Published on August 22nd, 2014 | by Katy Evans


Let’s drink legally in public, Tacoma (and Washington)

I love walking. Almost every day I walk nearly six miles through Tacoma, exploring the central neighborhoods with such regularity that friends and acquaintances often say hello by first stating, “I saw you walking yesterday.”

Nearly as much as I love walking, I also enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage. In fact, I have been known to walk to acquire such beverages. It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate this list of things I like – walking and imbibing – into an equation: what if I could walk, even for a few blocks, while enjoying an adult beverage? Here in beautiful, walkable Tacoma?

I have a feeling there may be other Tacomans like me. Tacomans who would revel in the opportunity to stroll and responsibly drink. So I propose that it’s time to consider some change to Washington state’s open container laws.

Since Prohibition, Americans have struggled with our relationship with alcohol, responding nervously to its social effects with bans and restrictions, instead of inclusion. But for anyone who’s visited a city or country with lax open container rules, it’s clear that alcohol can activate public space for the better.

No, I’m not suggesting a state-wide free-for-all (it’s a little too much to ask for our state government to treat of-age Americans like adults, I know), and no, I don’t think we need drive-through liquor stores.

But, like a growing number of other cities and states, now seems like a good time to consider the positive economic benefit, the opportunity for further revitalization, and the (very responsible) fun and civic appreciation to be had should a city like Tacoma implement an entertainment district or two.

I’m not talking about corporatized city blocks featuring chain stores and restaurants; I mean designated areas of the city that celebrate Tacoma’s distinct character. There patrons can explore local food, drink, arts, and retail while enjoying a Tacoma-brewed beer (or glass of wine, or crafted cocktail).

As new bars, restaurants, and breweries continue to open in Tacoma, complementing the growing arts and independent retail scene, why not make this cosmopolitan foundation even more desirable by adding tasty beverages accessible in the open air and allowed on sidewalks?

Pacific Brewing

The Pacific Brewing & Malting Co. Sample Room known as the “Potomac House” circa 1907. In front of the building, thirteen men including one long-aproned bartender, hoist mugs of beer. Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

This idea of entertainment districts isn’t new (you may have heard of New Orleans and Las Vegas), but recently, writer Henry Grabar specifically explored the positive impact of open container options for urban revitalization in his piece for Salon in September 2013.

Downtown cores like Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee have proven that allowing alcohol consumption on the street can have significant tourism benefits. And in a state like Washington where the service and restaurant industry is growing in popularity, authority, and civic impact, open container districts could solidify our place on the food and drink tourism map.

This June, Daniel Leonard of asked pointedly why Americans (unlike Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Laosians, New Zealanders, and the English, Welsh, Swiss, Japanese, and Flemish for example) – can’t drink in public. In his article, he lays out steps to petition your local or state government to encourage change in open container laws.

I asked Dan to share more about his personal experience with drinking in public. Said Dan:

“I came of age in Berlin, Germany where drinking in public was fully legal, so to me it is strange not to have this “right”.  As I see it, not being able to drink a beer in public is akin to not being able to drink a fill-in-the-blank energy drink in public; and I’d wager that having a beer is healthier for you. For my money, there’s nothing better than strolling the streets of Bruges with a Rodenbach sour Red Ale in hand. That’s magic.

“In my article Why Can’t Americans Drink in Public, I talk about how we as Americans should have the right to drink in public as a natural freedom. But ignoring the whole human rights violation tack, lax open containers laws are the Holy Grail when it comes to the country-wide question of how to revitalize our downtowns. Just look at Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee where it’s legal to sip your drink of choice as you experience the buzzing atmosphere – revitalization in full swing. With 4 million tourists in 2012 alone, legalizing open containers was the starting point on how a downtown dustbowl was transformed into a bustling city center. You want people to patronize your shops and part with a few extra dollars? Then give American freedom junkies what they want: freedom. And a little liquid happiness. It’s been done before with great results, and the cities that are the frontrunners are the cities that will reap the biggest windfalls. Tourist goldmine.”

Hiedelberg Play

Tacoma Little Theatre rehearsal night for “Suds in Your Eye” by Jack Kirkland, 1954. Every actor appears to be holding a can, bottle or stein of Heidelberg beer. Photograph courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

It’s easy to imagine Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue between S 9th and S 7th heading in the entertainment district direction. Recent significant streetscaping, ample lighting, and a convenient light rail stop on Commerce Street practically encourage bar-hoppers to stand and chat in the middle of the road. Not that I am recommending such behavior.

Columbia Brewery auditors

1938: county auditors and treasurers from around the state met in Tacoma for their convention. One of the highlights of their visit to Tacoma was a trip to the Columbia Brewery where these two conventioneers enjoyed a sample. Photograph courtesy of Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

Now think how much more fun it would be if on weekend nights, the area was closed to vehicular traffic and patrons could freely explore Bourbon Street-style. You could start with a heaping plate of nachos at Matador, take your happy hour margarita out to the street to meet and talk with friends; move on to a delicious tiki drink at Tacoma Cabana, a tasting flight at Odd Otter Brewing Company, or a refreshing mug from Pacific Brewing;  finish a beer outside while people-watching, and then wrap up the night with a game of pinball at Dorky’s.

This vision could also manifest on South Tacoma Way, let’s say from between S 52nd and S 56th, a business district struggling to find some sustaining identity. Just imagine a thriving nightlife springing up around Stonegate and the Airport Bar, conveniently located near the South Tacoma Sound Transit station.

I have twice visited New Orleans as an adult, attending the most delightful conference in the world, Tales of the Cocktail. There, you explore both the iconic city of New Orleans and the ever-expanding spirits industry through a series of classes, workshops, tasting rooms, and tons of events.

Perhaps it’s just me, but as I strolled down Royal Street, sipping a mezcal bloody mary, making my way to the Pernod absinthe event at the Pharmacy Museum, I found myself stopping along the way – spending money in local shops, picking up a bag of beignets, pausing to take in the surrounding history and architecture. I’m not saying that bloody mary made me more free with my money and more appreciative of the town… then again, I’m not saying it didn’t.

I’m not the only enthusiast to dream of one day imbibing on the sidewalks in my hometown. Some politicians see the potential too. Senator Eric H. Kearney (D-Cincinnati) of Ohio introduced legislation to modify Ohio’s open container law and make it possible for cities to establish designated entertainment districts in the spring of 2013.

Said Senator Kearney: “Senate Bill 116 will promote tourism and business development across the state. By modifying Ohio’s law, this will provide an opportunity for developments… to create an entertainment experience and attract more customers.”

The “open container” bill has been met with reactions that vary from optimism to skepticism, but has received strong bipartisan government and business support, notably from Ohio’s Wholesale Wine and Beer Association.

“Ohio’s three Cs – Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland – already have had some success with urban revitalization, but this would give them another tool.” the Senator explained in a USA Today article.

I share Henry Grabar’s, Daniel Leonard’s, and Senator Kearney’s position that alcohol and entertainment can be used responsibly to revitalize our cities.

In bringing some of that spirit to Tacoma, we also nod to our boomtown roots.

Yes, the quote is one of Tacoma’s most dragged out, but as Rudyard Kipling observed in 1889, “Tacoma was literally staggering under a boom of the boomiest” He goes on to share the Tacoma scene at the turn of the century: “We struck the place at twilight. The crude boarded pavements of the main streets rumbled under the heels of hundreds of furious men all actively engaged in hunting drinks and eligible corner-lots. They sought the drinks first.”

It’s been a long time since our downtown has seen that booming level of bustle but the times, they definitely are changing. More and more people are living and working downtown. More and more people are exploring our other urban centers, walking our streets, checking out our local businesses, bars, and restaurants.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to sit along Pacific Avenue, beer in hand, and watch the furious men and women hunting drinks? We could sip, taming our ferocity to a dull roar, and watch Tacoma grow.

ladies drinking

Ok, they’re not outside, but you get the picture. In 1948, three women people-watch over drinks and cigarettes. They were with a group of one hundred and thirty Amvets attending a banquet at the Winthrop Hotel. Photograph courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

All featured photographs were found through the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives, an invaluable resource.

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About the Author

Founder and Co-Managing Editor at Post Defiance, Katy writes and fundraises for Tacoma. Follow her @katynicoud.

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