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The City that Oversleeps

The City That Oversleeps
Closing Time: Every New Beginning Comes from Some Other Beginning's End

“Every four years this comes up, and every four years it fails,” said the agitated bartender from The Lennox Pub, before walking away to tend to other customers. “The only way this changes is if the county passes a law that the majority of people don’t want,” he adds as he goes. I pay my tab and head back out onto the streets to continue my canvas.

All cities have economic, racial, or ideological fault lines; the unlucky ones have all three. Here in Buffalo, the clearest divide I’ve seen is between night and day. Bar owners who want to maintain the 4am closing time are battling councilmembers and concerned citizens who seek to move last call back to 2am. Those who fight for the night claim jobs, money and the right to party are at stake. Those who champion the day proclaim that public safety, law enforcement costs and a loss in worker productivity justify the change.

Similar initiatives failed to gather momentum in Saratoga Springs and Albany, but did succeed in Glens Falls where they voted to move last call back from 4am to 2am. In Saratoga, the Chamber of Commerce blocked the initiative before it came up for a vote. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen sounded defeated when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s sad,” he said, “it’s going to take a tragic incident to convince people here to adopt this change. “Take a look at Glens Falls,” he said. “Not one bar shut its doors, and their arrests and DWIs have dropped considerably.”

Spearheading the proposed transition here in Buffalo is Chris Jacobs, the Erie County Clerk. Unlike many politicians, Chris has real skin in the game: having bought and transformed dilapidated properties along blocks of Main Street long before it was hip to do so. Jacobs assures me that his own real estate interests have nothing to do with the position he has taken.

“Look, Buffalo has many constituencies. The owners down on Chippewa and Allentown represent one constituency. I am hearing repeatedly from an overwhelming number of people, restaurant owners included, that we should change last call back to 2am. I just want to start a conversation.”

“This conversation is pointless,” chafed Jeff Young, a heavily tatted bartender at Savoy. “Buffalo is a hospitality town, we have entertainment districts…90 percent of the bars are closed by midnight or 2am, 90 percent of the time…I don’t get it; we’re talking about two nights a week!” he yells. Jeff’s the mercurial type, so I try not to rile him up. Besides, maybe he has a point; government encroachment into our social lives seems a bit overbearing.

Still, I try to explain how other restaurant owners I’ve spoken with believe they could make more money capturing and catering to the neglected brunch and happy hour crowd.

“We’re a town full of degenerates,” says Al, the bartender from Bada Bing. “If you close at 2am people aren’t going to go home and go to sleep. They will continue to rage either out there in the streets, or in their apartments back in the suburbs. At least now you have it all contained in a couple areas.”

It’s easy to think that this proposed closing time only impacts bar establishments. Pizza shops, convenience stores, taxi companies, all believe that their business will take a hit if late night loses two hours of business.

“I heard similar arguments when they put the ban on smoking in the bars,” says Jacobs. “People complained that all the business was going to head down to the casinos where they can smoke. None of that happened. “

Several City dwellers I spoke with counted Buffalo’s long established custom of drinking late as a top reason to resist change. Very few, however, could clearly articulate for me when or why this tradition started. “It was actually sometime in the mid to early seventies,” says Randy, an elder bartender at Hutch’s who was bar-backing at the time. “I think it had something to do with all the veterans returning from Vietnam looking to party. Without much fuss, a few bar owners got together and all of a sudden last call was moved from 3am to 4am. It was a pain in the ass,” Randy chuckled, “we all lost an hour of sleep.”

Perhaps the best argument I heard against transitioning to 2am was from the bartender at the Colored Musicians Club. Apparently, longer hours allows for musicians coming down from Canada to play a final performance, after the clubs close in Toronto. But even when I pressed him on the change, he sighed, and said, “Yeah, I guess they should close at 2am. It’s just more responsible.”

Like most contentious issues, valid reasons exist to maintain, and to change, the status quo. After days spent canvassing the city and talking to impassioned advocates on both sides, it started to seem that nothing less than the future of Buffalo was actually at stake. And not for the reasons most people mention.

For the first time in a while, college graduates and millennials are sticking around Buffalo, or choosing to relocate here, along with a bevy of young professionals and generation Xers (over 35s). But rather than mix and match into a cohesive group that could mean the creation of a “New Buffalo” identity, the younger crew tends to marinate in their apartments until midnight before going out into the dark, just as the older crowd is heading home. Buffalo is too small a city to have such a disjointed nightlife. As a result of a pattern where people party with their own kind, ideas are not being shared, introductions are not being made, and the crucial knowledge spillover, and germination that happens when groups of disparate people merge is lost.

Conceivably, transitioning last call to 2am could result in new people mixing and mingling, new relationships and ideas being formed. This is not social engineering; it’s called taking advantage of Buffalo’s most treasured resource, its people.

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