Where's the line?

Iowa City is in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. With the passing of a 21-only ordinance by the city council on April 6, it seems the like the lights of enforcement have turned on way too bright after last call. I encourage everyone to read the transcript of this meeting–it is a brilliant prism of conflict concerning the culture of drinking. However, don’t mistake this ordinance for anything other than a serious shift for Iowa City culturally and economically. Frankly, the whole discussion left a bad taste in my mouth like a NA beer.

This is an argument that rages within the confines of the town’s own identity blanketed with the economics of partying. This clamp down, this debate, is not just about morals; it is about money. It is about who occupies our store fronts. The businesses this concerns, the very shape of the ped mall is at heart of this legal wrangling. As the town keeps shedding and re-growing its skin, what remains is the body of square feet. What the makeup of the body contains is at question.

The timing of this ordinance is particularly cruel to locally owned businesses. The shift to 21 is set for June 1, the beginning of the slow season for downtown Iowa City. It squeezes the already diminished income even further for local bars. I would argue that the timing of this ordinance is intentional economic shiv to the businesses that rallied the student vote three years ago and successfully defeated a city-wide 21-only referendum. What was the urgency of the April 6 vote when yet another city wide 21-only referendum will likely happen in November?

The recently passed ordinance is punishing in its nature. Moreover, I am willing to bet that it won’t make a bit of difference in reducing underage drinking. You can’t legislate morality. If dangerous drinking can be curbed, it has to to curbed from within the community in question. The undergrad community has to realize that they can still party hard, but they have to take care of their own. It means not leaving your friend passed out on the curb. It means not drunkenly fighting. It means getting home without destroying property. It means that you, as a citizen of this community, actually belong and contribute to the quality of life here in Iowa City.

What has our little diamond in the rough become? Let me make a biased 30-year timeline concerning alcohol, the university and the ped mall.

From 1972 to 1986, the drinking age in this state was 19. In 1984, the federal government held he states hostage with the threat of withholding federal highway monies if they didn’t raise the drinking age to 21. This was in the interest of uniformity–to eliminate the issue of what was called “bloody borders,” the phenomenon of 18- to 20-year-olds driving to a different state in order to drink. In the summer of 1986, the State of Iowa went to 21 as the legal drinking age. This federally enforced change made the United States a minority in legal drinking ages around the world.

Throughout those changes, bars here in Iowa City were still permitted to allow 19- and 20-year-olds in. Along the way, the local legal trend has been to tighten alcohol restrictions through many angles. It was legislated that a bar patron could only buy two drinks at a time, bars could not have contests where alcohol is a prize, and two-for-one offers were banned. Every bar employee was strongly encouraged to take alcohol awareness classes in conjunction with the ICPD with the hopes of squelching under-the-table serving to minors. The fines incurred for misdemeanor violations like PAULA and public intoxication skyrocketed.

Downtown was once a place where one could buy a set of sheets, get a new hammer and go to a matinee. That all evaporated. The last dozen years have seen the ped mall turn from an retail center to an entertainment center. The two pronged assault on local businesses came with the building of the Coral Ridge Mall and the growing ease of online shopping. That shift was a difficult pill to swallow.

But through sheer tenacity, some unique retail shops survived while many storefronts turned into restaurants and drinking establishments. Along the way, we also got a new public library, a ped mall grocery store and fancy condos. In 2008, UNESCO cited Iowa City as a City of Literature, an accolade that is shared with only two other cities in the world: Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia. Even with gentrification lurking on every corner of Mainstreet U.S.A., Iowa City kept its unique flavor. The university has always had a symbiotic relationship with the town, which ensures cultural diversity and a constant source public revenue for local enterprise.

There were other forces at work changing the drinking culture here in Iowa City. In 1995, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student named Matthew Garafolo died as a result of acute alcohol poisoning. He had been drinking with his fraternity brothers and reached a blood alcohol level of more the twice the legal limit. This was a preventable tragedy. No one should have to die from drinking.

From this death came widespread change in drinking policy on campus. The frats and sororities were forced to go dry. The whole campus went dry. Even if you were 21, there was to be no alcohol consumed on campus. This is when the term “binge drinking” come into our local lexicon–and never left. By now, the general definition of binge drinking is five drinks in two hours for males and four drinks in two hours for females.

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And while the university scrambled to provide dry entertainment and alcohol education, the partying continued. It was pushed off campus and into the town. Three years ago, the university stayed neutral in the 21-only referendum. Three years ago, the City Council didn’t support the 21-only referendum. This time around both forces did.

At the April 6 City Council meeting, UI president Sally Mason gave a short but loaded statement in support of the 21-only ordinance. Of all the speakers in the public meetings–a statement from the university was by far the most powerful. While Mason admits that, “Alcohol is indeed a common part of the college experience, but too many of our students drink too much in ways that are way, way, way too risky.” I totally agree.

But she follows with, “Accessibility is one of several empirically established predictors of high binge drinking rates and simply put, more students consume more alcohol where and when it’s easier to obtain.” I can even agree with that statement in general–but I don’t agree with the implication that it is the bars who are providing this said alcohol. It is a false association to say that if the bars go 21, underage alcohol accessibility will decrease. The statement also implies that in the face of the town’s restrictions concerning bars, the bars are still fueling binge drinking. In the light of the fact that with a few infractions of the law the bars’ alcohol license would be revoked–I truly believe that underage drinking is something that bar owners take very seriously.

Mason then goes on to state that the university wants to, “redouble our efforts to reduce the harm that alcohol inflicts upon our students.” Another totally reasonable goal for the UI. But when she lists these efforts, the first one is, “tougher sanctions for relevant offenses that occur off-campus…” While not saying what that exactly means, it infers that if an underage student lives off campus and gets an alcohol-related ticket, they are also in trouble with the UI. This is a kind of parental oversight that the university is not sanctioned to provide.

This is exemplified when Tom Rocklin, the vice president for student services, made a long-winded statement touting many positive accomplishments of UI students. He expands on Mason’s goals by saying the UI’s revised student behavior code, “…will extend the jurisdiction of the code to all of Johnson County for most infractions.” He ends with a condescending statement concerning “good choices” and “bad choices.”

“Now it is my job to deal with students who have made poor choices, choices that ultimately disappoint them, their families, and me,” he states. When did the town and the university become by-proxy parents for students?

The one positive action that the UI has taken is implementing a “Good Samaritan” policy. This medical amnesty ensures that students on campus can call for medical assistance without the threat of legal repercussions.

And all the while, no one during this meeting can even mention the word “tailgating.” With all this discussion about binge drinking and the problems that arise from it, Iowa City’s biggest party occuring seven Saturdays each fall will not be acknowledged on official record. No one will even dare to touch the subject. It is the mother of all cash cows for the city and the university. Drinking and football go hand in hand, and to the powers that be, it is the love that dare not speak its name.

At my count, a dozen downtown businesses will be affected by this ordinance. This change would not only affect the youth culture of Iowa City, something that we resent and embrace all at the same time, it will also have a serious effect the vibrant music scene. While it seems to be a tiny part of this argument, a tiny part of the economy, who can argue that seeing some band from some tiny corner of the world isn’t special? Throughout my many years of concert going, I saw the past, present and future of music in the crowd and on the stage. Let us celebrate this model. Let us not live in the atmosphere of resentment but embrace who we are now–a town with a nightlife that dances, drinks, and makes plenty of mistakes, while all the time uniquely embracing the great American right to the pursuit of happiness.