America's history bulldozed for progress
July 29, 2005 5:48 AM   Subscribe

On Saturday, the legendary National Liquor Bar in Milwaukee will close.... And they want to tear it down so we get another Walgreens? What do we need another Walgreens for?" This spoken on a recent afternoon over a $1.75 can of Beck's by Ken Labonty, who works at a tire shop on the north side. At 47, he said he has been coming to the tavern since 1976, "Except from September 1977 to 1983, when I was in prison," and the eight or so times he's been banished
posted by Durwood (32 comments total)
I vaguely remember going there for a few beers sometime in 1980 or '81. I thought the place was called National City then, but considering how pickled I was on weekends, it's a miracle I recognized the reference to it at all. All I do remember was a really big, kinda shabby-looking bar with 50-cent glasses of beer.
posted by alumshubby at 5:59 AM on July 29, 2005

posted by Faint of Butt at 6:09 AM on July 29, 2005

Hm. I've heard of Milwaulkee. Tag could be 'veryhugelyesotericamericanabardeaththingy'.
posted by peacay at 6:16 AM on July 29, 2005

As a current and long-time resident of Brewtown/Cream City/City of Festivals, all I can say is: what do we need another tavern for?

Ye cripes, this town ain't nothin' but bars n' churches. I likes a good beer as much as the next knucklehead, but if Milwaukee ever wants to project an image other than that of a past-its-prime Rust Belt factory town full of hard-drinking simple folk, it's got to loosen its grip on the booze. And there's sadly little for most people to do in this town on a Saturday night than go bar-hopping, get "tore up", and spend the next day sleeping it off.

Milwaukee is one of the most overweight and alcoholic (particularly fond of binge drinking) cities in the country. Maybe if we close a few bars, Milwaukeens will shed a couple pounds, live better lives, find more productive and interesting uses for their free time, and not be the punchline for Midwestern fat and/or drunk jokes.
posted by ToasT at 6:27 AM on July 29, 2005

Well, peacay, if you've heard of Milwaukee it can't be all that esoteric.
I think I may have a story about this bar, but I can't really remember how it turned out....
...and ToasT, Milwaukee without binge drinking would be Toledo.
posted by Floydd at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2005

Maybe if we close a few bars,

ToasT you are an infidel.
posted by three blind mice at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2005

Yes, a heretic walks amongst us!

*gets torches and rope*
posted by jonmc at 6:56 AM on July 29, 2005

..the quality that so many places in America share today is that they have become places that are not worth caring about. And sooner or later a country full of places that are not worth caring about will become a nation that is not worth defending. ...The Geography of Nowhere
posted by thisisdrew at 7:01 AM on July 29, 2005

Maybe if we close a few bars...
Maybe build an alcohol treatment center or hold AA meetings in the Walgreens stockroom while you're at it.
posted by badger_flammable at 7:02 AM on July 29, 2005

"...if Milwaukee ever wants to project an image other than that of a past-its-prime Rust Belt factory town full of hard-drinking simple folk, it's got to loosen its grip on the booze."

...and add a Walgreens. Yes, that will definitely fix the city's image right up. Definitely.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:06 AM on July 29, 2005

Not sure where I threw my support behind Walgreens, but I'll go back and read my post, just to be sure.

But I'm supposed to be sad when a bar closes in the city with the second-highest bars per capita in the country - one for every 1600 people? (With Milwaukee's population at close to 600,000, that's 375 watering holes.) Are all these fine establishments worthy of historic preservation?
posted by ToasT at 7:15 AM on July 29, 2005

What are you, a communist?
posted by jonmc at 7:20 AM on July 29, 2005

For those of you who disparage Milwaukee, I would tell you that it is an eminently livable city. I lived there for two years in the 70s, still visit occasionally, and would move back if the opportunity arose.

The National was an institution. I made the pilgrimage from my east side home for the then 75 cent shot and a beer (still a reasonable $2.10). But as an earlier Urinal-Sentinel article pointed out, it is a supremely tacky bar.

The memories will be better for having been there, but in a city that has recently embraced wide-scale gentrification, perhaps there is no longer a place for tacky. As one commenter said--there's a difference between historic and just old.

Seems to me that former Milwaukee Brewer's (baseball team for nonUSians) manager Harvey Kuenn, a wooden-legged s.o.b., owned a bar near old County Stadium.

Ahhhh, Milwaukee. A gem of a city.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:22 AM on July 29, 2005

Cesar's Inn was Harvey and Audrey's place at 56th and National near County Stadium.

Call me sentimental, but I just can't imagine anyone saying "Ah yes, imagine if the walls of this Walgreens could talk..." 66 years from now.
posted by badger_flammable at 7:41 AM on July 29, 2005

I have trouble giving weight to the opinion of a two-year former resident and occasional visitor, but we obviously have different standards of livability.

I've been here for 15 years, and the problem I have is with a city where the kids grow up, go to college (the ones lucky enough to afford it), then move away because there's nowhere to work but factories and grocery stores; a city that throws away $400 million on a new stadium for a losing baseball team (da' Brewers - below .500 since 1992!) but lets the Public Museum go bankrupt; a city where alcoholism is not just a side effect of a declining economy in a blue collar town, but also a source of pride.

There are some great things about this town. But, somehow, the drinking is almost all you ever hear about.
posted by ToasT at 7:53 AM on July 29, 2005

Ironically, I believe Milwaukee also has the second-highest number of Walgreen's per capita.
posted by aaronetc at 7:58 AM on July 29, 2005

"...if the walls of this Walgreens could talk..." they'd say "badger_flammable, your ointment is ready."
posted by Floydd at 8:00 AM on July 29, 2005

This FPP reads just like The Onion.
posted by orange swan at 8:25 AM on July 29, 2005

It's late and she is waiting, and I know I must go home,
But every time I try to leave, they play another song,
Then someone buys another round,
And whatever drinks are free
What's made Milwaukee famous made a loser out of me...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:28 AM on July 29, 2005

In case no one else picks up on it, there's a walgreens essentially two blocks from where this bar was.
posted by drezdn at 8:33 AM on July 29, 2005

Milwaukeans have always had a no-really-we-are-a-major-league-city inferiority complex. Their attachment to gritty, simple icons the the NLB is one of the things that keeps it a small town with a large population...which I find it's most endearing quality.
posted by klarck at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2005

Calvin Trilling and someone else were talking about great restaurants on City Arts and Lectures. They mentioned how usually when you ask where the best restaurant in a city is that people will point you to one of the expensive French restaurants, and ignore the good places that serve food unique to the area and actually add something to the environment.

In Milwaukee, in an attempt to appear more urban, the city burns through some of its charm in trying to appeal to visitors.

Klarck, I think part of that complex comes from others constantly making fun of Milwaukee. When the Bucks were doing well in the playoffs a Chicago columnist complained in one of their papers that Milwaukee was too backwards to deserve a good basketball team.
posted by drezdn at 9:17 AM on July 29, 2005

I grew up in Milwaukee.
I had a five block walk to grade school.
I passed 6 bars along the way.
Milwaukee can stand to lose a few bars.
posted by Dillenger69 at 9:27 AM on July 29, 2005

Maybe if we close a few bars...
Milwaukee can stand to lose a few bars.

I have a feeling the sentiment about National Liquor isn't just that it's a bar that's closing, but that it's a culturally significant bar that's closing. I somehow doubt that every bar in the city would have such ardent defenders; this one has a lot of fond memories attached to it.
posted by me3dia at 10:18 AM on July 29, 2005

Maybe I missed it in the article, but why is the bar closing?

Is it closing because it loses money and it just happens that Walgreen's is moving in its place.

Is it closing because Walgreens (or the developer) offered the owners a lot of money?

Is it closing because the city somehow forced them to do so, in order to allow redevelopment and gentrification?

Only in the latter case, would this bother me (if it were possible for much that happens in Milwaukee to bother me).
posted by obfusciatrist at 11:14 AM on July 29, 2005

Milwaukee can stand to lose a few bars.

Another apostate eh Dillenger69? You don't like bars, infidel, keep walking by 'em.

I've never been to Milwaukee, but 6 bars in 5 blocks sounds like a place that deserves a visit! Unless you non-believers prevail in driving them out of business, that is.


At 47, he said he has been coming to the tavern since 1976, "Except from September 1977 to 1983, when I was in prison," and the eight or so times he's been banished.

Name another business establishment that welcomes ex-cons and gives them a second chance, a third change,... an eighth chance? Even Jesus wouldn't give a dude eight chances to come correct.

*touched by the compassion shown by bar owners, weeps at their display of human decency*

*returns to senses, joins jonmc in the hunt for torches and rope*
posted by three blind mice at 11:42 AM on July 29, 2005

3bl :o)

I had a five block walk to grade school.
I passed 6 bars along the way.

I seem to remember counting at least that many between my apartment and the supermarket. Every Saturday was shopping day and a celebration...
posted by alumshubby at 12:02 PM on July 29, 2005


(Toast! If you're who I think you are [from UWM and Sandburg?], then long time no see!)
posted by chota at 1:21 PM on July 29, 2005

ToasT, (fwiw) I spent the first 16 summers of my life in the limbo that is farm country between Milwaukee and Chicago. For the 25 years I was in corporate America, I was in Milwaukee a week a month until 1998. I have realtives there.

This is not to argue with the very important issues you raise in your critique of the city; there were problems when we lived there, too: the police regime of Harold Breier and the graft & corruption of Mayor Meier (sp?) led to similar problems as you spell out.

Few midwest urban centers can claim immunity to those same ills. I live near Detroit, so I consider Milwaukee damn-near-a-paradise in comparison, but I hear you.

On the subject of closing bars in Milwaukee, yes, we used to joke that if you tripped on the sidewalk, either your head or your feet would land in a bar. But for the most part, these were neighborhood bars, the shot&beer places that you can still find in the (similarly distressed) small towns outside Philly and Pittsburgh. I saw by scanning the Milwaukee business news that while neighborhood places are shuttering, Buffalo Wild Wings is opening. Yay! Just what they need, more corporate mediocrity.
posted by beelzbubba at 4:54 PM on July 29, 2005

On the subject of Walgreens, they've adopted the Wal-Mart strategy of opening mulitple locations in a small area to run the competition out of business. This happened in my neighborhood in Seattle about 2 years ago, a Walgreens went up under very heavy protest.
posted by zardoz at 6:07 PM on July 29, 2005

Chota, did you work for the Leader?
posted by drezdn at 11:10 PM on July 29, 2005

ToasT, I think the "significance" of the bar's closing is that it's just another piece of our blue collar, "Machine Shop of the World", working-city past that we're losing. Also, its replacement by yet another POS cookie-cutter Walgreens building (some "investment") makes the loss sting more for people who care about the character of the space they inhabit. But, yeah, it is just a seedy neighborhood bar that's pretty much lost its rationale for existing at this point, cool marquee and Art Kumbalek routines aside.

I dunno about all this stuff you're saying about the city needing to change in either substance or image. Change to what, and how? Without the factories, we've got a huge underemployed underclass of people (I think with the black population especially this is a major problem, isolated as they are) who have no reason to be here other than happenstance-- the ones who've inherited the drinking culture that you seem to despise. (And, frankly, speaking as a native of the city, I don't find that culture to be as despicable as you make it out to be. Drinking in the bars is just what some blue collar people do after working their shifts wherever. BFD.) As far as image goes, Milwaukee (and Wisconsin in general, for that matter) has been getting dissed for its cultural conservatism in the national media as far back as Thoreau's mention of it in Walden, straight up through the slurs of hipsters like Lenny Bruce and Shel Silverstein on to the present day. Who really gives a damn if we don't impress the would-be cultural elite of the world? For all its problems, I think this really is a very livable city to be in. What sort of image would you like us to have? Sorry to be argumentative here, but for that matter, what sort of "more productive" use of their free time would you like to see the underclass engaged in, and why do you think that they should give a damn if what they do with their time interests you? I would like to see more "neat stuff" in the city also, and a better education and quality of life for everybody who lives here that's not getting their fair share of things, but your dismissal of the culture here comes off to me as a bit arrogant and needlessly dismissive. If some people are happy with fish fry on Fridays, brats and beer on Saturdays, and church on Sundays, who are you to demand that they change their ways, plebian in their concerns as they might appear to you?
posted by Chris Freiberg at 12:57 AM on July 31, 2005

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