By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Surf City’s now infamous reputation for drunk driving and rowdiness, most of it stemming from its bar infested downtown, is usually expressed in statistics and as a necessary side effect of the city’s plan to stimulate economic development through tourism.
An HBPD study released last year clearly implicated the high concentration of combined restaurant/bars in the downtown area as a major cause of the problem.
Huntington Beach has the highest number of DUIs for any California city in its population range, is ranked third for DUIs of any California city and is ranked seven in the state, regardless of population, for drunk driver collisions as of a year ago. Last year five people died in drunken driving crashes in the city.
“Drunk driving is clearly the most significant public safety problem we have in Huntington Beach,” HBPD Chief Kenneth Small told the City Council last January.
At a recent meeting of the California Coastal Commission when the city was seeking permits under the Coastal Act for its revised Downtown Specific Plan, Councilmember Keith Bohr said that the downtown area was a victim of the city’s successful program to attract tourists to its 8.5 miles of beaches and to its downtown attractions.
“We’re a very popular area,” he told the commission. “We have lots of folks come and our police force does a great job of enforcing our DUI [laws], hence our numbers are higher than others probably because we take advantage of the grants and enforce that and it makes people comply with our laws.”
Even accepting Bohr’s unlikely scenario—that other California cities don’t also take advantage of grants and try their best to enforce DUI laws—for downtown area residents the problem with drunks goes beyond statistics and affects their quality of life.
Richardson Gray, a downtown resident, complained to the commission about drunks overrunning downtown and waking up residents while walking back to their cars after the 2 a.m. closing time for bars. Other residents have long complained about late-night wandering drunks having sex in their front yard bushes and urinating, defecating and fighting on their lawns, or recklessly driving through their streets at high speeds while drunk.
“We have to live with the headaches of too many drunks on our streets and crime in our neighborhood,” Gray complained.
A recent late night tour of downtown Main Street conducted by the HBPD for members of the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Association, Planning Commissioner Mark Bixby and Councilmembers Joe Shaw and Connie Boardman helped illustrate – literally – those headaches.
Photographer Paul Edward captured the essence of the problem with video and in 24 photographs taken in less than an hour on what Bixby described as a “slow night” starting at about 1:30 a.m. Some of Edward’s photographs are within this article. The entire batch and the video can be viewed at http://pauledward.smugmug.com/Street-Scenes/HBDRA/.
But Bixby’s tour notes help give the context for Edward’s photographic essay. “It was an eye-opening experience for me,” he wrote. In his own words, this is what he witnessed just before and after the final call for alcohol downtown:
- Males fighting and being arrested, with one being taken away in an ambulance;
- Females having a loud altercation on the verge of fighting;
- People staggering around under the influence;
- At least one establishment allowing people to finish their drinks after the posted closing time;
- People making out in dark shadows;
- A guy being arrested after passing out;
- Code-required sidewalk clear passage area being used for entrance queuing at Sharkey’s/Killarney’s (sic);
- Definite uptick in altercations at the 2 am witching hour;
- An inebriated guy standing in the middle of Main throwing fist-fulls of hard candy into the ari landing with a scatter onto the asphalt and subsequently crunched with a “pop pop pop” as a police cruiser slowly drove by;
- A guy helping his near-unconscious buddy into the DRIVER’S Seat (!) of their vehicle;
- And all of this was on a relatively “slow” night.
Although tax revenues establish the fact that downtown Surf City’s bars and alcohol serving restaurants help bring in the money for their owners as well as the city, no study has been done yet to study the costs to taxpayers of the kind of law enforcement Bohr touts but that is—as Edward’s photos show—woefully inadequate, no matter how valiant, for the task. Perhaps even more important to the residents of downtown and the rest of the city is the human cost of the city’s habit of only measuring success in dollars and cents.