North Carolinas drinking in the streets


As a former farming town trapped in Charlotte’s sprawl, Monroe, North Carolina, has struggled to gamble on tourism and relocation dollars.

The Union County seat doesn’t have a waterfront or scenic downtown, so its recent self-promotion has focused on what you can do there when you’re not doing much- something else. Department store tycoon John Montgomery Belk’s neoclassical mansion on South Hayne Street is reportedly being turned into an Airbnb, and at least one TV show has done a segment on the treehouses at the local winerywhich can be rented by the night or by the hour.

Even the town’s marketing coordinator, Matthew Black, doesn’t think of Monroe first when planning dinner or a drink with friends. “I admit it,” he said, “I’m going to Charlotte.”

But it’s Black’s job to bring Monroe’s night scene to life. So when North Carolina in 2021 “social neighborhoods” legalized or demarcated outdoor spaces in which it is legal to drink beer, wine, and spirits sold by licensed bars or restaurants, Black prepared to register his town with the state liquor commission. On June 10, after a short delay in the delivery of commemorative cups, Monroe’s taprooms and wine shops offered take-out beverages for the first time.

Most residents were too preoccupied with the monthly Friday night classic car show to notice.

Jeff Yow and Jimmy Trull in Monroe on June 10

“I like this tea!” Jeff Yow, who had parked his lawn chair outside a morgue, said when told he could sip on something stronger.

Yow’s friend Jimmy Trull countered that water was the best drink to enjoy while admiring restored cars. Shaking his head, Yow pushed his plastic bottle forward. “It’s the golden peak!” he said, his enthusiasm rising. “It’s a good thing here. It’s sugar-free.

Monroe was the fifth city statewide to launch a social district, with at least a dozen others seriously considering doing the same this year. Proponents of the installation say it has the potential to reinvigorate pedestrian areas and reduce the hassle of paperwork for event organizers who prefer not to confiscate an art lover’s Pinot Grigio when it finished looking at gallery pastels.

Yet there is little evidence from Michiganwhich adopted social neighborhoods in 2020 as pandemic relief measure for businesses, that the arrangement was an economic boon. Black says his colleagues there told him to anticipate a few visitors titillated by drinking in the streets, but to be prepared for that excitement to fade when the neighboring town goes without its own social district. . And as Monroe discovered in June, locals who love a wholesome hobnob and those who are drawn to uninhibited drinking are two groups that may not overlap.

It’s technically legal to walk certain streets in Monroe with a cocktail at 8 a.m.

Yet, the adoption by municipal governments of the social district program is noteworthy. Not because it’s mysterious — elected officials have become acclimated to loosening liquor laws during the pandemic, and fears of a recession are stoking interest in all sorts of new revenue streams — but because that this represents a sea change in the official Southern stance on public consumption, outside of historically Catholic cities such as Savannah and New Orleans.

Few states were as fervent anti-alcohol such as North Carolina, where the temperance movement was fully organized by the 1830s. One of the movement’s adherents was University of North Carolina President David L. Swain (who would probably be delighted to know his namesake county in the western mountains remains semi-dry.) Swain in 1840 letters sent to parents of UNC students, lamenting a wild “festival in the woods” in which young men drank “fiery wine and spirits” before returning to campus to vandalize classroom doors.

Towards the end of the century, North Carolina gave local governments the power to ban alcohol or establish government-run dispensaries; the latter was then the widespread system in South Carolinawhich shares a border with Union County.

Lured by the prospect of additional operational funds for their schools and chain gangs, as well as the opportunity to shine statewide, Monroe leaders in 1898 closed their town’s three saloons and opened a shop of legal alcohol.

“The results are that there is no town more orderly than Monroe”, JE Clark wrote in his 1902 publication, Sketches of Monroe and Union County. “Where once throngs of half-drunk strollers crowded around bars and on street corners, the streets are clear and as orderly as a lady’s drawing room.”

Still, the dispensary was short-lived. North Carolina in 1908 became the first state in the country to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Even after its legislation was superseded by federal law, it held high the dry banner: North Carolina refused to ratify the amendment repealing the ban. Its inhabitants still believed, as Swain said in 1840, that alcohol was a threat to “justice, morality, and good education”.

That perspective was internalized by Monroe natives Johnnie McGorey, a full-time parent, and Kimberly Medlin, an oncology research coordinator, who sipped hard pineapple seltzers from Southern Range Brewing on the first night. of the social district.

Johnnie McGorey and Kimberly Medlin drinking in the Monroe social district

“I never thought Monroe would have a bar scene,” said McGorey, who has long been envious of the liberal liquor laws in New Orleans, where her brother lives.

“I’ve never done this before,” Medlin said of openly drinking while window shopping. “It makes me feel like, ‘Am I going to get yelled at? “”

It was not a concern of an older man standing nearby, who said he was unaware of the social district, despite prominent sidewalk signs indicating its borders. (For those more familiar with Jewish law than liquor law, social quarters are something like eruvsdemarcated areas where certain Shabbat rules do not apply.)

Perhaps one of the main reasons legal drinking zones haven’t generated more buzz is that when a state has been around for so long, its residents learn to get around the law. For decades, North Carolina residents have been quick to fill their water bottles with vodka for family outings.

“Nothing has ever stopped me,” the man said. “I’d have a beer, and if they told me to get rid of it, I’d get rid of it.”

Then he went back to drinking from the koozie-covered can he had brought with him.

This piece is reprinted with permission from writer Hanna Raskin’s The Food Section subpile.


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