Four years ago, tourist David Brown had a lot to say about Charleston's happy hour ways, sending a frustrated note to The Post and Courier about the city's love for mojitos, mimosas, merlot, Miller, and booze in general, regardless of its potential for a little drinking game alliteration.
"It's pretty depressing to see drunks spilling out onto the sidewalk, during the daytime, to stand bleary-eyed, holding cans of beer and mixed drink cups for the world to see," he wrote in 2004. "Has public drunkenness become so commonplace that it's overlooked by the local police?"
Brown will be happy to know it's overlooked no more. The Charleston Police Department has begun ticketing patrons and issuing warnings at recent French Quarter Art Walks and the Upper King Design Walk, where libations are handed out to patrons who once shuffled from shop to shop with little plastic cups of wine. They now face $257 fines for carrying open cups of alcohol on public streets. Event attendees reported receiving tickets at the Upper King Design Walk in April. Weeks later, French Quarter art galleries were warning people to ditch their cups before walking outside. Robert Lange Studios posted a sign that read, "Don't Drink and Walk."
The issue came back up as tailgaters were making plans for the Dave Matthews Band concert on July 4. Police had warned they would be enforcing the open container ordinance, but, in what looks to be a concession to the criticism, they did not issue one ticket for violations, even though attendees reported free-flowing good times in the parking lot.
In response to criticism, Chief Greg Mullen has said that the city's ordinance needs to be universally enforced, and that an art walk patron is no different from someone walking around a park at all hours with a 40 in a paper bag.
Thea Riley, an art and design walk attendee, says the increased enforcement has put a bad taste in peoples' mouths. The city has stereotyped the patrons of these art and design walks with too broad a brush, she argues.
"People used to look forward to going out and getting a cup of wine and walking between galleries," she says. "They're not running around like idiots and puking in the streets."
Event coordinators and the police can come to an agreement that makes allowances for these special events, Riley says. "There's a better solution."
Other regions have found those solutions — exceptions to the rules that provide for limited open container use while enforcing the broader law everywhere else. In Savannah, visitors to the city's historic district are allowed "to-go cups" from bars and restaurants. There's a strictly enforced limit of one 16 ounce cup per person, but it gives visitors and locals an opportunity to walk among River Street bars or congregate with friends in one of the city's famous squares.
"There's the good and the bad," says city spokesman Bret Bell. "Savannah's known for it; it's something unique. It's pretty positive that this is a place that enjoys a good time."
"The downside is that it increases litter", he says, "and police officers worry that it encourages drinking. It's those public safety concerns that have prompted calls for a to-go cup ban every five years or so, but city officials continue to lean toward preserving the practice that lets bargoers take their drink with them instead of chugging it or tossing it out."
In order for this to be effective, Savannah had to create strict boundaries for these open containers, generally encompassing the downtown bar district.
The city of Charleston has ordinances establishing certain exceptions for other issues — blocking off large swaths of tourist-heavy King Street, Market Street, and elsewhere from panhandlers, for example. And, while some were critical of the city's decision last fall to cut tailgating off after two hours following Citadel ball games, the fact that tailgating is even allowed is an example of Charleston making exceptions to the open-container laws.
Mullen refused to comment for this story, saying "I'm done talking about that," with evident frustration. The chief is just doing his job enforcing the city ordinance. And while tickets at downtown events may just pinch the pocketbooks of patrons, open container violations outside of the city's tourist district can open the door to other arrests for drug or firearms possession and for outstanding warrants.
The department isn't enforcing these rules in a vacuum, either. French Quarter residents have complained to the city administration and the police department about noise and vandalism, though not particularly related to the art events. These upset property owners don't make the argument for exceptions any easier. City Councilman Gary White, who represents the area, says residents have voiced their concerns, but he's not heard from any art walk patrons critical of the enforcement. White says he knows of some art gallery owners who have made their own moves to rein in abuses.
"Some have stopped serving wine," he says. "People were coming for the wine and not the walk."
Regardless of the reasons why people go to art walks, Riley says the police clamp-down has turned her off and she's likely not alone. Part of the charm of these events has been browsing — and drinking — at your own speed, not staring blankly at art until you finish your White Zin or quickly downing a bitter red wine to escape a really bad palate.