I’ve never considered vacationing in Lincoln, Nebraska. For good reason. According to Wikipedia, the major tourist attractions in the capital of the Cornhusker State (really? – that’s your nickname – really?) include the Frank H. Woods Telephone Museum, the University of Nebraska’s “dairy store” and the fact it’s the hometown of Zager and Evans, whose 1969 hit “In The Year 2525” is still listed by the International Court of Justice as a war crime.
But I may have to reconsider.
Lincoln is one of a handful of U.S. cities that allow public drinking. Visitors can go into bars in the trendy Railyard district, buy a plastic cup of their favorite adult beverage and consume it in the streets. According to Stateline Daily, Lincoln legalized boozing on the boulevards in 2013 in an attempt to deal with a demographic problem Maine has been trying to solve for years.
“The question was how do we keep young people in our city,” Tessa Warner, business manager of the district, told Stateline. “We set out to make it not a place for more people to drink more alcohol, but a place where people can come and congregate and socialize, and have a drink if they want.”
Lincoln isn’t alone in attempting to attract youthful imbibers. Canton, Ohio, in addition to being home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (motto: Concussions Am Junk Science And We Can Proob It), allows alcohol to be consumed al fresco in a designated neighborhood. Other cities in the Buckeye State (all the non-ridiculous nicknames were already taken, I guess) have followed suit, including Lancaster and Toledo. In Mississippi (the Septic Overflow State), Biloxi and Gulfport have joined the trend. In Alabama (the Rabid Bat State), it’s Mobile. And in Tennessee (the Slurred Speech State), Nashville allows to-go cocktails near the Country Music Hall of Fame.
To assess the impact of these laws, I recently visited New Orleans, where both drinking in the streets and government corruption have always been legal. In traveling the colorful byways of the Big Easy (note the higher quality nickname), I encountered a wide range of people taking advantage of this libertarian leaning toward libations. There were boomers in unfortunate Bermuda-shorts-and-sandals combinations, nursing old fashioneds. There were Gen-Xers pushing strollers and trying not to spill their rum concoctions. There were millennials who didn’t appear to care if they sloshed beer on their skinny jeans. They all seemed pretty happy.
Of course, there were also drunken louts on Bourbon Street, but Bourbon Street is an environment expressly designed for drunken louts.
In part, the crowd’s genial attitude probably stemmed from the city’s atmosphere. Beneath wrought-iron balconies adorned with bright flowers, music spilled from club doorways, competing with tunes from street musicians. Artists set up their easels on sidewalks. Horse-drawn calashes evoked an era devoid of internal combustion engines (but not external combustion politicians).
It’s that combination that experts in urban planning say is necessary to keep outdoor drinking from becoming a public nuisance. “If it gets to be all about the alcohol, that’s not good,” Jim Peters of the Responsible Hospitality Institute (partly funded by the booze and beer industries) told Stateline. “You want vibrancy. You don’t want chaos.”
In general, municipalities that have tried this experiment have reported few problems. In some cases, a surcharge of a dollar has been levied on to-go drinks to fund additional police coverage. In a couple of instances, the areas where outdoor drinking is allowed have been altered to protect residential neighborhoods. But overall, the numbers show an increase in tourism and a negligible rise in misbehavior.
Would it work in Maine?
In places like Portland’s Old Port, it might actually calm things down, since rowdy revelers would have to restrain themselves to avoid spilling their drinks. Ritzy resorts like Ogunquit and Kennebunkport attract sophisticates, who only get obnoxiously drunk in private. Bangor’s waterfront, Bar Harbor’s downtown and much of the midcoast have the necessary amenities. And Carrabassett Valley already has plenty of public boozing.
Legalizing outdoor drinking seems like a good fit. But it’s difficult to imagine it happening in a state where there hasn’t been an innovative idea since we came up with Prohibition.
I’ll keep putting mine in a sippy cup. Got a better idea? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.