A brief history of Evanston booze

Sara Peck

It’s hard to imagine a Northwestern weekend without that bar known for watered-down 32-ounce beer specials or the siren cries outside of a busted party. But the Evanston bar scene has not always been the way it is today, said alumni, who remember days without enough alcohol-induced hospitalizations to warrant more city ambulances or cops prowling the streets.

Today, officials are using parts of wet and dry NU history in their process of crafting a new alcohol policy. Those two elements, said Tommy Smithburg, ASG vice president, are medical amnesty for students and more booze-free late-night activity options.

“The goal isn’t necessarily an alcohol amnesty program, but to make the drinking environment at NU safer for students,” Smithburg said.

Surprisingly, NU does have an alcohol amnesty program – it’s just not widely publicized, Smithburg said. If your “story lines up” with preset conditions, you won’t enter Mary Desler’s office with your tail between your legs.

In 1934, Evanston was given the option to be a “wet” or “dry” city under an amendment to the Illinois Liquor Control Act. They decided to ban alcohol, and until 1972, Evanston was a dry city.

However, Skokie and Chicago opted for “wet” status, which meant that bars cropped up on Howard Street, just three miles from NU. Those with a car or motivation to get on the newly-constructed El had relatively easy access to bars and booze.

Vito Brugliera, McCormick ’55, attended NU long before the city became wet in 1972. He said students drove to the Chicago side of Howard to buy booze from “ma and pa shops that probably didn’t care how old you were.”

“It took more effort, but it didn’t stop people,” he said. “Especially if you were in a fraternity, there was booze on campus.”

At the time, the university had a decidedly less harsh stance on punishment.

“I never heard of anyone getting caught,” Brugliera said.

Alcohol-related trips to the emergency room increased to 80 in Fall 2008 from a previous average of around 30, said Smithburg, who said he couldn’t really explain the trend. Students may be getting help more often for those who need it or just drinking more at a greater risk level.

In 1975, Illinois state law allowed anyone over age 19 to purchase beer and wine. NU did not recognize this law, and angry students called for legal action. The case tipped in favor of booze, resulting in a student bar in Norris University Center.

The first place in Evanston to serve alcohol was the Holiday Inn, because liquor licenses were only granted to establishments that also sold food, Brugliera said. The hotel was not really a student haunt unless there was a special event there – most went to Howard Street, since downtown had yet to experience the development boom.

Upon becoming a wet city, Evanston’s bar landscape didn’t look like it does now, said Amber Webb, Weinberg ’83. Drinking in on-campus housing was much more frequent and barely regulated, she said.

“One of the pastimes was a four-corner drink-around,” she said. “There would be one drink at each corner of (Foster-Walker Complex) and we would all go around and drink.”

Webb said she knew that Community Assistants existed, but that she doesn’t remember them being visible at all. Fraternity parties were broken up infrequently.

Aaron LaDuke, Weinberg ’98, said during his undergraduate years Evanston lacked a bar scene, so most students headed to Loyola bars such as The Pumping Company, Barleycorn’s and Checkers. Nevin’s was known as a “graduate student bar,”.

“(Loyola) was like the training ground,” LaDuke said. “After a few years of that, we’d go deeper into the city.”

Once again, university officials seemed to turn a blind eye toward underage drinking and drinking on university grounds, LaDuke said. A “busted” party meant that everyone had to go home – no citations or legal consequences.

Things are a little different in 2009, alums said.

“The administrations are tougher now,” Webb said. “You’re walking down the street to a party and a cop stops you.”

The amnesty program, Smithburg emphasized, would not just be about alcohol.

“They don’t want it to be a get-out-of-jail-free card, ‘Everybody go drink’ kind of thing,” Smithburg said. “The policy is meant to allow students to get help when they need it but with the hope that students will curb their drinking habits by providing them with other options.”

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