top of page

Inside New York City's Troubled History Of Cracking Down On Bars - Catharine Smith

LEYLA DOSS, HOST: When the pandemic broke out last year, strict rules were issued for COVID safety in restaurants and bars. But the pushback was immediate. New Yorkers don’t like their bars regulated. But the city has a long history of controlling what happens in bars, for all kinds of reasons. And, as Cat Smith reports, New Yorkers have always found creative ways around those rules.

CAT SMITH, BYLINE: This bar in Harlem is a typical neighborhood joint. Wood paneling on the walls, dim lighting. When I walked up to the bartender with my microphone on a quiet afternoon, she asked that I not use her name, or the name of the business. She said she’s afraid of losing her job and the bar’s liquor license.

SMITH: I ordered a beer, and they didn’t make me order food. They said they don’t enforce that rule anymore. And then they asked me if I was a cop.

SMITH: The New York state rules for city bars DO currently say that drinks can’t be served without food, indoor seating is at 30% and social distancing must be observed. But on some nights, this bar features live music -- and a packed house.

DAVID WONDRICH: When rules come down that New Yorkers don’t like, they find ways of evading them. And that’s always been the case.

SMITH: David Wondrich is author of several books on nightlife culture and drink history. He says that the government has long tried to control what happens in bars.

WONDRICH: It goes back to slave rebellions in the 18th century that were planned in bars. The powers that be have always been very nervous about what happens in bars. Bars have always been portals to people out of control and planning things that the powers aren’t so interested in.

SMITH: And New Yorkers don’t like being told what to do in their favorite pubs. Richard Zacks is the author of “Island of Vice,” about efforts in the 1890s to curb gambling, prostitution and excessive drinking in saloons and dancehalls. Sunday drinking was already illegal at that time -- but, he says, few people took the rule seriously, especially on the crowded Lower East Side, where there were thousands of saloons. After a 60-hour workweek, customers could unwind for a nickel a drink on their only day off.

RICHARD ZACKS: New York had a big drinking problem. Two-thirds of all arrests were for “drunk and disorderly.” And women were frankly fed up with having drunken husbands who squandered the paycheck.

SMITH: So a new law was passed, called The Raines Law of 1896, to get tough with bars.

ZACKS: And the law seems pretty straightforward. It says you can’t serve liquor from midnight on Saturday till 5 a.m. Monday.

SMITH: But the law was riddled with loopholes. Hotels could serve on Sundays, so bar owners threw up a few walls creating tiny rooms in back. And they could keep slingin’ liquor if they served a meal with each drink. Pretty soon, they realized, no one had to eat the food -- as long as a plate was on the table, cops were OK. So bars started serving what became known as Raines Sandwiches. They used them over and over -- sometimes for weeks.

ZACKS: There was stale bread, mummified ham, rock-hard cheese. They started turning green. They were disgusting.

SMITH: The restrictive law ended up making the drinking problem worse.

ZACKS: And it wound up allowing these thousands of saloons to serve liquor 24/7. There was no time they couldn’t serve it, and New York became the city that never sleeps.

SMITH: In 1920s, the fight to curb public drinking went national, and liquor was outlawed during Prohibition. In New York, the saloons all closed, but tens of thousands of illegal speakeasies opened in their place.


SMITH: Today, crowded bars present community health risks more than moral ones. But history suggests many New Yorkers will continue to find ways to dodge the limits on places where they can get together and drink. Cat Smith, Columbia Radio News.


bottom of page