says Slabtown’s Rogers, who says he’s already looking at places in North and Northeast Portland to create another all-ages music venue. “I’ve got three different people I’m talking to right now,” he says. In the meantime, he’s excited about the venue that Black Water Records, a punk-rock label, is starting on Northeast Broadway.
On a busy recent Thursday, David Chow of Chopsticks sat at his bar, surveying a room whose walls are papered with photographs of the many people who’ve sung there.
“Look at all these people,” he says, his arm out toward the karaoke stage. “How can be?”
This is his catchphrase—it can mean anything—printed on the T-shirts that bear his face. After WW reported his bar was set to close, he says, his 19-year-old venue filled with customers, sometimes people he hadn’t seen in years.
“I thought, ‘People don’t care,’” he says. “But everybody came. From Longview, they come down to buy T-shirts. Last week I have one couple who proposed marriage onstage.”
He’s scouting locations in inner Northeast and Southeast Portland for a new Chopsticks. While he spoke, one of his regulars stopped to suggest he buy Starky’s, a bar near Southeast 28th Avenue that was put up for sale in November.
“People know me,” says Chow, smiling, drink in hand. “I think, I can’t stop now.”