When 2 a.m. rolls around, downtown Charleston turns into one big cattle drive.

City cops converge on upper King and the Market, herding staggering stragglers like those Cartwright boys on "Bonanza."

They often have their hands full.

There invariably is some fool yelling at the top of his lungs, unconcerned that he is within spitting distance of residential streets - or that some folks have to work in the morning.

Then there is the knucklehead who wants to water the plants on the front stoop of a French Quarter home.

Usually someone is trying to drive under undue influence.

Now and then there are fights. A few weeks ago, sadly, a guy died as a result of one.

All of this is pretty typical of closing time, and all of it seems pretty ridiculous - if you're sober.

Now city leaders are saying, in essence, that fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son. They fear Charleston is turning into New Orleans with dueling Bourbon Streets, and they want to nip this problem in the Budweiser.

So City Council last week gave initial approval to a new zoning district that would force any new bars that open up downtown to close at midnight.

The existing saloons would be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m.

And now the people shouting in the streets are the bar and restaurant owners.

A future strip?

The food and beverage people feel like they are being hit where they earn a living.

A decade ago, the city forced bars to close at 2 a.m. Then the city banned smoking in bars, and even shut down a cigar bar. Now this.

Bar and restaurant owners fear this is the first step in making every watering hole shut down at midnight.

They are upset that the city did not seek their opinion before giving initial approval to this ordinance. Only Councilman Dean Riegel opposed the move, and with good reason.

It's called moderation, something a lot of people should look into.

"Philosophically, I have a problem with this," Riegel says. "It's like we're turning into a living, working museum of history. We're the No. 1 tourist city in the country, and we got that way for a reason. I think we can handle this."

By that, he means, doing without the nuclear option.

Mayor Joe Riley says all this will go through the Planning Commission and there will be public hearings for the food and beverage people to have their say. But he felt it was important to get the ball rolling because, he says, the city is at its tipping point.

"If we're not careful, upper King could become a strip," Riley says.

And that's not what a diverse city has. Riley says the city wants to be a living, working city, and if all of one street is focused on night life, then it's going to look pretty glum at, say, 11 a.m.

"We just have to be careful," the mayor says. "We want it to be a thriving and living city, a great, fun place for people to eat and drink safely. But I think it has to be calibrated."

A farewell to rights?

Riley says this zoning is just another way to control the city's growth - it's less cumbersome than a moratorium on new bars.

And the mayor says this is not a step toward shutting all bars at midnight.

But the food and beverage folks are wary. It seems the city has declared a war on booze. Aside from the 2 a.m. closing, police shut down boozing between stops on the Art Walk with a new open container law.

They even tried to stop drinking while tailgating at Citadel football games.

As this debate goes on, we are going to see a battle for the soul of the Holy City. It's probably a little farfetched to think Charleston is the next New Orleans, and the city is going to be accused of micromanaging private businesses, infringing on their rights.

Even if those rights are providing a playground for some ditsy booze hounds.

But the mayor is right to stick up for residents who have rights, too.

The opposite of a tipping point is balance, and that's what is needed here.

One thing's for sure: those downtown residents who say the mayor doesn't look out for their interests just lost their argument.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com