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Can Letting People Drink on the Street Revive Struggling Downtowns?

North Carolina, where cities large and small are creating open-container “social districts,” is about to find out.

Bourbon Street in New Orleans
Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where on-the-street drinking has long been allowed. Even in New Orleans, however, open-container privileges prevail only in the French Quarter. (Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock)
If you were asked to name a state with liberal liquor laws, it’s a safe bet you wouldn’t pick North Carolina. In the 1930s, the Tar Heel State refused to approve the constitutional amendment ending Prohibition. Almost a century later, it still had four completely dry counties. As of last year, it still had one — Graham County, in the western mountains, where alcohol hadn’t been sold legally since 1948.

So it’s more than surprising to discover that North Carolina is becoming a hotbed of “social districts,” a term it uses for designated corridors in its cities where people can walk the streets and sidewalks for hours with a beer or a cocktail in hand, provided they observe a few relatively modest regulations.

At the start of this year, there were 18 such districts in the state’s communities, and now several more have joined them. They are mostly in small towns, but they are also turning up in some larger cities, such as Raleigh and Greensboro. In Greensboro, one reporter observed, “you can stroll the zone, drinks in hand, from noon to 9 o’clock at night.” In Hickory, the social district comprises more than 50 square city blocks.

The rules aren’t exactly onerous. In most of the towns with social districts, the boundaries of the open-drinking corridors have to be clearly marked. You can’t take a drink outside them. You have to purchase it in a legally approved establishment, and you have to drink it in a specially marked cup. All the social districts have designated hours, although those vary quite a bit from town to town.

Most of the places that have gone this route seem to be enjoying it. As a civic official insisted in Kannapolis, the first North Carolina town that created a social district, it’s all pretty harmless. “It’s not that people are showing up and drinking and drinking and drinking.”

I’M NOT CONDEMNING ANY OF THIS: I’m just curious about why it is taking root in this particular state, and why it is happening now.

The short answer is that they are doing it because they can. In the fall of 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890, allowing outdoor drinking zones in any town that votes to have them. A few weeks later, Kannapolis had one.

But obviously there’s more to it than that. You might speculate that it has to do with the libertarian sentiments that have pervaded the state’s recent legislative majorities. But there’s a more compelling reason why towns are joining the open-container bandwagon. It has to do in large part with economics.

The blunt reality is that small cities in North Carolina, like many of their counterparts around the country, have seen their downtowns lose vitality and customers, particularly in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This applies most directly to retail business, but it applies to food and drink establishments as well. Social districts and open containers are an attempt to counteract that.

The town of Monroe, population 34,888, is in the midst of a downtown revival that includes two new breweries and six new taprooms, and has been jump-started by the creation of a social district. “We’ve seen a larger influx of foot traffic,” says the downtown planning director.

Even smaller towns in the state are reporting the same thing. In Norwood, which has a population just over 2,000, the president of a local business group, Robin Davis, concedes that “businesses were struggling to make up the losses they endured during the pandemic and needed revival.” Norwood’s social district now features 32 businesses offering drink-on-the-street privileges. “For small towns who might be afraid of the implications they perceive a social district would bring,” Davis told a local reporter, “I think I would encourage them to consider what economic development can do for their town.”

It's clear that a lot of people like the stampede to outdoor drinking. It’s also clear that quite a few don’t. The city council in the quaint village of Edenton (population 4,391) approved a social district on a split vote, but only after some bitterly expressed opposition. “Edenton does not need the kind of person who needs a drink to be social,” one resident insisted. “This booze district is a bad idea. Do you want Edenton to be known as the prettiest little town in the South, or the booziest little town in eastern North Carolina?” He was concerned about the proximity of alcohol and children. But the district was created over the vehement opposition. Within a defined area of town, residents can now walk the streets carrying 16 ounces of beer or wine between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekends.

Last month, when the council in Nashville, N.C., held a hearing to discuss a social district in the town of 5,682, the majority of those present were strongly against creating one, and last week the council decided to put the issue on hold. “When we moved here,” one resident recalled at the hearing, “it was like Mayberry. Mayberry doesn’t have social districts.”

NORTH CAROLINA IS ATTRACTING THE MOST ATTENTION with its leap into social districts, but it is not the only state that has them. Everyone who has been to Bourbon Street in New Orleans is familiar with on-the-street-drinking, and it’s often supposed that open-container privileges prevail all over town. Actually, they exist only in the French Quarter. Elsewhere in the city, you can be ticketed for drinking outdoors, although enforcement tends not to be very strict.

Michigan has its own roster of social district towns, but it’s not clear how much they have done for local commerce. Toledo, Ohio, has gone in heavily for the idea, with a district that it calls a “downtown outdoor refreshment area,” where outdoor drinking is permitted every day from noon to 1 a.m. But North Carolina seems to have gone in most conspicuously for the idea of sidewalk drinking.

It’s hard to guess how widespread this phenomenon will become. Or what will happen when the largest cities put the idea into place. When Charlotte and Raleigh both have social districts, as is about to happen, how many people will throng the sidewalks of smaller towns with drinks in hand? It’s hard to say. When big cities start authorizing gambling casinos, the backwoods casinos quickly lose some of their luster.

All of this suggests some broader speculation about the role of drinking in middle-class American life. The unexamined truth is that a whole roster of popular leisure activities exist in whole or in part as permissions (I might say excuses) to drink. Golf outings, bowling tournaments and especially boating excursions would not be the same if they were not licenses for the free consumption of alcohol. They might continue to exist, but much of their raison d’être would disappear.

Most Americans like to drink, many want to do it to excess, and they can be highly creative in looking for ways to give some form of sanction to their thirst. Designated downtown social districts aren’t quite the same thing as boating parties, but I would put them in roughly the same category. They are opportunities for people to drink as much as they like without feeling very troubled about it.

Once again, I am not making a moral judgment about these practices. I am merely suggesting an explanation for why they exist. The fact that we call the new outdoor drinking corridors “social districts” or “refreshment areas” is a signal that these euphemistic terms are meant to disguise something about which even their enthusiasts still feel a bit reticent.

So social districts aren’t just an economic ploy. They are an attempt — so far a mostly successful attempt, apparently — to loosen the strings on one of America’s most popular but controversial pastimes while holding on to the idea that it is fully under control.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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