Teeth have been publicly gnashed for several weeks over possible changes at the Elmdale Tavern in Hintonburgh. There is new ownership and Elmdale devotees, not all of whom have ever been there, fear the worst. The ’Dale will become a fern bar, or the modern equivalent thereof. Arugula salads will be served and Michael Bublé will be heard over the sound system.
Never mind that no one has actually made any announcement to that effect, the concerns are understandable in a way because what they are really about it is a changing neighbourhood. People have watched this happen elsewhere and what they fear is a kind of homogeneity: the street fills with moderately upscale eateries and stores, patronized by moderately upscale people wearing moderately upscale casual clothes and driving moderately upscale cars. The neighbourhood, while nicer, becomes indistinguishable from other moderately upscale neighbourhoods.
In a larger sense, the Elmdale has come to stand in for a generalized lamenting of progress. Things change and we like them to stay the way they were, although we do like colour TV, don’t we, and email, the odd cappuccino and maybe even back-up cameras in new cars.
Not that we wish the Elmdale any harm, having been there, but it is worth remembering that not all change is bad. In the heyday of the Ontario tavern, say 50 years ago, taverns were very different and not always in a good way.
There were no windows onto the street. Women were not allowed or were segregated into one section of the place. You couldn’t pick up your beer and walk to another table. You couldn’t even stand up with a beer in your hand. There were no games to play, no decent food, no live music. In Kingston, where I spent some years, pubs were allowed, finally, to have organs, but not pianos, because it was thought that pianos would encourage singing.
These were the rules, imposed by the provincial authorities. The result of those rules was that the only thing you could do in a tavern was drink.
Which is what people did, with considerable enthusiasm, and then they went outside, got into their cars and drove home, not always without incident. Those who lament changing times sometimes forget that times can also change for the better.
Most pubs today are brighter and cheerier. There is good food. There are as many women as men. There is live music or, failing that, screens to watch sports on. There is less emphasis on drinking, per se. The pub has become a place you can hang out without drinking a lot, or even anything, and you can probably get a ride home with someone who is sober.
The Elmdale and other local institutions have moved a long way in this direction and that’s not a bad thing. The drinking culture has changed and, unlike some other cultural changes, this one is welcome.
This is not to say that we should welcome a trend where every pub becomes like every other pub, every neighbourhood becomes like every other neighbourhood and every family looks like every other family. But we, owners and customers, hold the key to avoiding that.
The owner is tempted to follow the safe route of imitating other successful businesses. But the enlightened owner knows that the key to big-time success lies in creating something different, something original.
Then we, the customers can go to this different business and feel original ourselves, until eventually there are too many of us being original in the same way and we have to move on to something different.
It’s not easy, this stuff. As customers we probably don’t insist often enough on originality. We go where other people go, which is one of the reasons that chains thrive and threaten the uniqueness of old neighbourhoods. We could block that by supporting originals and helping them survive.