Events

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stripping, vomiting, and drinking themselves unconscious...Amherst and the culture of problem drinking

"Stripping, vomiting, and drinking themselves unconscious...•Undergraduates seen urinating in the flower beds •Revellers vomited just metres away from where young children played •Blood shed between rival college drinking societies •Girls held upside down as alcohol poured into their mouths"
A typical bad weekend in Amherst as chronicled in Larry Kelley's blog?

Nope, just what one of my tweeps called: "The perennial Cambridge 'students get eye-poppingly drunk and do awful things 'newspaper story (Telegraph edition)" (h.t.: S.J.)

But it could in fact describe our worst fears—and, on at least one day this year: realities. In March, when customers traditionally line up early in front of several downtown bars on one of the weekends around St. Patrick's Day, both we in Town government and the newspapers received multiple complaints about shocking behavior that ranged from the distasteful (vomit on the sidewalks) to the disgustingly dangerous (alleged attempt at molestation of a young girl).

The Gazette editorial—"Darkness Before Noon at Barney Blowout" (good title, though I doubt many readers got the Koestler reference)—lamented:
The reports are sadly familiar in Amherst: young people throwing bottles, picking fights, vomiting and urinating in public. "Drunk kids everywhere," one Amherst police officer noted. The chairwoman of the Select Board observed: "It's appalling to be downtown and to see that happening."

Familiar at night, perhaps.

But the middle of the day? With St. Patrick's Day still a full week off, students engaged last weekend in what was billed as the 13th annual Blarney Blowout.
And in the words of The Republican:
Officials here described a weekend bacchanalia that made downtown Amherst seem more like a town ransacked by barbarians than the proud home of the state's flagship public university and one of the nation's top private colleges. [evidently Hampshire College is unknown in Springfield; JW]
Not for that reason, but also not unaware of this larger picture, the Select Board has subsequently twice voted to deny liquor license applications from convenience stores.

It has long been clear that antisocial student behavior, much or most of it associated with consumption of alcohol, is a real problem for the town. It is a problem in two ways: the bad behavior, as such—which, we should stress, most rational observers attribute to a small minority of the roughly 27,000 students who learn and work here—and the fears arising from actual or potential misbehavior. Concerns over what was invariably referred to as "student housing" helped to sink even the heavily revised rezoning proposal for North Amherst village center at this spring's annual Town Meeting. Addressing the cause is more difficult than recognizing the symptom.

Representatives of organizations concerned about alcohol abuse who come before the Select Board invariably make the argument that there is a correlation between availability of alcohol (density of sales points plus low price) and alcohol abuse. I don't doubt that. But if it is plausible, it is also neither very interesting nor totally compelling. Stuff that's easy to get is, well, easy to get, and thus more easily abused: this is not exactly sophisticated social science. By that measure, we could "solve" the problem by just reducing the number of liquor licenses. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts gives us a quota of 40, though we are under no obligation to fill it (at the moment, we are using only 34). And of course, the US still has a great problem with illegal drugs, which, by comparison, are neither widely available nor cheap in comparison with alcohol.

When we on the Select Board debated, or rather, shared our ideas on the issue—for we unanimously opposed both applications—I expressed the view that the problem was ultimately one of culture rather than the market. That is: the Town may regulate licenses to the maximum possible extent, but people are allowed to buy and consume alcohol, so what matters in the end is how those consumers behave, which is in turn a matter of how the community expresses its social norms, and how the authorities enforce our legal norms.

I can illustrate that on two levels, historical and contemporary.

As a historian, I can assure you that the levels of alcohol consumption today are nothing like those of the past (a description, not a judgment).

As the late great historian of modern Europe Eugen Weber noted in a bestselling textbook, the eighteenth-century author Samuel Johnson once drank thirteen bottles of port without rising from his chair: a notable feat, Weber said, in more ways than one.  Still, it was not in other ways atypical. It wasn't just a British or continental thing, either. In The Alcoholic Republic, (Oxford University Press, 1981), a study of American habits between 1790 and 1840, W. J. Rorabaugh notes that, even as the Founding Fathers condemned alcohol abuse, they drank heavily. Our own staid and conservative John Adams consumed "a tankard of hard cider" at breakfast every day, while worrying about "this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance" (p. 6).

Others didn't seem to worry much at all:
New York Governor Georg Clinton honored the French ambassador with a dinner at which 120 guests downed 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch. Even in staid New England the upper classes continued to imbibe; at one Congregational minister's ordination in 1793, the celebrants consumed dozens of bottles of hard cider, wine, sherry, cherry brandy, and Jamaica rum. (48)
As Weber put it, the decent folk of that time were drunk all the time, dead drunk most of the time, and apparently none the worse for it except in the long run, and perhaps not even then.

This is not to say that we should drink like Johnson and Adams, and the cautionary message of Hogarth's "Gin Lane" remains relevant. But we need to remember that Hogarth contrasted the depravity of "Gin Lane" with the salubriousness of "Beer Street" (it was moreover a contrast between "foreign" and "native" beverages). Early Americans took a similar view: a famous "temperance thermometer" (still sold in reproduction at Colonial Williamsburg) contrasted supposedly healthy low-alcohol beverages such as beer, wine, and cider, with dangerous distilled ones. A prominent physician considered one bottle of wine per evening moderate (32), and he was not unusual. Of course, as Rorabaugh observes, it may be that early Americans were simply, let us say, in training:
As a shrewd Scot by the name of Peter Neilson pointed out, the nation's citizens were 'in a certain degree seasoned, and consequently it [was] by no means common to see an American very much intoxicated.' In other words, as a result of habitual heavy drinking Americans had developed a high degree of tolerance for alcohol. Even so, in the opinion of Isaac Candler, Americans were certainly not so sober as the French or the Germans, but perhaps,' he guessed, 'about on a level with the Irish.' (7)
We drink less today, and that's probably a good thing. Whether we handle our drink any better is another matter.

I can affirm, however that mere availability of alcohol and presence of large numbers of students does not have to mean that the barbarians are at the gate.

As chance would have it, we left Amherst the week after the "Blarney Blowout" for a long-postponed cultural tourism vacation that took us to Savannah and New Orleans, American cities distinguished as leaders in historic preservation.
Among other things, I was interested to study the workings of two of the most famous American local historic districts (1, 2) as we were in the process of trying to create one here in Amherst. As it also happens, these are two cities whose tourist trade is for better or worse closely tied to a public party and drinking culture.

One automatically associates that with New Orleans but it had barely crossed my mind in the case of Savannah, for we chose to travel on March 18, a day after the biggest event of the year. Perhaps because we live in the northeast, in the shadow of Boston and Holyoke, and not all that far from New York, I had only recently learned that Savannah claims the second-largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world. Founded by the nucleus of what became a thriving Irish community, it dates from 1813 (Boston claims the first in the New World: 1737).


Irish-American Monument, Emmet Park: decorated for the start of the holiday


We didn't know what to expect, for upon arrival, we heard that the parade had attracted a record-breaking 15,000 participants and, according to parade organizers, 1,000,000 visitors—many of them students—for the spring weekend. It turned out: nothing out of the ordinary. The cleaning crews had hit the streets of the festival area at 3 a.m., so the thoroughfares and "squares" were spotless, the lingering green dye in the public fountains the only clue as to the previous day's activities. City spokesman Bret Bell said, "I call it the St. Patrick's Day miracle that every morning it looks like there has not been a quarter of a million people there."


It was the more remarkable given that Savannah and New Orleans are among the few cities in this country where it is legal to carry an open container of alcohol in public. I was of course particularly intrigued by the fact that Savannah allows this only in the historic district: any beverage of up to 16 ounces is permitted. We saw people of all (legal drinking) ages calmly and contentedly strolling the streets and parks with beers, Bloody Mary's, and other libations in hand. Just to check things out (it was, after all, a local historic district), we tested the custom ourselves, and can affirm that it was safe and enjoyable. (No worries: not part of our own local district bylaw.)


This was more or less the mood throughout the entire holiday weekend. One bar served over 3,000 customers and reported that its only alcohol-related problem was that the green Bud Light sold out by 9 p.m. "City Embraces St. Patrick's Day, sets record," "St. Patrick's crowds mostly tame," and "St. Patrick's Day brings well-behaved spenders," read the story headings in the Savannah Morning News.

In the words of Savannah-Chatham Police spokesman Julian Miller, "People behaved. They just had fun. They did what they were supposed to do." Just compare that with Amherst's talk of "appalling" "barbarians" and "bacchanalia." In Police detective David Foster's lament, "There were drunk kids everywhere. It wasn't a pretty sight."

The statistics convey the contrast, too. On the notorious weekend of the Blarney Blowout, tiny Amherst, with a population of under 38,000, registered, according to Larry Kelley's blog:
• 14 Noise Bylaw tickets
• 12 Noise warnings
• 7 Nuisance House violations
• 12 open container infraction arrests
By contrast, in Savannah, with a population of nearly 135,000 and a million visitors, there was a total of only 31 arrests over the entire four-day festival (down from 190 the previous year):
• Disorderly conduct 9
• Battery: 7
• Public urination: 5
• Obstruction: 3
• Reckless conduct: 1
• Criminal trespass: 1
• Larceny from a building: 1
• Marijuana less than one ounce: 1
• Open container: 1
• Begging: 1
• Striking a law enforcement animal: 1
[nice name-and-shame slideshow here]
The stupidest one was of course the latter: a 24-year-old Duluth resident slapped a police horse on the rump and was moreover dumb enough to flee, resist arrest, and injure an officer (thus earning an additional two charges of obstruction as well as some bruises). This one brainiac alone therefore accounted for nearly 10 percent of the citations. The Police Chief observed, "I'm surprised that somebody would slap one of my horses." Perhaps he should not have been totally surprised, for the print report goes on to note that someone pulled the same stunt last year. (What is it about these horse's asses?)

Clearly, alcohol alone is not the problem. In fact, in Savannah, it wasn't much of a problem at all.

Rules and warnings help, but they are only as good as the will behind them. That's what I meant when I said that ultimate solution to the problem in Amherst lies in changing the culture.

So why did I vote against granting liquor licenses to both convenience stores? (1, 2) Because they served no clear useful purpose. In both cases, the stores were moreover in the immediate vicinity of other businesses offering alcohol for sale: in the former, across the street from a liquor store noted for its extensive wine and craft beer selection, and in the latter, located next to a craft beer pub and across the street from a liquor store.

As I put it in our Select Board discussions, the town would not gain appreciably if we added these new licenses, and the chain store franchises, which had other specialties and were already prospering, would not materially suffer if we denied them. Simply put: there was no compelling need for another outlet offering cheap run-of-the-mill alcohol. Ensuring that we do no harm is often a good starting principle in politics as well as medicine.

The same studies that warn against proliferation of liquor stores and low alcohol prices generally also stress the need for a comprehensive policy including education and enforcement. We are not going to eliminate the drinking and the party culture of student life; they have a long tradition as well as contemporary causes. As Savannah shows, even public drinking is not necessarily problem drinking.

When push comes to shove, a reasonable person can generally tell where harmless boisterousness ends and unacceptable boorishness begins. And in the case of those who cannot, is up to the community to delineate and reinforce that boundary.
That's what changing the culture means: sending a clear signal as to what we—residents, government, and public safety—will or will not tolerate. If Savannah can handle the problem, we should be able to, as well.

In an online Telegraph poll, votes cast on the British student behavior described at the beginning of this post split almost eventy between "Yes, it is bad for the reputation of Cambridge University and a nuisance for locals" (50.86%) and "No, students should be allowed to let their hair down after working so hard" (49.14%).

Just so you know.

I think the numbers would be rather different in Amherst. That's a start.

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"Stripping, vomiting, and drinking themselves unconscious"

I think you have listed the last two activities in reverse order. At least that's what I remember from personal experience.

And re Samuel Johnson's claims: they should in no way serve as input for scientific conclusions. Youngsters always lie about the volume of consumed drinks, just like fishermen about the size of the fishes they got.