|[Entropy meets Louie's awning.]
I'd come across it during some dive bar scouting [see full write-up at the bottom of this post] and stationed myself there at least once for Saint Paul's Few Gear's Eve NYE alleycat race.
But it was I who blew the whistle on Louie's when I narc'd on their "40+" policy one late-spring day a few years back. I snapped a pic of the door after getting kicked out for being underage. I tweeted it out and within a day, I was being interviewed by the excellent Mecca Bos from City Pages.
Here's the story of Tony, who managed Louie's during its downfall:
Tony Carlson, general manager of Louie's, has been managing bars for 22 years, three of them on Payne Avenue, including the long-gone notorious strip club, the Payne Reliever.
She's from the East Side, and says she's pretty much seen it all. She's been working at Louie's for about a year, and according to her, last summer was nothing but trouble at the bar.
"We had over 350 phone calls to the police — fights, drug-related calls. Yes, people get drunk and do stupid things, but this was above and beyond that." She adds that the bar is paying steep fines to the city and has to appeal at city council meetings in order to make penance for all the trouble surrounding the bar. According to her, security cameras from the bar are linked directly to the St. Paul Police Department for surveillance purposes.
Thanks to all the crime, longtime regulars were no longer coming in to drink, and Carlson was searching for a way to halt the crime and bring regulars back. She made the decision to card every person who came through the door, and, in October, to institute a 30-and-over policy. And for a time, things were calm again. But then this month, "The shit hit the fan again."
"We couldn't control the crowd. We had people sitting around and not purchasing anything. A lot of homeless people, and a lot of drug dealers. The outside of the bar was intimidating with people hanging out."
She says that in an effort to "control the crowd," they took away hardcore rap and took away the karaoke. But still the trouble remained and the regulars were staying away. So they instituted a 40-and-over policy. And since then, she says, things have been calm again.
"We have new customers. People don't feel like they have to sit with their purses in their laps. People feel comfortable again."
But there's a loophole to the nobody-under-40-rule. Regular customers who the staff knows well have been issued "VIP" cards, and are welcome to use the bar regardless of their age (over 21, of course). Carlson says that VIP cards have been issued to some new customers, too.
A age restriction policy is often the dying gasp of an old bar, and that was true for Louie's which lasted only a few more months. the building has been vacant since, the letters on the awning slowly succumbing to entropy.
Well, all that's changing. The Pioneer Press reports that the place is re-opening and is being fixed up. That's great news!
My favorite detail is this:
German, who said the space was “beyond a dive,” when the current ownership took over, said the dingy drop-ceilings have been taken out to reveal an antique tin ceiling, and an artist is creating an accent wall that will contain aspects of the East Side.
German said the project is a homecoming of sorts for him.
“I was born and raised two blocks off Payne Avenue, so I love it, and I love the revitalization that’s happening,” he said. “I’m really excited to be a part of trying to continue that.”
Payne Avenue deserves a thriving bar scene, and bringing back Louie's as NorthStar is going to fill a key gap in the city's bar culture. Head over the East Side in the near future and get lost on Payne.
And if you want a handy, increasingly-out-of-date guide to the area dive bars, I have just the thing for you.
[Louie's Exerpt follows.]
I volunteered and, with a friend, spent a few hours passing time hugging the wall. I found cheap crappy lager, a well-worn juke-box, and a huge room divided roughly into a few smaller areas. On one side, a rectangular bar linked to the ceiling with wooden beams offered refuge for world-weary Payne denizens, and the wide open booth-and-table half of the room offered opportunity for the odd entourage. Groups of men leaked from the sidewalk to commandeer tables and hold court around a plastic pitcher. Later that night I sang karaoke on a small stage in the corner, loosing Sinatra onto an audience immune to my intoxicated charm.
Surely in the early days it was different, but for many people, the 21st century version of Louie’s had a bad reputation. It was a reminder of Payne’s struggles over race, class, housing, and the future of the old neighborhood. By some accounts, Louie’s had become one of the nodes of gang turf, with drug dealing in the bathroom or fights in the alley. Thus the long and shifting list of rules posted to the door.
But like many disreputable dives, so much depends on perspective and timing. My experience had always been a pleasant mix, a slice through a neighborhood that was home to Saint Paul’s downest on their luck. East Side bars are often faced with a choice about how much to enforce cultural, racial, or generational mores. This can be done in a dozen ways, from overt dress codes to juke box restrictions to lines like “we reserve the right to...” and, most importantly, the more subtle spheres of nebulous sociality.
As the old ways declined over the years, Louie’s struggled with the winds of change. The last time I went there, I was kicked out. One drizzly afternoon, a friend and I entered and, shedding our damp coats, approached the bar. I hadn’t been there in a while, and apparently things had changed.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” said the older woman tending the taps. “We’re a forty-plus bar now.
“I’m sorry, what?” I stammered.
“You have to be forty to drink here. New rule. Born’s is doing it too,” she said, looking at my younger friend. Born’s was a bar on Rice Street, a mile to the West across the freeway. They had similar problems dealing with neighborhood crime, especially late at night.
We didn’t argue or dawdle - what would have been the point? - and after a muttered joke or two, ventured directly across the street for a cheap pint of craft beer and organic appetizers at the new foodie pub. Such are the zany juxtapositions of Payne Avenue, where mix- ing tides, new and old schools of every spectral stripe, the sanitized and the dingy alike, prove a point like shadows on the face of a noir hero. “This means something”, you think to yourself, a mashed potato mountain of culture and time.
Yet the snips of easy laughter and stories I glimpsed in the bar that day lingered in my mind after the ejection from Louie’s. A while ago, a friend recounted an unbiased visit to the place: “One of the friendliest places I’ve been, the people were so nice,” he said, “and aside from the bartender, we were the only white people there.”
Louie’s has now closed, its absurd age limits the last throes of an empty bottom line. The sign on its awning is already falling apart, missing a vowel or two, and the loss is sad despite the dinge because so many of our cultural third-spaces are segregated around race or class or both. The rarity of these unexpected intersections reveals their fragility. I like to think that a dive can, for a time, offer a bridge between worlds, a place for jokes, drinks, hopes, and insults to spread like seeds through the layers of our social strata.
Not to be idealistic, for Louie’s was as rough as they come, but the death of a dive is a somber thing, regardless of taste. Rest in pieces, Louie’s Bar. May you linger in some sweet Payne purgatory, serving drinks to the ageless.