Neighborhood Bars Can Benefit the Community (Even Non-Drinkers)

Salt Lake Tribune columnist Peg McEntee wrote Monday about her desire for a neighborhood bar, as well as recent changes to the law that might make that dream possible. McEntee writes affectionately about the topic, but for the larger community — which in Utah happens to include vast numbers of non-drinkers — is there any benefit to having more bars?

I think there is. We’ve probably all heard the argument that Utah is increasingly diverse and decreasingly Mormon. That’s true in Provo too, so bars obviously are an amenity that welcomes people with various dietary standards.

That’s a valid argument, but there’s a more direct benefit to having neighborhood bars than simply the abstract satisfaction of living in a diverse community. For example, Walk Score includes bars in its calculation of neighborhood walkability. A neighborhood’s walk score has also been linked to increased property values, meaning that whether residents drink or not, they stand to profit by having more bars within walking distance of their homes.

Bars can also increase neighborhood safety, despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary. Jane Jacobs wrote over and over about the need to have people on the streets because those people inadvertently police the city; criminals, after all, usually don’t like to commit crimes in front of a crowd. Bars, Jacobs pointed out, got people on the streets later in the evening than other establishments.

This effect is clearly happening in Provo right now. Irrespective of the aesthetics of downtown’s ABG’s and its crowd, for example, there are usually people out and about at the bar later than in other parts of the city. That means would-be burglars are less likely to hit surrounding stores, like Mullett-Hoover. The police may have to break up the occasional fight at a bar, but it’s rare that that sort of disturbance will translate into property or violent crime. Instead, bars will put more eyes on the street.

Outside ABG’s in downtown is probably the safest place to be late at night.

As McEntee points out, there are downsides to bars. But in Provo, I very rarely hear much discussion about the real benefits of these businesses.

I hope that over time, we can have a more balanced discussion about bars and alcohol consumption in the city. I hope we can acknowledge that despite the challenges, there are reasons bars or something like them have been a part of the human experience for a long, long time. As McEntee argues,

Still, the best thing about a neighborhood bar is that it puts neighbors who may never have met one another together. When that happens, people naturally get to talking, maybe even become friends, then friends of friends. It widens our vision of who surrounds us.

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