The Alcohol-Industrial Complex

By any metric, Beck Street is not a well-to-do Salt Lake City locale. Its notable attractions include a strip club and an oil refinery, and the once-pleasant Wasatch foothills bordering Beck have been dug out in a series of gravel pits. But amid the gutted landscape sits the Garage, quite possibly Salt Lake City’s best bar.

Following the trend of social gentrification in the West, the fact that one of Salt Lake’s best watering holes sits in an industrial area of town isn’t exactly shocking. Rather, it illustrates that industrial areas are becoming damn good places to find good food and a good beer.

Paces such as RiNo in Denver and Ballard in Seattle epitomize the trend: working-class areas that are embracing the transformative power of art, food and alcohol. Social establishment owners hunt for these areas, seeking to break the mold of what we expect in fine dining and drinking. Today, these once smelter-laden burgs teem with restaurants, breweries and artists, and they are becoming sought-after places to live.

Gentrification has its evils — it often makes a neighborhood too pricey for working-class and minority residents, pushing them further away from parks, schools, and jobs — but good places to eat and drink usually come with it. Thus, timing gentrification can be a useful social tool. Seeking the neighborhoods that are breaking away from an industry-only approach but have yet to be flooded with white citizens looking for the next hot area gives you a chance to enjoy a diverse burg with restaurants and bars that won’t break the bank.

A good example of this is Seattle’s Georgetown area. The neighborhood is bordered by railways, an airstrip, and the Duwamish River, a heavily polluted shipping channel that leads to the Port of Seattle. A decidedly blue-collar place, until you look beyond the area’s aged brick facades.

Airport Way, Georgetown’s social epicenter, is a dense collection of bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Fading paint proclaims the humble lives of many buildings before they were reincarnated as trendy places for Seattleites to flood on the weekends.

The same can be said of Ballard, but Georgetown isn’t as tony, leading one to believe the area is on the verge of a big change.

The atmosphere at 9lb Hammer, one of the area’s best bars, is relaxed on the afternoon I visit. Pool tables and a shuffleboard sit empty as ’60s country plays at a warm volume. A couple of born-and-raised locals chat with a businessman from the suburbs about the Seahawks. They can’t believe that I, a guy who has lived in the area for all of two months, have even heard about the place.

So at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, Georgetown has an authentic feel. A crowd of mostly locals with callused hands converse over Rainier tallboys over music that certainly wasn’t picked by someone wearing skinny jeans.

But that all changes on the weekends, when “people who aren’t from here” descend upon Georgetown. Hipsters come south to revel in the area’s industrial vibe and growing arts and dining scenes. My bartender, a tall woman who treats the locals with a great deal of affection, tells me this with a tone bordering on caustic.

Think what you will about gentrification and the hordes of affluent clientele it rains upon formerly pragmatic neighborhoods, but there is a reason behind the initial current, and that reason usually is food and drink.

Which brings me back to the Garage. Beck Street is an abomination, an industrial area in an ugly setting characterized by hobbyists with seedy intentions. But stick a bar there with wonderful food (fried funeral potatoes is all that needs to be said), often-good music and a pair of cornhole pits, and the lights from the refinery transform from eyesores to ambient lighting that sets a jovial mood.

I’ve got a crush on industrial bars, and in the West, I’m not alone.

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