SOMERVILLE — For a wake, it was a hell of a party.
The clothes started to come off sometime after 7:30 p.m. Sligo Pub had been packed for hours — think South Boston on St. Patrick’s Day — and a mustachioed man whipped off his shirt and went behind the bar and started flexing. Someone cued up the Village People’s “Macho Man” on the jukebox. A couple of people took out their cellphones and started recording him posing next to the bartenders. A few minutes later, another guy, perhaps inspired, took off his shirt. One patron remarked that he looked like a cross between the boxer Butterbean and the late baseball coach Don Zimmer.
It’s hours before the final last call in the pub’s history. This space has been a Davis Square watering hole for 75 years. Its history predates the Red Line extension to Davis in the 1980s and a time when Somerville was synonymous with an organized crime outfit that was among the most feared in New England.
Much like Sligo Pub, that version of Somerville is no more. The city just west of Charlestown has become in some ways a victim of its own success. As it has grown wealthier in recent decades, gentrification has become a central challenge in the city. The ongoing housing crisis continues to grip Greater Boston, leaving some in the working and middle classes with few options.
Now, another slice of Somerville that harkened back to a grittier time is gone. Some locals say Sligo Pub’s closure represents the picture-perfect anecdote of displacement and another casualty in the inexorable march of gentrification.
“All the yuppies want to take over,” said Nina Velona, a 24-year-old bartender who lives in Somerville. “But this is the last place you can do whatever you want.”
For decades, the pub went by different names, but since at least the early 1980s it was known as Sligo, a reference to a county in the west of Ireland. It looks like the Hollywood set of a dive bar. Wood paneling covers the walls and scrawled across seemingly every inch of it is graffiti. Much of it is lewd and unprintable: There are depictions of genitalia, a few descriptions of sex acts, some initials, some names.
The patrons describe the bar in various ways. Some call it the true fabric of Somerville. For others, it’s simply the place where they watch every important Boston sports game. One patron compares it to a comfy couch. Another called it a space where queer people feel at home. There’s the man who said he spent a Thanksgiving Day there because he viewed the pub “as like family.” And the person who called it the focal point “of a community I can’t quite explain.” A few predicted they would cry.
“It’s literally the last morsel of old-school Davis Square,” said Christine Leva, a 33-year-old middle school teacher from Malden. “I’m sad.”
The realities of modern Somerville appear to have finally caught up to Sligo Pub, a bar that still sold $5 beers at a time when some of its neighbors were hawking cocktails for $16 a pop. A city housing-needs assessment published in Dec. 2021 put it plainly: “Somerville is no longer perceived as an older ‘working class’ city.”
“It has become a magnet for young people — students, graduates, emerging professionals — as well as academics, tech and health care professionals and affluent empty-nesters who prefer the ambience of urban neighborhoods to the suburbs they have left behind,” the report said. “People want to live in Somerville and will pay accordingly to do so.”
More than 40 percent of the city’s households have incomes over $125,000, according to the assessment. Thirty years prior, only 15 percent of households reached that income strata, adjusted to 2020 dollars.
The study found a need for more first-time home buyer programs, single-person households, and affordable one-bedroom units for young professionals and students. Furthermore, there is not enough public housing in Somerville, and its residents, unless eligible for emergency housing, cannot get priority housing anywhere outside of Somerville, the assessment said. And those who have Section 8 vouchers often have difficulty utilizing them in such a competitive housing market.
“The city is rightly concerned about the impact of gentrification on the low-income households who historically lived, worked, played, and raised in Somerville,” the assessment read.
To be sure, some at the bar weren’t so quick to embrace the whole Somerville-goes-as-Sligo-does metaphor. Bars close all the time and cities change, after all. (Somerville in recent years has said goodbye to beloved spots including Bull McCabe’s, Thunder Road, and ONCE Lounge and Ballroom.) Extrapolating some deeper meaning from the shutdown of one bar is a fool’s errand, some argue.
But one thing is for certain: More change is on the horizon for Davis Square.
Last year, the city’s Planning Board approved development plans that would overhaul the block that was home to Sligo. Developers envision a a 4-story structure “with lab and commercial space on the ground floor and lab space on the upper floors.” While the plans filed with the city mention that The Burren, another beloved Davis Square watering hole, will be open through construction it made no mention of Sligo. At the time, bar management told Boston.com that the development plans would probably mean the pub’s permanent closure.
The owners of Sligo, the Mannion family, said in an e-mail that the future development of the block “was a huge factor in our decision to close, there were also some personal & family considerations that played a role.”
“The development brings many complications such as displacement, increasing rents, a significant change to the feel of Davis Square,” the family said in the e-mail. “These were just more than our family could take on at this time.”
Joe Devine, the bar manager for Sligo, said after the COVID-19 pandemic, “we were hanging on by a thread.” Devine already has plans to open another neighborhood pub in the area that would be imbued with the spirit of Sligo, although not the name. He couldn’t talk about a specific location for his prospective watering hole, but is hoping to open that operation in the fall.
“The following is just too big,” not to do anything, he said, more than a week after the bar’s shuttering.
Indeed, Jordan Bradley, a 29-year-old Somerville resident who works at a local art museum, is among those to note that there is no “commensurate place” in the neighborhood to take Sligo’s spot.
“It’s working class, it’s cash-only, it’s cheap, it’s easy to meet people here,” she said.
Whatever the future holds for Davis, City Councilor Kristen Strezo said Somerville will continue to grapple with a central question: “How do we keep our identity through change?”
The city losing its flavor through the shuttering of beloved institutions, she said, “feels like a punch in the stomach, quite frankly.”
Tom Galligani, Somerville’s executive director of the office of strategic planning and community development, said one of the chief drivers of displacement is rising land values. That is affecting not only mom-and-pop businesses, but also renters, some homeowners, and cultural institutions in Somerville and the Greater Boston region. Additionally, he said, it is becoming increasingly difficult for independent restaurants to sustain themselves.
“Davis Square is dealing with pressure, and the pressure comes in a couple different ways,” he said.
Back at Sligo’s on its last night, someone put Pink Floyd on the jukebox, a decision met with some protests and expletives. “Who is playing this?” boomed one guy from the back of the bar. “Change it!”
Dan Martin, a 40-year-old who lives in Deerfield but was a regular when he previously lived in Somerville and Cambridge, drove two hours to be here. Its closure, he said, “is just terrible.”
”Every time I come in here, it’s a story,” he said.