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Downtown after going 21

BY TAYLOR CASEY | MAY 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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June 1 marks one year of the 21-ordinance in Iowa City, and we’ve all seen the difference.

Now, Thursday is just a day that comes after Wednesday, making Thirsty Thursdays no longer an excuse to go out. Punchcards at Jakes no longer exist on Wednesdays — nor does Jakes. One-dollar You-Call-It Fridays at 808 ended when 808 did. No more $2 liquor pitcher Thursdays at the Field House bar. Lines no longer stream out of the Field House and wrap around the corner. The Pedestrian Mall remains desolate during the week, with a few stragglers every now and then. And bars no longer fill up as they used to, unless it’s a football Saturday.

Have these changes really been for the best of Iowa City as a whole? Have they significantly improved downtown and our binge-drinking problem? Or has it just limited one avenue for college students to obtain alcohol? Because that’s the only real good I have seen come from it — and I can’t help but think that it wasn’t worth the considerable blow to downtown.

I’ve worked at 3rd Base for almost three years now. And, while I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, I can say that the majority of establishments and their employees have suffered the wrath of the 21-ordinance. I’ve witnessed the changes made firsthand and, as melodramatic as it may seem, it has had a considerable effect on me.

When the Iowa City City Council set out to push for a 21-only ordinance, they did it for the safety of the students and the hope of deterring binge drinking — all good reasons. But, realistically, are we ever going to build a world in which underage people don’t drink? The moment we chose a drinking age of 21 is the moment it became a problem.

Definitely, this ordinance was one way to curb underage drinking. But it’s only really trying to do so in a specific area: downtown.

Sure, less binge drinking downtown is a good thing, but is this menial change really worth it? I guess that’s what irks me the most: The councilors implemented this ordinance for safety reasons, but they didn’t account for the effects this would have on those with a stake in downtown beyond just weekend enjoyment.

This ordinance has proved successful in one aspect, perhaps the aspect the City Council most supported: limiting an avenue for minors to obtain alcohol. Fewer 19- and 20-year olds are seen downtown.

But have we experienced a total reduction? Not exactly. Have we seen fewer fake IDs being used? Fewer tickets? No — there are still minors drinking downtown.

It’s understandable that the councilors would follow through with such an idea. What did they really have to lose? They don’t work in a bar or nightlife establishment; their jobs aren’t in jeopardy. And they certainly don’t have to continually struggle to maintain their establishment and make ends meet.

No, I’m pretty sure none of these have a direct effect on the councilors. But they have an impact on me and the rest of my coworkers who have (or haven’t) lasted with me throughout my three years in the bar business.

Those bars that are still around have worked hard to make the necessary adjustments needed to survive. The Field House is living proof, at its new, smaller location. But are we really better off after weeding out the bars that didn’t make the cut? Some may think so. Some see these as the real problem — but I can assure you that the bars we lost were not making their profits serving alcohol to minors.

Bars that allowed minors, such as 3rd Base, were able to profit from their presence alone through the use of cover charges or birthday punch cards. The Field House had a considerably large crowd who used our bar as a place where everyone, 21 or not, could have fun. I’m not saying underage patrons never drank, but any drinks they did consume weren’t from the hands of an employee.

While I could certainly go on — especially with the numerous vacant buildings now wasting away — I won’t. When we make significant changes to a place that has more or less been known for its unique downtown and the plethora of drinking establishments, it’s going to take time before Iowa City gets back on its feet.

I have no doubt that it will, but it’s just sad that it’ll do so without some of the places that formed Iowa City’s unique reputation.


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