Serious Eats: Drinks

Is Public Drinking Good For the Neighborhood?

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[Illustrations: Robyn Lee]

Yesterday morning I had to make an appearance in front of a Judicial Hearing Officer at the New York City Criminal Court located at 364 Broadway, just a few blocks south of my office. My crime, you ask? No, it wasn't any sort of society rotting business like jaywalking or running a stop sign on my bicycle. I didn't commit the ghastly offense of urinating in public or using the emergency exit in a subway station (though I did have to sit through a couple cases of that nature).

Nope, I was in court to deliver my plea on an open container citation I was given back in November for drinking a glass of wine. On a private stoop.

My options: a) pay out $10 (reduced from an initial fine of $25) to the city and make the whole thing go away, or b) fight the damn charges tooth and nail.

Before we get to my decision, let me back up a bit:

Neighborly in New York

I found it very difficult to move back to New York after living in Central Square in Cambridge, MA for ten years for several reasons. Central Square is an ideal food neighborhood with access to a farmer's market, supermarket, gourmet supermarket, Co-op, Indian grocer, Korean grocer, Japanese grocer, butcher, world-class cheese shop, spice shop, the best fresh fish market in Boston (which puts it high in the running for best in the world), and several wine shops all within walking distance, not to mention a couple of my favorite bars and bums to pass the time at and with.

But the thing I missed most about Cambridge was the fact that it's a real neighborhood. The kind where you can walk down the street and bump into people you know. Where you can hit a bar on any given night and be just about guaranteed that you'll get into a conversation worth having. The kind of place where you're never lonely, even when you're all alone, and most importantly, the kind of place where you could sit comfortably on your own stoop with a cold beer or a glass of wine in your hand, and shoot the breeze with whoever cared to stop and chat with you, whether it's the shoeless MIT kid who lives across the street, the high schoolers who come by for the goth show at the Elks lodge, or Sammy the Bum.

New York, on the other hand, sure has a lot to offer, but outside pockets of some of the outer boroughs and a very few select areas of Manhattan, neighborliness is not one of them. Gone were the days when I could host a spontaneous dinner party simply by texting a few friends last minute to walk over when I'd accidentally made too much soup or found myself with a whole striped bass in my kitchen and not enough mouths to feed. Gone were the days when I could say screw it, I'm getting a cocktail and drop my work to head out for a nightcap and a nice conversation. Social events in New York have to be planned.

There remained but one beacon of light in my otherwise spontaneity free Manhattan existence: the stoop. Fortunately, Harlem is a neighborhood that still has plenty of them, and I happen to have a friend who lives a block away from me with quite a large one.

We spent many good nights this past summer and fall enjoying a glass of wine, a couple cans of beer, or a few drams of whiskey sitting on that stoop, chatting with passersby, and generally having a good time, making the neighborhood a nicer, safer, friendlier place.

Public Menace

This all ended one evening in October when my friend, a guest from California, and I were sitting on the stoop elegantly sipping from a bottle of Montinore Estate Pinot Gris as a police van slowly rolled down the block. Now in my neighborhood, the police are not an uncommon sight, so we thought nothing of it, until they reversed back down the street and rolled down the window.

"What's that you're drinking, boys?"
Thinking nothing of it, I responded. "White wine. Would you like a taste?"
"No thanks. You boys have ID?"

With that, four cops stepped out of the van and walked up to us. To describe the scene a bit, the building is a typical Harlem three-story brownstone. The entrance is elevated about 7 feet from the sidewalk, and a flight of 12-15 stairs leads up to a landing measuring about 10 square feet in area. Two of us were sitting on the landing, one of us was sitting a couple steps down from the top. None of us were on the public sidewalk several steps below.

We were not intoxicated, nor were we making much noise beyond a normal conversation. We weren't harassing passersby (ok, maybe Hambone was just a little bit), and we certainly weren't disturbing the peace in any way.

Indeed, it seemed that the police officers actually knew all of this. While two of them took our ID's back to the van to be processed, the other two hung around and chatted with us. They seemed like good guys, so we asked them why they were giving us the citations, when clearly we weren't breaking the spirit of the law, and it was certainly questionable whether or not we were even breaking the letter of the law, what with the landing and stairwell being private property and all.

This is where things got a little bit hazy.

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"Where do you guys live?" asked one cop.

"Our friend is from California, but two of us live here" we said, matter of factly.
"Why?" Was the incredulous response from one officer. The Harlem of today may be different from the far more dangerous one I grew up in a couple decades ago, but to many people (apparently this cop included), it's still not a safe neighborhood for wimpy looking nerdy kids to live in.

"Well, the thing is, we got gangs down on 125th street, and we got gangs over on 5th avenue. They stand around on corners and start to drink, that's when trouble happens, so we gotta stop people from drinking in public all the time."

"But officer, clearly we're not gang members, and we're not causing any problems. Isn't there room for officers' discretion in matters like this?"

"We really gotta treat everyone the same for stuff like this."

This bugged me a bit. I understand a law's a law, but if an officer can make a field call to let a speeding motorist off with a warning, surely they can do the same for someone sipping wine on their front stoop, an offense far less likely to cause physical or emotional harm to any party.

"Well what exactly is the law? Aren't we allowed to drink on private property?"

"Actually, technically the law is that you aren't allowed to drink in sight of a public area."

Wait, what?

"So," I started, "if I have a side garden behind a fence that you can see through and am drinking a beer in it, you can deliver a citation to me for violating open container laws?"

"Yes sir, technically we can, though I don't know anyone who's ever done it for that."

I see, so you actually can use your discretion when deciding whether or not to issue a citation.

"In fact, technically, if I can see through your window from the street, you shouldn't even be drinking there."

Imagine the social turmoil this world would fall into if, god forbid, every urchin walking down the street could peer through a window and witness otherwise law-abiding citizens sipping wine!

I have nothing against the police—most of them are hard working people trying to do their best at a tough job—and I honestly think these guys thought they were doing the right, honest thing. The whole thing wrapped up in a friendly way. We chatted with them for a while after they delivered our citations, asked them what it was like working the beat around the neighborhood, got some good info on what blocks to avoid at what hours. We even invited them for a glass of wine—indoors, that is—but the whole thing left me with a rather sour taste after they said good night and left.

What kind of city do I live in where I can't even enjoy a civilized glass of wine or a cold beer on a pleasant fall evening with my neighbors?

As I mentioned, the fine was nominal—$25 to start. What was annoying was the fact that even to plead guilty, we were required to show up at the NY Criminal Court to enter our plea. Interestingly enough, by simply stating that we wanted to have our case heard in front of a Judicial Hearing Officer, our fine was immediately reduced to $10 and we were given a take it or leave it ultimatum: plead guilty and pay the $10 to make it go away, or plead not guilty and be forced to take time off of work to return to court at a future date for a full trial.

After my neighbor did a bit of research into past cases of a similar nature (the New York Times actually wrote about one here) it became more and more clear to me that this is the kind of quality of life issue that is actually worth fighting for. $10 is no real skin off of my back compared to the time it takes to appear in court, but taking away my right to foster community, build relationships, and enjoy the fresh air is something I think is worth fighting for.

I'll keep you updated as the case progresses. In the meantime, if you want to do some extracurricular reading, here is the actual law, which defines a "public space" as:

A place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access including, but not limited to, any highway, street, road, sidewalk, parking area, shopping area, place of amusement, playground, park or beach located within the city except that the definition of a public place shall not include those premises duly licensed for the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages on the premises or within their own private property.

I imagine our case will largely come down to whether or not a landing or stairwell is considered to be a place "to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access."

Until then, I'll make sure to do my stoop-drinking out of opaque plastic cups.

For the record, there is now a warrant out for our Californian friend for failing to show up to court for his hearing, though he did send a letter and a video message confirming that he'd like to plead guilty and pay through the mail (imagine—not flying from California to plead guilty and pay a $25 fine!)

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