If you’re a bartender or bar owner on the Lower East Side, you might have run into Dr. Richard Ocejo at some point or another, either bellied up to the bar by himself or skulking around some community board meeting, furiously scribbling down what is being said. The 28-year-old sociology professor at CUNY’s John Jay College earned his PhD this past summer after years of hanging out in bars. Unlike most grad students, he wasn’t just out trying to avoid working on his thesis. He was studying said bars, their patrons, and how they reflect urban change in the neighborhood. His findings have been published in academic journals and presented at various sociology conferences. Fork in the Road was curious as to how one comes to study bar culture and get awarded a degree for it.
Were you always serious about studying bars or did this start as a way to get credit for going out drinking?
I just happened to walk into Milano’s one day, which is one of the last remaining of the old neighborhood bars. I started to think about discovering some of the connections that existed between the internal bar culture and the neighborhood. So, I started attending community board meetings, neighborhood group meetings, talking to politicians and police, and bar owners. I wanted to check out bars that residents were complaining about.
What was your final dissertation about?
It was very much a discussion about the political economy of post-industrial urban nightlife. So, it looked at urban change and how those issues are internalized in neighborhoods, through the lens of nightlife. [I had to learn about] rents and liquor licensing issues. The SLA is the second biggest generator of revenue in the state. Next to banks, bars pay the highest rent of any independent business.
And what exactly can you tell about a society by studying its bars?
I think it’s a continuation of a lot of research dealing with the topic of the ever-evolving, ever-changing American experience. Many bars have become places that people seek out from all over the city. For instance, Milano’s was always a neighborhood bar for locals, but now it has customers who travel from all around the city to be a part of its community of regulars. [It] has survived the changes of the neighborhood, like high rents and new residents and visitors, but most have closed for these reasons.
Do you think the Lower East Side has been ruined by bars?
To an extent, yeah, I do. Historically, it was a place for the marginal and the disenfranchised, a place of expression and creativity. It still is, in many ways, but there’s been an upscaling of [the LES]. Lots of bars are doing the most creative things going on in the city now. Still, as a native New Yorker, I’ve always lamented a past I never experienced.
Isn’t that a huge part of the current cocktail culture?
Absolutely, but I haven’t come up with a name for it yet. There’s a concept called “inventing tradition,” which I like. But, yes, there’s definitely a romanticizing of old bars and cocktail culture. Through my research, I started to hang out at cocktail bars. I got to know a bit about mixology, cocktail culture, classic cocktails, the saga of Prohibition. I’ll be presenting two papers [about that] at conferences next year.
We hear you’re developing a bar culture class at CUNY.
Well, it wouldn’t be on just bars. I want to call it The City at Night. The city and the night are very much intertwined in the American consciousness. The class would look at the historical treatment of the city at night, like the invention of electric lighting, commercialized leisure in Times Square. Then, I would go into night work, night shifts, and entertainment and nightlife. That part will be fun. We’ll study bars, restaurants. Finally, I want to talk about crime at night, the underbelly stuff.
Has studying bars ever gotten sketchy?
I was outside a bar with a couple of bouncers once. All of a sudden, rolling in is a grenade. It starts to smoke so we all dove. Turns out, it was just a smoke bomb. Apparently, grenades don’t smoke before they go off. I don’t know this. The only grenade I’ve seen is in a glass case in an Army-Navy store. Whatever. Joker.