Around St. Patrick’s Day three years ago, the Clarendon neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia—a 40-block swath of bars and apartments across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.—realized it had become a victim of its own success.
Revelers flocked in for a “Shamrock Crawl,” which drew an estimated 5,000 people to an area with a population of 8,700. While the reach of Facebook and Twitter has swelled the size of the crowds, one official says that Uber has also added to the chaos by bringing carloads of partiers to the area at a low price. “They come from Prince William County, Loudoun County, and Prince George’s County in Maryland, from 50 miles away,” says police Corporal Dimitrios Mastoras, who prepares for a St. Patrick’s-themed bar crawl each year as his department’s restaurant liaison officer. Merrymakers can now “get to Arlington for 15 to 20 bucks, whereas a cab was always $50 to $60,” he adds.
“Big cities are equipped to deal with this,” says Mastoras, a 20-year police veteran who took on the newly created liaison job last May. Smaller cities might not be. “The NYPD has 35,000 officers, the MPD [Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C.] has 3,500,” Mastoras adds. “We have 350.”
Clarendon—which, according to Mastoras, has 20 popular liquor-serving restaurants in a six-square-block neighborhood—isn’t the only small area with a thriving bar scene that has faced problems recently.
The city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, has been in a legal battle since 2014 with a man they accuse of organizing a bar crawl without paying for cleanup or permits. Last year, police encouraged University of Wisconsin students not to attend the spring Oshkosh Pub Crawl, saying the organizers didn’t get proper permission. The city manager Mark Rohloff says the crawl leads to incidents of vandalism and drunkenness, and social media has brought more out-of-towners over the last seven years. (Bar crawl organizers, in response to the controversy, sold “Make Oshkosh Drunk Again” hats and shirts last year, and posted on Facebook in September that police “should build a big, beautiful wall around the whole city of Oshkosh to keep all the sober people out.”)
The problems aren’t limited to St. Patrick’s Day, of course. When Halloween fell on a Saturday in 2015, an unexpected 10,000 people descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Dupont Circle neighborhood for multiple crawls, resulting in a mess that Business Improvement District officials complained took days to clean up. Officials instituted new bar crawl rules the following year.
But perhaps no small, densely packed area has had to deal with the bar crawl situation more than Hoboken, New Jersey, a mile-square city across the river from Manhattan whose brownstones and apartments house 53,000 residents—nearly 40 percent of them aged 25-34. The one-time port city currently has more than 130 active liquor licenses.
It’s always been a bar town, but five years ago, one of the city’s longstanding traditions, the 25-year-old St. Patrick’s Parade, was canceled after the mayor demanded that its organizers move it from a Saturday afternoon to a weeknight. That’s because people were using the event as a chance to jam into the bars early in the morning and throw all-day house parties.
On parade weekend in 2011, the city suffered from two aggravated sexual assaults, five other sex crimes (such as groping), 40 arrests, and more than 100 people visiting the local hospital. The St. Patrick’s Parade Committee, a group of Irish residents who ran the parade, declined the mayor’s request in 2012 to move it to a weekday night, and haven’t held it since.
That year, private promoters stepped in to throw their own LepreCon bar crawl on the first Saturday of March, the day the parade was traditionally scheduled in order to avoid competition with other towns over bands. In 2012, without the parade crowd, the number of visitors was more manageable, police say. Arrests dropped from 34 in 2011 to 18 in 2012 and ambulance calls dropped from 136 to 53. But even with smaller crowds, problems persisted as social media blitzes drew younger crowds. “The last three years, the arrests have all been 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds,” the police chief Ken Ferrante says. “In the early 2000s, we used to have more thirtysomethings who came into town to eat at outdoor cafes.” Last year, police arrested a 24-year-old former college football player who, allegedly fleeing the scene of a fight at McDonald’s, apparently rammed into a female police detective, breaking three of her ribs, and a male sergeant, dislocating his shoulder.
Keeping the peace without killing the buzz
The challenge for officials in areas like Hoboken and Clarendon is clear: to ensure that the restaurant industry continues to thrive, while keeping the area safe during festivities.
Arlington’s solution was not just to increase police presence, but also to change the laws. “Arresting our way out of the problem was not appropriate,” Mastoras said. “Instead of just arresting 22- and 25-year-olds in fights and disorderly conduct, we wanted to shift the focus to the businesses [and] help improve their practices.”
Mastoras says his department is still learning to deal with weekend crowds. He has studied how Hoboken, Chapel Hill, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, handle their bar scenes, and his department is involved with George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy in a year-long research project about various aspects of the issue, including the environmental design of the bars, design of the Clarendon neighborhood, server training, and minimizing fake ID’s.
The solution, he adds, isn’t necessarily to cancel bar crawls at the expense of local businesses. “We’re all for it as long as it’s done in a safe way,” he says. “We don’t want the businesses to suffer. We want the businesses to be economically viable, and the business community has embraced that.”
In Hoboken, Ferrante feels the same way. The annual St. Patrick’s celebration is seen as the unofficial kickoff to “spring bar season” before people head to the shore on summer weekends, so driving away the events could cause a problem. “The restaurant industry is an economic engine in town,” Ferrante says. “Of the more than 130 liquor license holders, almost all are good bar owners.”
After the chaos of 2014, the Arlington County Board voted to add three requirements for bar crawl promoters: They must apply for a special events permit, attend a meeting with public safety officials to plan ahead, and reimburse the county for police overtime and trash cleanup.
Mastoras said that for the last two years, the rules have been working. In 2015 and 2016, the number of event-goers at “Shamrock Crawl” was manageable, with 3,500 to 4,000 tickets sold last year. This year, the crawl organizer applied for a permit and attended a special events meeting, but ultimately dropped plans to host a Shamrock Crawl in Arlington (one is still planned for Washington, D.C.).
The promoter, Project DC Events, declined to return phone and email messages this week. But Mastoras speculates that they may not have “had their act together” in time to run the event properly this year, and may not have had enough early interest from bars to justify the expense. Last year the company had to pay $25,000 to $30,000 to the county for overtime and cleanup, he says. The promoter is still hosting a “Blarney Blowout” with four Clarendon bars on the morning after St. Patrick’s Day until 2 p.m., and wrote on Facebook that they hope to return with the pre-July 4 crawl.
Hoboken has not asked for a fee from promoters. Instead, for the last six or seven years, the city has publicized its $2,000 fines for running afoul of alcohol laws, and the Police Department deploys its full 220-person force on the first Saturday in March. Ferrante says the mayhem is “about a quarter of what it was” during the last year of the parade in 2011—though the department hasn’t quite figured out how to respond to SantaCon. Last December, someone hurled snowballs from a rooftop, which hit a city director and then pasted the responding police. Ferrante drew national attention when he live-Tweeted the events.
Several promoters are advertising St. Patrick’s-themed crawls in Hoboken in March. LepreCon is scheduled for this Saturday, March 4. Someone else is selling tickets to a March 11 crawl via a website that asks, “Ready to get shamWRECKED, Hoboken?” And two crawls are advertised for St. Patrick’s weekend. When a holiday falls on a weekend, Mastoras and Ferrante say, it creates a “perfect storm.” On March 4, more than 200 officers will work at peak times, including those from New Jersey Transit, North Bergen, Union City, Westfield, and other towns and agencies.
Bar owners have mixed feelings. The owner of Northern Soul, a neighborhood bar in Hoboken, decided this year to only allow their neighbors and regular customers inside during LepreCon on March 4.
“We have a clientele of regulars, local artists, musicians, a bit of an older crowd,” says the manager, Donal Maguire, a Hoboken resident who has lived in Ireland and Scotland. “They have nowhere to go. On parade day we used to get involved. With no parade, the bars get kids from out of town just going crazy.” He adds: “It used to be a day to celebrate St. Patrick, not to dress up like a Leprechaun.”
“These bar crawls are good for most businesses in town. But I can also understand the flip side,” says restaurant owner David Carney, one of the founders of the Hoboken Hospitality Association.
Jack Silbert, a Hoboken resident for 23 years, said he used to enjoy the “charm” of the parade. Nowadays, he has a new tradition for LepreCon weekend. “If at all possible,” he says, “I leave town on Friday night and don't return until Sunday, so I can miss the entire thing."