i. Large and violent/small and civil
The Sydney class-war-by-any-other-name has seen a new episode, beginning around the death of a young man in Kings Cross on a recent Saturday night and shooting off into a question of small bars versus the large drinking establishments that typify the Cross and a “big”, drunk night out in Sydney.
Strong distinctions have been drawn between “bogans”, “violent drunks”, “beer barns” and “boofheads”, and the “civility”, “quietness” and relative sobriety of small bars. Young people come into the large venues of the Cross from The Suburbs, whereas small bars are for locals.
As with some of the observable features of DIY urbanism’s discourse, there is a claim made for small bars against the marginality of those who, in the words of Dom Knight, seek “refuge” from “pissed idiots”. This sense of marginality has no doubt been salted by the state government Minister for Hospitality’s suggestion that small bars somehow contributed to increased violence in the Cross. The financial interests of government and industry in maintaining large venues makes this suggestion particularly laughable.
ii. Cultural capital
Knight’s op-ed references an important arbiter of small versus large in the going-out economy – cultural capital, or the ways classes distinguish themselves from each other “through their distinctive cultural tastes, knowledge and competencies”, as one UK university project puts it. Knight makes mention of the “trendiness”, expense, and aesthetic policing that seem to go along with small bars. Where glassings and punch-ups abound in other venues, “the weapon of choice” in a small bar “is not the broken beer glass but the sneering putdown”.
A spot of tweeting on the subject has also revealed some of the cultural capitalism that surrounds small bars, with “hipsters“, expensive drinks, and unusual bar snacks felt to demarcate their culture; along with the regular suggestion that small bars have a fundamentally civil and civic nature. Along with Knight’s piece, this chatting spoke to some of the unease that small bar patrons might have about their possession and deployment of cultural capital, as well as the compulsion to defend a social and cultural experience that is ‘finally’ available in Sydney against the brutish swill-and-spew options hitherto dominant.
There’s a gendered aspect to this pub morphology. Alcohol-fuelled violence at the Cross is largely attributed to men (“boofheads”); and the smallness and niceness of small bars have something of the feminine about them. They also suggest safety and sincerity for women and others at risk in public from aggressive heteronormativity.
At the same time as the contested rise of the small bar, in the shadow of the beer barn, one might also detect the decline of what Disco refers to as ‘the knockabout pub’ (a decline that is measurable, if indecisively, by the ‘Old on tap’ index).
Old-man friends feel driven back to their lonely loungerooms by this cultural and economic shift. For one, the final straw was when his local replaced the weeknight pool competition with acoustic musicians; for another, the price of a few schooners just became prohibitive as the taps started hosting microbrews and craft ciders.
In a small town in northern Italy, F’s zio runs a bar that his family has rented from the same family for some decades. In Barcelona I liked to go to a corner bar also frequented by the same knockabouts we might have shared an Old with in recent urban Australian history. One tweet noted the mediterranean nature of the small bar and its particular amenability to Sydney’s urban harbour.
Who benefits from small bars? Can they be something other than whitely exclusive? Are drunk, deathly punches the only violence of note in the public, cultural, drinking, night-time economy?