By Conor Hooley
It was just another night in Old Town. Once again, it was just another crowd of thousands of twenty-somethings shuffling in and out of the local bars with their friends. It was just another night that passed largely without incident.
It was just another ho-hum affair for an area that boasts a nightlife scene that sees foot traffic in excess of 5,000 people each weekend while still maintaining an impressively low crime rate. Just another relatively placid night in a place that, as of late, has come under strange, unnecessarily intense scrutiny.
Yes, the area has seen its share of unfortunate incidents. Certainly, the post-NewWestFest riot in August 2010 was regrettable. But it was also the first of its kind since 2001. No one has forgotten the first weekend of last June, which witnessed not one but two tragedies take place near Old Town: a homicide from a street brawl and a non-fatal drive-by shooting.
These events were shocking. Shockingly tragic from a human standpoint. Shockingly anomalous in statistical terms. But taking harsh, reactionary measures aimed at Old Town nightlife will hardly prevent senseless gangbanging or a stray punch landing in a fatally miscalculated manner.
“If you look over time, and broader trends and how things happen in general, those things are pretty darn rare,” said Old Town District Sergeant Jeremy Yonce. Yonce acknowledges that drunken behavior in Old Town is not acceptable, but advocates a realistic approach to the late night environment.
“Any time you have [thousands] of people and alcohol involved, there are going to be some issues,” said Yonce. “The issue is managing the crowds and the people that we have, and managing behavior,” he said.
Those people – and their behavior – has become the focus of the Coloradoan’s “Old Town After Dark” series. Featuring a collection of articles and multimedia supposedly intended to help readers “better understand” the “alcohol culture” of Old Town, the series has played out as a slanted, pseudo-journalism extravaganza – and, admittedly, it’s great theatre.
Harrowing narratives of alcohol abuse and disorderly conduct have chilled readers to the bone. Bombastic nighttime depictions of the city’s “crown jewel” have filled column space. “Rivers of urine” gushing down the Old Town alleyways. A defective car crashing onto the sidewalk. A poor, helpless bridesmaid losing her tiara under a bench. All framed under headings like “Another Night in Old Town.” Though never explicitly stated, the message is clear: The area is a lightning rod for every sort of alcohol-addled conduct under the sun (or the moon, as it were).
But meanwhile, back in reality, “another night” in Old Town means no deaths. It means no riots. No shootings or stabbings. No chaos or bedlam. No vehicles crashing over the sidewalk. No brawls ending in critical beatings or bachelorette parties winding down in a detox clinic. And, indeed, no broken, lost or otherwise damaged tiaras.
Admittedly, that last part was pure speculation. But the numbers back everything else up: For the size and popularity of Old Town, it is rather tame and indisputably safe. Moreover, it is generally agreed upon that the area is much better than it was ten or twenty years ago, when conduct was worse, nightlife options were fewer and non-bar establishments staying open past midnight was unheard of.
So perhaps when evaluating Old Town, we as a community could all benefit from looking at things with a levelheaded perspective. Of course, we could also do just the opposite, and opt for knee-jerk, reactionary alternatives whenever something bad happens.
But let it be said that Fort Collins isn’t getting any smaller and, as the population continues to grow, so too will traffic in Old Town – night or day. To be sure, Old Town’s nightlife bolsters tourism and generates revenue for a city that certainly wouldn’t mind having more of either. And, above all, expecting Sunday School behavior on a Saturday night in Old Town – or anywhere that doesn’t resemble a retirement community – is laughably naive.
“Any community has to recognize that as you grow and you have a vibrant entertainment district late at night, you’re going to have some issues to deal with,” said Yonce. “The question is, do we want to manage and deal with that as it happens, or take the opposite approach and say, ‘We’re just not going to have that?’”
Which of those options sounds better?
One suggestion for “fixing” Old Town (which echoes the latter part of Sgt. Yonce’s question) has been reducing the number of bars in the area. The reasoning is that there are too many now, despite the number of liquor vending establishments remaining largely the same since that time while the city’s population has only increased. Nonetheless, the logic is that fewer bars would mean fewer people. But that presumes a lot, and could just as easily lead to greater congestion in the area.
“We’re seeing larger crowds; we’re seeing more people (in Old Town),” said Yonce. “If there are less bars, it doesn’t mean there are going to be less people.”
Even more outlandish suggestions have appeared recently, such as forcing patrons to take a Breathalyzer test every time they enter a bar. Needless to say, that kind of thinking that makes perfect sense…in the same way that Prohibition made perfect sense.
The good news is that reasonable and effective measures are already in place. The recently launched Downtown After Dark program, a collaboration between Fort Collins Police Services, Old Town alcohol retailers and Team Fort Collins are currently developing forward-thinking, practical strategies to counteract the problematic aspects of the party scene, and has experienced great success so far.
Yonce and his fellow officers continue to police the area, taking steps to ensure the safety of all while allowing revelers to have a good time.
“The entertainment district at night is a big part of our downtown and a big part of what brings people to Fort Collins,” said Yonce. “It’s not just the police department’s problem, not just the bar’s problem – it’s everyone’s problem. It’s something to deal with as a community.”
Let’s all try to do so with clear heads.