Portland’s Meathead District
Let’s be blunt: The Old Port is not a safe place to be after midnight most nights of the week. As a 34-year-old graduate of Penn State’s binge of a bar scene, I can feel marginally comfortable walking down Wharf Street late at night. But not if I’m with my wife.
The bullshit in the Old Port happens like clockwork. Last Saturday night I intended to go down there to take some photos for this editorial. Instead, I ran into Matt Robbins. Matt is, unlike me, a photographer, and an excellent one at that. He agreed to go and take a few shots, sparing me the chore and further journalistic embarrassment.
Matt was lucky to leave with his camera. Several people harassed him in the space of a few minutes. At one point he needed the police to intervene and get a particularly aggressive moron off his back.
Several friends of mine have been assaulted in the district within the past year. One tells me he thinks it’s more dangerous to be there late on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday night than on weekends, such is the randomness of the attacks. A majority of the people I know in Portland will not step foot inside the rectangle delineated by Fore, Commercial, Union and Market streets after 12 a.m. They’re afraid of this area, and for good reason.
In response to the upsurge in violence, the City Council tied itself in knots the other night wrangling over how many liquor licenses should be available in the Old Port. It was a pointless exercise in many respects, but primarily because no existing bars stood to lose their license. By my guess, several should be out of the liquor business already.
The scene on Wharf and Fore streets late nights is like looting in reverse. The populace is wilding in the streets, loaded with the products they got inside these small business, while the police look on, helpless to stop all but the most egregious behavior. Except in this case, it’s the businesses that are breaking the law.
Public drunkenness isn’t a crime. Serving a visibly intoxicated person is.
The state has all but abdicated any responsibility to enforce its own liquor laws, having gutted the inspections division through budget cuts. This leaves the local police to pick up the slack, and city taxpayers to foot the bill.
City Councilor Karen Geraghty complained about the expense of extra patrols, but no one suggested spending more money to police the area. On report after report for the past few years, Lt. Janine Roberts of the Portland Police Department writes that her officers “conducted a limited number of inspections of the premises,” sometimes adding “due to limited resources,” by way of modest explanation.
To read Roberts’ recent report, you’d think hardly any of the thousands of drunks cramming Wharf Street on weekend nights over the past three years were served at the bars nearby, or even allowed to remain on the premises while visibly intoxicated (also a violation). Roberts provided a chart listing the number of liquor law violations Old Port bars had from July 2002 to July 2005. Between Club Oasis, the Crazy Green Iguana, and Diggers/Liquid Blue – to name a few at the west end of Wharf Street – there were eight violations during those three years.
The data for Headliners, the Wharf Street dance club that recently closed after its license was yanked, was missing or misplaced, Roberts said, and was not included in the chart. According to a review in my files, between May 2003 and March 2004, the bar was given one warning for allowing a drunk person to hang around — “female vomited while in the establishment, officers on scene witnesses incident,” Roberts noted. Another warning was issued for not having food available. That’s it.
I wonder if the Tooth Fairy and Santa have been drinking down there lately?
Now, as someone who’s been both visible and intoxicated at several local watering holes on occasions too numerous to contemplate, I’m admittedly not the best advocate for a crackdown on this common practice. But neither am I causing problems in the Old Port or anywhere else.
Because the city does have limited resources – or at least limited political will to spend more money on liquor enforcement — I suggest it focus those resources on the people and places causing the biggest problem. Clearly, this would be the assholes and the bars in the aforementioned rectangle they frequent.
I’ve got a hunch a few undercover officers, given a couple weekends, could find enough violations to justify yanking several licenses. I can’t be sure of this, because I also avoid the area whenever possible, but I suspect some visibly intoxicated people are being allowed to remain on certain premises.
Granted, the city’s licensing decisions can, and often are, appealed to the state, where they can be overridden by officials who likewise avoid the Old Port after midnight. That’s unlikely to change until the governor gets his ass kicked on the cobbles of Maine’s premiere nightlife district – a scenario that itself is most unlikely.
But in the meantime, the city is not entirely helpless. It can turn up the heat on problem bars and spend the money necessary to get the job done. Raising the “seat tax” on every Old Port bar to cover the cost of increased policing may not be necessary and obviously isn’t fair. Maybe it’s time to let Portland keep all the revenue generated by civil fines and violations of state liquor laws in the Old Port district, rather than forking this cash over to Augusta.
This drinker suggests the city simply seize that money and tell state lawmakers they can come down and get it. “Meet us at the corner of Wharf and Union, by the piss-soaked dumpster and the pool of blood. Be there at midnight sharp.”
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.