Hard News by Russell Brown


Drunk Town

So the mayor and I were both out on the town doing our research on Saturday night. The proposition -- strongly put by the Herald and thereafter the TV current affairs shows -- is that the Auckland CBD is awash with booze and vomit several nights a week, and is consequently not a safe place to be. The mayor has formed a taskforce to deal with it and, creditably, headed out with several members of the force to confront the task.

About midnight on the same night, my buddy Andy and I set out from DOC bar on Karangahape Road and walked down to High Street. First observation: where are the public toilets in this town? We didn't find one until we got down the High Street parking building, where there are a couple of lockable loos at street level.

One had been locked up for the night, implying that it was in a worse state than the one that was open -- which was absolutely unspeakable. The toilet bowl and the wall behind it were sprayed with vomit. A young guy who may have been a foreign student was hovering outside, incredulous and unwilling to enter.

"What is that doing there?" he said, pointing towards a torn bag of soil (as in: dirt) lying at the door of the unspeakable toilet.

"Beats me," I said.

We'd just watched a group of people in their twenties spill out of a taxi van on Victoria Street and head -- pretty much at a run -- to the door of a club on High Street. They had the air of people who'd just crammed down a lot of booze very quickly and were experiencing an unsteady, slightly unnerving high as a result. I feel nervous around people in that state.

We were heading a little further along High Street to the Snake Pit, a benign, all-but-unmanaged pop-up venue in the stripped-out basement once occupied by The Box, to catch Disasteradio. There we discovered that young people can apparently still get LSD, bless their confused little hearts. After the gig, about 2am, we emerged to find there was still a queue outside the High Street club to which the taxi van his disgorged earlier. We detoured onto the road to avoid it.

Any media alarm about dangerous city streets will have an element of moral panic, and this one is no exception. But it does seem to me that there's a strong alcohol vibe in the CBD at the moment. Friends of mine who live in the city have remarked on it too.

On K Road on Saturday night it seemed to manifest as the people milling outside nightclubs being drunk rather than bug-eyed. It made me wonder whether law enforcement success in making the more popular party drugs harder to obtain is not exactly a blessing. You'd rather walk through a crowd of people on E than a crowd of random drunks, wouldn't you?

But let's also not overstate the problem. The story quotes the mayor:

"By and large, good spirits down here. Sure, a high level of inebriation, and people who've got too much under the skin."

And really, I'm not shocked by the sight described in the story of  "two condom wrappers  left on the ground by traffic lights." I'm glad people are using condoms, if keen for them to think more about littering. And I'm certainly not perturbed by the idea of "a transvestite in a blue sequined dress, 15cm heels and a blonde wig" walking out of Family bar. If you're troubled by that, perhaps K Road isn't really the place for you.

It's not the place of the authorities to proscribe private behaviour, except insofar as it endangers people. And we need to think carefully about any solutions proposed. You won't stop people staying up late by fiddling with one-way door policies, but you might send them roiling back to the suburbs from whence they came, and where they did most of their drinking. Which might not entirely be a good thing.

Back when we suffered under six o'clock closing, the streets could be dangerous in broad daylight. In the 10 o'clock era, the state tried cracking down at closing times: anyone who saw Gideon Tait's thuggish team policing units at work in those days would never want to see a return to that.

As a society, we actually drink less than we used to. As Hospitality NZ notes, alcohol-related violence has actually decreased. Perhaps behaviour is more concentrated. We still seem to binge like buggers in New Zealand.

The news media need to be wary of depicting any unconstrained behaviour as a threat -- the Herald ran a pic with a similar story last week that showed a crowd of people in Vulcan Lane. They were dancing. I would like it recorded here and now that I do not have a problem with dancing in the streets.

I would like to think that we can address such a problem as exists in party town without completely losing our heads about it.

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