By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

[Ed. – This column was written prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic taking hold in New York City. It is a last glimpse of an era that suddenly came to an end in mid-March 2020.]

All propositions are of equal value – Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of my favorite bars in New York City is Commonwealth (497 5th Avenue, South Slope). It has been since I first stopped in more than a decade ago. Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about the bar. The drinks are reasonably priced, it’s rarely either totally empty or overcrowded, there’s free popcorn, and the tap list is usually solid even though you won’t find any real surprises behind the bar except for the cornucopia of kitschy statues intermingled with the bottles of booze. It would also be a crime not to mention the jukebox. For music dorks over the age of 35, it has become the stuff of legends, as it contains some relatively obscure tracks from Neutral Milk Hotel, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, and a host of other bands from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.

Jay Fox

Most of the regulars at Commonwealth are in their thirties, white, and left center, though you do occasionally meet some people with far more radical views. Similarly, you also get some of the older or more affluent elements from north of Ninth Street (the approximate line between the wealthier parts of Park Slope and the somewhat less wealthy South Slope) with their horrible, horrible children. Generally, though, the bar is a good mix of people who are young enough to still be interested in talking to you at the bar and old enough to most likely not puke on your shoes after you’ve had a few rounds.  

That Commonwealth’s rowdiest days are behind it is clear, though it’s also safe to say that it never had a reputation for being anything besides an unpretentious place with one of the city’s best jukeboxes and an enormous backyard where you could smoke without pissing off anyone—not only because of the backyard’s size, but because everyone who was back there was typically smoking, too. Then again, it’s probably no longer the case that it doesn’t piss off anyone, as I’m sure that someone from north of Ninth Street habitually comes to the bar with their child, decides to go into the garden, and then demands that everyone refrain from endangering their child by acting as though they are in a bar. These people gotta keep that reputation strong, after all.

Despite the proximity to the wealthier part of Park Slope and the people who live there, you’re not going to get much better for a neighborhood bar. What’s interesting, however, is that Commonwealth is increasingly becoming known as a dive bar.


This seems like something of a misnomer to me. Based on my experiences with some of the city’s seedier places, Commonwealth is a far cry from what I would consider a dive bar. However, my perspective is but one in a larger spectrum, and it would be wrong to consider myself an arbiter on these kinds of things. Maybe the word “dive” simply doesn’t mean to the majority of people in this city what it means to me.

As I see it, Commonwealth and some of the other bars like it on Fifth Avenue (Buttermilk excluded) can’t be dives. Like many other bars in areas that had started to see a significant amount of gentrification—Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ft Greene, Clinton Hill, and so on—Commonwealth opened around fifteen years ago to be a slightly more upscale alternatives to some of the dives that one came across in the area—places like Timboo’s at 11th Street or Smolen, which was down on 22nd and seemed to be a lightning rod for bad news.

They opened to capitalize on the wave of young and mostly single people who were moving into areas that had once been dominated by families, and most of them typically had a broad appeal because they played it middle of the road—neither too grungy or too classy for the area—and didn’t rely on gimmicks to draw in people from outside of the area. These bars merely satisfied the new locals’ communal itch for a casual place to get a drink, though many of these locals’ preferences were influenced by the Indie scene of the late 90s and early 00s. That was clearly reflected in these bars.

However, not a lot of the people who started going to places like Commonwealth in 2004 are still going there in 2020. They’ve since moved on (to greener pastures or to married life), and these areas are now dominated by nascent families of professional parents or single people who sit on one of the middle rungs of the corporate ladder, and are wealthier than their predecessors were when they moved in, relatively speaking. Very few of either group spends much time at their neighborhood bar. The family doesn’t have time and the suit probably does happy hour by their Manhattan office.

Consequently, a lot of the neighborhood bars that tried to fill a niche like Commonwealth have shut down. They have been replaced by establishments that cater to those new families and professional singles in their early thirties: Small plate restaurants, brunch places, cocktail lounges, craft beer bars, and coffeehouses.

This is well documented. Just about every writer in New York has bemoaned the processes and blamed rising rents and gentrification for killing off these businesses. While this is true, there’s often a desire to think of this force as something that is willed, which is not true.

At its most basic, gentrification is the process by which the character of a neighborhood changes because a more affluent group of tenants/owners moves in and displaces the area’s original inhabitants. This leads to increases in rents (both residential and commercial), which pushes out more of the original inhabitants and allows more affluent people to move in, which causes the neighborhood’s character to become more bourgeoise, which justifies more increases in rent because the area seems more respectable. It’s a vicious positive feedback loop, and it manifests itself in numerous ways because the new inhabits have markedly different tastes and preferences from those who lived there before.

This goes well beyond coffeehouses and cocktail bars.

Most newer developments have laundry facilities, which means laundromats are losing customers when an old building gets knocked down and not gaining any new customers when a new one goes up. If enough old buildings come down, that laundromat won’t be able to stay in business. If the laundromat goes out, then everyone who doesn’t live in a building or unit with laundry, will have to find a new place to go. As someone who once upon a time had to trudge thirty pounds of laundry a mile each way just to have clean clothes, I can tell you that this type of inconvenience will serve as a strong impetus to move. However, such a scenario does not arise because of malice or some dastardly trick by the landlord.

As another example, most new developments in Park Slope and even South Slope are so expensive that one needs two incomes to afford to move into a one-bedroom, which means single people are not moving into the area—couples are. Frequently, these couples either just started a family or will soon start a family. This means they want fewer neighborhood bars and rock clubs to hang out in. Their more pertinent needs are daycare facilities and pediatric centers for their children. This is why Southpaw, Park Slope’s last great venue, is now a center that teaches toddlers to rock climb.

Which brings me back to the idea of calling Commonwealth a dive. To me, I think this just strange. It’s a fantastic neighborhood bar with plenty of character, and I’ve always thought of it as a place that was too refined to be a dive. It’s a big step up from the gutter.

However, that might be just from my perspective.

To someone whose typical night out includes having to make reservations to sip on $20 cocktails and to have a server ask, “Have you dined with us before?” before launching into a tutorial on the concept of “small plates” (they’re plates with small amounts of food on them so you have to order a lot of these plates of food, which is something a normal person probably wouldn’t do without being instructed because they’re priced like they’re plates with large amounts of food on them), it’s maybe a step closer to the gutter.

In other words, to me and people who have been here for a long time, Commonwealth is no dive. It was part of the string of bars that opened up as most of the dives on 5th Ave were closing. For people who are new to the neighborhood and used to the finer things, they consider it slumming to go there. To them it's a dive.


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.