It was a surly scene Monday night at Sangillo’s Tavern, where I watched the city council debate and ultimately vote to deny the renewal of the bar’s liquor license by a vote of 5-4. Amid the ambient noise, everyone was allied and fixated on the screen, interrupting every so often to issue some credo of support or hurl venomous invective at the television. It was an odd tension — many patrons within the noisy room seemed quick to presume that anyone speaking about them would naturally be mounting the case for their bar’s demise, quieting only when someone who was paying closer attention would explain that, in fact, councilor Nick Mavodones had just voted in favor of the bar, or that the guy they’d just told to shut up, you bum! was actually Sangillo’s’ lawyer Harry Center.
Toward the end of the vote, I spoke with the doorman, a younger black man who did not wish to be identified. He told me he’d been hired less than a month ago and lived in Saco; he was initially attracted to the position because he saw a real opportunity to strengthen ties between Portland communities. He agreed in part with the sentiments asserted by some members of the council, noting that in spite of the material efforts Sangillo’s has taken to improve their standing (adding a 16-camera security system, requesting additional outside lighting, employing two doormen per evening, etc.), Center’s blusterous, vehement rejection of the evidence mounted against the bar likely didn’t help alleviate the doubt among city officials, like councilors Ed Suslovic and David Marshall, that its ownership was willing to be accountable. Style concerns aside, the doorman returned to a basic interpretation of the city’s push to deny the liquor license: “They wanna make sure they’re making money here, and us being here prevents that.”
After the vote, bartender Andrea Lee said that even at 65, she wasn’t ready to stop tending bar. “I need the money,” she said, mentioning that her 42-year-old son has a medical issue she was paying toward. “I can still run circles around these people and nobody scares me,” she said, adding that she’d worked for the tavern in its various incarnations (as well as bars such as Bubba’s, Popeye’s, and the Silver House Tavern) for 36 years. Lee still lives on nearby Hancock Street.
In the aftermath of the vote, emotions were understandably running high, and those close to the bar had the disposition of those feeling unfairly picked on. “It’s like the city’s playing Monopoly and we’re Baltic Ave.,” said Portland resident Jim Tremble.
“They wanna tear this place down and put in condos. Make it better for the hipsters up on the hill,” added Steve, 46, a patron who says he grew up on nearby Anderson Street. “This has been a working man’s neighborhood for fifty, a hundred years. We’ve been here forever.”
It’s generational, working-class sentiments like these that make up the strongest arguments for Sangillo’s supporters, but even that angle is more complex than it seems. The neighborhood bar has been in operation since 1960, and owners have been quick to protest that this is the first year there have been problems in the neighborhood (23 calls in the last year according to police, 11 of them for fights), a trend which tragically culminated in a shooting in the parking lot on January 28th that left a man paralyzed.