A Keg on Every Corner

Iowa City has a drinking problem.

Were there a facility large enough to house us all I suspect we’d have long ago been ordered by the court to attend some ambiguously-named in-patient rehab facility where our bags would be searched for mouthwash, daily urine tests would be administered and T-shirts commemorating pub crawls would be confiscated at the door.

There isn’t.

Instead, to address it, the city council passed the 21-Only ordinance in June, hoping that keeping people under the age of 21 out of Iowa City’s bars would cut down on some of the alcohol-related problems that had been occurring downtown.

And it has–there anyway.

The party hasn’t stopped, however. It’s simply migrated to house parties all over town, possibly to the house next door to your own.

This was not unexpected, and the Iowa City Police Department is using grant money to pay overtime to its officers who form a “party patrol,” tasked with patrolling outlying neighborhoods looking for loud and large house parties.

Sgt. Denise Brotherton of the Iowa City Police Department told me that, statistically, the number of “disorderly house” citations issued during the first month that school has been in session in 2010 is nearly identical to the number issued in 2009, prior to the ordinance being passed.

However, statistics alone may not tell the whole story.

Not every house party that the police respond to results in a citation (some may receive only a noise warning) and, according to police logs, many calls about loud parties have been logged as “unfounded/unable to locate,” indicating that they may have ended prior to the arrival of the responding officers.

Some residents feel that the city council significantly underestimated the number of house parties that would occur once the bars were off-limits to minors. They also believe that these parties have now brought many of the alcohol-related problems that once occurred downtown to their previously quiet neighborhoods.

Robert Brooks owns and operates the Brown Street Inn, a bed and breakfast on the 400 block of Brown Street.

On Saturday Sept. 11, the weekend of the Iowa/Iowa State football game, Brooks had a full house at his bed and breakfast. So did a nearby house on Van Buren Street where a large party was going on.

The noise from the party kept Brooks and most of his guests from being able to sleep.

Brooks called the property’s owner to alert them to the problem and, when nothing changed and the party continued to grow in both size and volume, he finally called the police.

When he did, he says he was told that his complaint would be “put on the list” of house parties police were responding to that evening and it was over an hour until they arrived.

Although the police did finally break up the party, his neighborhood did not quiet down.

Rather, he says, a diaspora of partygoers, most with beers in hand, took to the streets and sidewalks around his home and loudly milled about drinking, peeing in bushes and calling friends to find the next party to go to.

“Who knows where they ended up after they left?” Brooks said. “Some of them could hardly walk. Did they get hit by a car? Fall in the river? Did one of the girls get assaulted while she was trying to crawl home?”

Another person reporting an increase in house parties in his neighborhood is Jerry Baughman, who owns a home on South Governor Street sandwiched between two college rental properties and across the street from several others.

In the four years he’s lived there he says that loud and drunk college students and the house parties they frequented have created a “steady level of chaos” in his neighborhood, which he was mostly able to abide by–until now.

“For the past three weekends it’s been hundreds of kids parading up and down the street, and up and down Bowery, almost all of them with beers in their hands, looking for parties,” he said.

Baughman also said that he makes an effort to deal with problem parties first hand, first by speaking directly with the renters hosting parties, then by contacting the properties’ owners, and only then, after all else fails, by calling the police.

Even then, he says, “when I called, the dispatcher said that ‘we’ll put you on the list,’ so I knew that there must have been a lot of other calls about parties out that night and it was at least an hour before the cops showed up.”

When asked about this, Sgt. Brotherton said that the fact that 911 calls are now routed through the new Johnson County Emergency Management Center–rather than internally, through the ICPD itself–may be partially to blame for the delayed response times.

“Sometimes, the dispatcher who’s working there may not know what we’re trying to prioritize on a given night, or what calls we want to get to first, but we’ve made corrections and hope that calls like this can be gotten to quicker. Still, if there are calls about a fight, or a robbery, or an accident involving multiple injuries, we have to take those calls first. But we are trying our best to stay on top of nuisance-type calls.”

She also said that with school just back in session and people getting accustomed to these things there will be a period of “growing pains.”

While some residents feel the police are not doing enough to stop loud house parties, others feel they are doing too much and targeting parties that, prior to the creation of the “party patrol,” would not have been broken up.

On August 29, Lee Willberg was arrested at an orientation party held for new residents at one of the River City Housing Collective’s properties on the 200 block of Summit Street.

He told me that the party was attended exclusively by people who were over 21 and only had about 25 people in attendance.

According to Willberg, he and about 15 other people were on the porch when a small unmarked car pulled up and two police officers got out and “immediately started screaming at the people on the porch to get inside while asking for the tenants to come forward and identify themselves.”

Willberg told me that he approached the officers and explained that the house was part of a co-op and that as one of the senior members he would be willing to talk to them. He was then handcuffed and charged with “interference with official acts.”

In spite of being arrested, and in spite of his feeling that the police were unnecessarily aggressive and “keyed-up” when responding to such a small gathering, he is, nonetheless, sympathetic to them.

“I’m a cab driver and I see the same cops that arrested me downtown and in the neighborhoods responding to other, bigger parties. They’re mostly newer and younger officers and they’re being run ragged dealing with all these parties now, so I can understand if they’re a little on edge. They’re over-worked and over-stressed. I would be, too.”

Willberg believes that smaller parties like the one on Summit Street are going to continue to be broken up by the police because “they’ve cast a big net looking for parties. They’re trying to catch tunas and they’re snaring dolphins. We were the dolphins.”

Two different groups have been formed to try to help overturn the ordinance: “Yes to Entertaining Students Safely,” and the “Iowa City Safety Committee,” both stewarded by people involved in the local bar industry.

They’re going head-to-head against the “21 Makes Sense” campaign–led by a who’s who group of local politicians, high school principals and University of Iowa administrators and staff.

Both sides of the debate make reasonably good points about why the ordinance should or shouldn’t be overturned, but both sides also make a fair amount of dubious claims that come close enough to being alarmist hysteria that they’re awfully hard to swallow no matter how much beer you have on hand.

It’s difficult to be too terribly sympathetic to either side of the debate.

For far too long both the city and the university turned a blind eye to the very issues that they now claim have reached critical mass. The city gladly accepted the tax revenue generated by many large bars while allowing many of the businesses that once occupied the bars’ locations to flee to the malls. Meanwhile, until recently, the university tacitly allowed the bars to become the
default social venues, relieving them of much of their obligation to create non-alcohol-related entertainment that could be attended by its students.

Conversely, many of the bar owners fighting for the ordinance to be overturned, ostensibly in the interest of “safety,” themselves turned a blind eye to the behavior of some of their patrons. They allowed things to become sufficiently unsafe downtown that the city council felt forced to unilaterally enact the ordinance in spite of the fact that it had been defeated at the polls just three years prior.

Neither side has any real heroes nor, ultimately, any real villains, and neither, it seems, addresses this issue of how or why Iowa City became the sort of two-fisted drinking town that might have caused even Charles Bukowski to reconsider the merits of prohibition.

Would actual prohibition likely solve anything? It’s unlikely. Drugs are illegal too, and they seem to get imported pretty easily into Iowa City from a lot further away than Wisconsin.

The underage drinkers this ordinance was enacted to address were the proverbial “chickens coming home to roost,” created, in large part, by the lack of local social alternatives offered to them, either privately or publicly. The bars they had been drinking at were simply a centrally located place to roost. While at first seen as a “better the Devil you know” alternative to underage drinkers congregating at unmonitored house parties all over town, Iowa City’s uniquely low bar-admittance age soon made it a popular destination for people under 21 from all over the state who had learned of its reputation as an “anything goes as long as you could pay the cover charge” sort of town.

Downtown is quieter, safer and more orderly? Those who support the ordinance can say “See, look, it worked.”

Once quiet neighborhoods are now overrun by people who may, in years past, have made downtown loud, unsafe and chaotic? Those who oppose it can say “See, we told you this would happen, look what you’ve wrought in our neighborhoods.”

Why is there is so much drinking going on? Some argue that it’s simply a “college thing,” and they may be correct, but does that make it right? I’m certainly no teetotaler, and much of my memory of my own college experience is, at best, a hazy blur, but is such an experience inevitable? What is it that–for entirely too many people–makes attending college the first step towards having to find a sponsor for a 12 step program?

“It doesn’t matter if they’re drinking in the bars or not,” Jerry Baughman told me.

“We don’t have a ‘bar problem.’ We have a drinking problem. Not just here in Iowa City but in the whole state. We always have. My family has been here since before Iowa even was a state, so this goes way back. It’s a cultural thing.”

When asked why he thought that the drinking rate among college students was so high, his answer was telling.

“I went to school here from ’71 to ’74, and we drank a lot then, too. They called springtime ‘riot season.’ They cancelled homecoming because of us. We were wild, too, and we had good reason to be. We were protesting Vietnam and scared to death we were going to be drafted. We drank to forget about that, I guess. These kids, today, they don’t have a Vietnam to protest, but there’s Iraq, the economy, no good jobs anymore, maybe their family’s had their home foreclosed on. Who knows what’s going to happen next? It’s a ‘live for today’ kind of attitude and I can’t say that I blame them.”

Baughman plans to vote to keep the 21-Only ordinance on the books when he goes to the polls on Election Day, even if that means house parties in his neighborhoods will continue.

“We created this, culturally, and allowing them in the bars was a part of that. Maybe we’re not controlling it now real well, I know we’re not, but maybe that’s a start.”

Robert Brooks plans to vote to overturn the 21-Only ordinance in November in the hopes that allowing students to gather–and drink–downtown might bring some semblance of order back to his neighborhood.

He, too, believes that there’s a “drinking culture” that’s a part of Iowa City’s reputation and that “a lot of students come here expecting to be a part of it, that it’s acceptable.”

“I feel really sorry for the kids,” he says, “I don’t know what else there is for them to do. Maybe they’re just bored, maybe it’s something else, but I know that it’s probably not going to change so I’d just as soon have them doing it downtown where, hopefully, it’s a little more controlled and a little safer.”

Should the ordinance remain on the books, it is possible that no amount of law enforcement crackdowns will be able to satisfactorily address the number of house parties that have supplanted the downtown bars as the drinking destination of choice among the underage.

If the ordinance is overturned, the city council may simply pass it again as soon as legally allowable, possibly at such a time that any petition to overturn it would only go to a vote sometime when the university was not in session and there would be fewer students here who could come out to vote against it.

And there we will go again.

I don’t envy people living in neighborhoods disrupted by house parties, those caught up in the wide net that’s been cast to try and reign them in, bar employees laid off due to a drop in downtown bar business, or the police officers responsible for running all over town to deal with the booze-fueled chaos that was, until June, primarily located downtown.

It’s enough, ultimately, to drive one to drink.