Cantabrigians are mourning a loss of identity, reporting shutdown of People’s Republik bar

By: Marc Levy, Cambridge Day, February 6, 2021

The People’s Republik bar in Mid-Cambridge, seen in August. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The People’s Republik, the iconic bar in Mid-Cambridge, has apparently surrendered the cold war, with social media posts reporting seeing furniture being removed starting Friday; the bar’s phone line was dead Saturday and an online rating service listed it as “permanently closed.”

The doors had been closed since Dec. 4 for “for the safety of our staff and guests,” according to People’s Republik posts on social media. “We have decided to close for the time being. We sincerely hope to be back shortly, but some things still remain out of our control.” But on Saturday patrons were mourning it online as closing entirely, with city councillor Marc McGovern saying simply, “This hurts. Many great times.”

Owners could not be reached directly for comment, and also were declining to respond to customer questions online.

Update on Feb. 7, 2021: The bar’s owner has confirmed a permanent shutdown.

Nearby Central Square has already lost longtime bar The Field, and the Cantab Lounge and Middle East nightclub complex properties are for sale and not expected to reopen – not to mention various other businesses lost to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects.

“We’re going to leave a health crisis and walk right into an identity crisis,” said Michael Monestime, executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District, reached Saturday by phone. He said he too had reached out to the owners for information, by email.

About that name

The bar, with whimsical Communist-themed decor and stark red and yellow paint outdoors (not to mention a giant likeness of a Communist soldier) may have lost to coronavirus, but began life by winning a battle for its own identity.

The bar at 876-878 Massachusetts Ave. began as Drumlin’s Pub, but in August 1997 was bought by Robert Blair (the owner has also been identified as Philip Blair) and Kieran Lawler. They proposed a change to The People’s Republik, drawing a rejection from the License Commission because, as then executive officer Richard Scali told The Harvard Crimson, the name “was inappropriate and offensive to people who had fought in the Korean War, World War II or any war” against communism. When Blair got the name change he wanted, he was angry and “went wild and painted the whole place red,” said Nils Johnson, a manager in 2004 when the Crimson did a wrap-up on the city’s various communist-themed businesses.

Eventually, the bar’s name became a point of pride for the city – a cousin to the Area Four high-end pizza restaurant adopting the name of a neighborhood controversial among some of its own residents, and later changed (to The Port).

Colorful business

People’s Republik appeared in “21,” the 2008 film adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s MIT-based novel “Bringing Down the House,” and made some best-of lists too – notably Esquire magazine’s rundown of the Best Bars in America. In 2008, magazine correspondent Luke Dittrich described it: “Soviet propaganda posters take up most of the wall space, and time has transformed totalitarian relics into great pop art … you won’t run into many college students and instead will probably meet regulars like the free-verse-spouting guy who sometimes takes off his wooden leg and strums it like a guitar.” The bar became such a strong representation of Cambridge that it won a spot in the city’s 2019 Vacant Storefront Creative Design Contest; Karl Baden’s photographic entry “People’s Republik in Snowstorm” was turned into giant prints that businesses could hang in store windows until they were leased – meaning the once-offensive name was chosen to appear all around town.“People’s Republik in Snowstorm,” by Karl Baden, was a winner in a 2019 contest to provide art that would hang in vacant storefronts.

Monestime hoped such colorful businesses would return after the coronavirus was no longer a concern, reshaping Cambridge into something as fun and vibrant.

“Everybody loves a comeback,” Monestime said.

Area closings during the pandemic also include Abigail’s Restaurant, Harvard Square’s Ann Taylor, The Automatic, the Kendall Square Barismo, Bergamot, Bo Concept, Brit Bakery, Bukowski Tavern, Bull McCabe’s Pub, Cafe Pamplona, Cuchi Cuchi, David’s Tea, Dickson Bros. True Value hardware, Emack & Bolio’s ice cream in Porter Square, Flat Top Johnny’s, The Friendly Toast, a GNC, Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, Harding House, a Harvard Square Hempest, a Hertz car rental, Inman Oasis, ImprovBoston’s theatreJoie De Vivre, the Harvard Square Legal Sea Foods, Lush, Once Somerville, Parsnip, Pavement Coffeehouse, Restaurant Dante, Snappy Ramen, The Squeaky Beaker Cafe, Somerville Brewing, Studio@550, Thunder Road, The Table at Season to Taste, the Wellbridge Athletic Club and Wit’s End.

Cambridge Local First