The Little Bar That Could

By Matt Sorrell
In Food

At the base of it, bars are for imbibing, for indulging in a beverage (or two) of your choice. But there’s more to the bar experience than just drinking. Otherwise, why not just buy a bottle of hooch and kick back in front of the tube and catch up on your Netflix queue?

I believe many folks head out to their favorite watering hole instead of staying home in order to get a change of scenery, to relax, tip back a dram or hoist a pint, and find a bit of respite from the harsh realities of the world outside. They want to gather with like-minded folks and perhaps discuss the issues of the day, or just the score of the ball game.

Photo by Charles Hutchins/ Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Charles Hutchins/ Flickr Creative Commons

But bars also have a history of being community centers, places where people gather to foment change, for better or worse. When America was still under British rule, many a conclave was held in the local tavern, with citizens debating the pros and cons of whether or not to break away from Mother England and start their own thing. Working people have used public houses as meeting points to organize themselves against the abuses of the unjust business magnates. And of course there’s the iconic image of the “smoke-filled room,” with politicians downing drinks and making deals in the back room of the bar, outside of normal channels.

And sometimes, movements are born at the bar. In honor of Pride Week, which has just concluded, I’d like to relay the story of one bar in NYC that become an icon that continues to serve as an inspiration to millions. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village has long been a center for the LGBT community in the city, a gathering place where they could feel safe, or as safe as they could. In the late 1960s, police in New York City regularly raided gay bars and harassed the patrons.

According to the Stonewall website, at the time gays were prohibited from dancing and couldn’t even be served alcohol. Women were required to wear at least three pieces of “female apparel” or risk arrest. Anyone in full drag found themselves in handcuffs. In 1969, the LGBT community had enough and lashed out when police showed up at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village for another night of business as usual. Their actions sparked a series of riots that helped usher in the modern LGBT rights movement as we know it.

Several years ago, I found myself wandering around in the Village and stumbled across this historic bar. Inside, it reminded me of any number of neighborhood joints I’ve been in over the years—a few regulars nursing drinks, a couple shooting pool. Many pictures from those fiery days in 1969 hung on the walls, but otherwise there was little to remind patrons of what had transpired there. The Stonewall felt like just a good bar should: welcoming, comfortable, a place for friends to gather. It felt good to rise a glass there, acknowledging the history and honoring the fact that it’s still around.

On June 24, President Obama unveiled a historic monument at the site of the Stonewall Uprising, making it part of the national park system. He said, “I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s National Park System. Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights. I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us. That we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one.”

It’s pretty amazing what can start at a little neighborhood bar.

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