Alcohol and Urbanism, a Case Study: Breaking New York City’s Open Container Law

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Image © Rennie Jones

If there is one thing to be learned from the unsuccessful prohibition period of the 1920s, it is that we, the people, will go to great lengths to exercise our right to drink alcohol in the company of others. Our determined forefathers could have simply enjoyed a small-batch bathtub brew in the comfort of their own homes, but instead they established a system of secret places to congregate and consume collectively, even under threat of federal prosecution. Though it is no longer a felony to consume alcohol, New Yorkers are still pushing the legal limits of drinking with others, challenging the open container laws that prohibit public drinking.

Drinking is a recreational activity. It is a means of stepping beyond the realm of normal perception and seeing things differently, in the metaphorical sense (though sometimes a literal one). It is an act of recreation and repose, the parallel of peering at passerby from a park bench. In New York City, as in most of the United States, it is illegal for any person to possess an open container of an alcoholic beverage in any public place, “except at a block party, feast or similar function for which a permit has been obtained." Rarely do individuals have the resources for a block party or occasion for a full-scale public feast. More likely, they simply seek to crack open a can with neighbors on their front steps or with friends in Central Park, thereby enjoying a beverage in one of the country’s most vibrant and diverse public spheres for a mere penance. Unfortunately, that is not a legal option. Even the outdoor space we own is not completely open to our discretionary use: a resident cannot drink on his own stoop because it is “a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access."

Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Image © Rennie Jones

Open container laws relegate social drinking to private spaces that must be accessed for a fee, restricting our interaction with the city. Still, citizens subvert this mandate, disguising their open containers or drinking unabashedly on their stoops. In 2009, Brooklyn resident Kimber VanRy challenged a public drinking citation he received for indulging in a beer on his own front steps. The charge was eventually dismissed following multiple court proceedings. “These laws want to chase us all into private spaces that most people can’t afford or have access to,” protested VanRy. “If you want to enjoy a summer night with a drink, you have to pay."

As Jane Jacobs noted in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a city’s diversity is what gives it life. The potential for individuals with various interests and agencies to meet is what activates a city and gives voice to the disparate interests of its residents. Public space is the most egalitarian of realms; free to be used by all. Since it does not restrict entry, it welcomes a chance encounter between a woman living in a shelter and a Wall Street suit, or a senator and a professional dog walker. Private spaces, conversely, exclude at the owner’s discretion. “The public realm is what we own and control,” noted New York architect Alexander Garvin. “The streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows." While Garvin points out that access to public space is essential to the building of community, we must question the element of control. If certain activities are restricted in our collective spaces and this restriction is commonly subverted in protest, who is in control? Are we in control of the space as a populous or is the space controlled by an authority that is at odds with public opinion?

Michael Sorkin likens the prohibition of open containers in public spaces to the containment of the city, which places boundaries on its potential use. “If the container is a hedge against accidental or uncontrolled contamination, a medium of manipulation and control, the redress against such a degrading notion of space is in the fight for intimate, plural and malleable spaces, spaces in which differences are invented and celebrated." In the creation of boundaries is the implicit desire to separate two entities, thereby eliminating the potential for unplanned encounters. When we restrict social drinking to private spaces with defined edges like doors, walls, and gates, who is in and who is left out?

Often, the right to drink in public must be purchased. Only so many people can physically pack into a bar, never mind legally. These revelers rent their allotted four square feet in small increments by paying significantly more for a drink than they would at the corner store. What costs $1.50 when pulled from a bodega refrigerator costs $6.00 pulled from a tap and garnished with a slice of collective conversation. The price of drinking in a privately-owned establishment is as effective in sifting out people of various classes as are the physical barriers that separate a sidewalk cafe from the street.

Spaces designated for drinking within sight of the street capitalize on shared visual experience across the same barriers that prevent people from encroaching on the private space. They offer the charm of the flaneur referred to by Walter Benjamin, allowing brunchers to see and be seen over the rim of a bottomless mimosa. In some cases, the walls enclosing bars and cafes all but dissolve, folding and opening to bring the exterior activity in. Much like the solution of the protagonist duo in “A Night at the Roxbury,” it is an attempt to remove the boundaries that prevent some eager participants from entering.  Though all contributors to city life are permitted to participate in this visual exchange, only he who pays is allowed to loiter. The designation of a separate physical space impedes the transfer of understanding through the shared experience that social drinking might otherwise facilitate. 

There are those who must remain resolutely outside the boundaries where social drinking is legal because they cannot purchase the legality. People who wish to consume alcohol in company but do not have access to housing or expendable income- the homeless and the poor- must do so in public. These people are therefore more likely to be discovered and branded as deviant, brown bag or not.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Image © Rennie Jones

The law states that a person discovered defying the decree can incur a $25 citation or five days in jail. Those with no criminal record and an extra $25 on hand may consider it a mere nuisance, and warn guests of a $25 cover fee for Sunday’s Prospect Park picnic. Others may be unfairly targeted for the same activity, or, as suggested recently by a Brooklyn judge, simply because they belong to a racial minority. In 2012, Judge Noach Dear decided to contend with the city’s propensity to level public drinking citations against its residents, claiming that the enforcement tended to target minorities. After reviewing a month’s worth of documented public-drinking summonses issued in Brooklyn, his staff found that 85 percent of the summonses were issued to people categorized as blacks and Latinos, while only 4 percent were issued to whites.

For many of us, the city’s parks are our surrogate back yards. They are the space of leisure, a shared retreat from the continuous stream of movement that dominates the city. On those glorious, grassy greens, one may legally barbecue or sunbathe topless, but may not open a bottle of chardonnay. Olmsted’s pastoral vision for Central and Prospect Parks did not likely include twenty-somethings tipping back wine from plastic cups, but we can hardly argue for the sacredness of his vision. People have long since defiled his undulating landscapes with their street carts and organized games of kickball and softball. This, too, is an assertion of the right to use our public space as we please, even if a higher authority (that bearded father of landscape architecture) would restrict its use.

Prospect Park. Image © Rennie Jones

The ability to stroll about the city with an open beer in hand benefits the likes of Seoul, Paris, and New Orleans. Instead of dissolving as a result of debauchery, these cities boast an active public life. People collect at the river front, on foot bridges, and in parks to share conversation, space, and a bottle of wine. When the sun goes down in New York City, we drift away from the rivers, congregating indoors when the coveted backyards brim over, and spilling our pockets for a few drinks. This prevents us from experiencing all that the city has to offer, particularly when the air is fine and free of that polar vortex chill. If it is warm enough to lay outside without a shirt under full protection of the law, it is warm enough to drink in the park. There, we should be permitted to enjoy the city and the presence of its residents, regardless of race or income, for the lowest fee.

About this author
Cite: Rennie Jones. "Alcohol and Urbanism, a Case Study: Breaking New York City’s Open Container Law" 29 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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