It’s 1 a.m. Sunday on Upper King Street, and the EMTs wrap the 20-something woman in a blanket as she lies, barely conscious, on a stretcher on the sidewalk. Her head droops like a rag doll.
The lines snake down the sidewalk at one packed bar after another: the Public House, Sultan’s, the Silver Dollar, Uptown Social, Ink. Doormen carefully check IDs on the way in. Nobody checks if these same people can walk on the way out. Too many can’t.
Another woman is being wheeled on a stretcher down the street. Cops lead a wobbly drunk to the ambulance at the corner of John Street. Two women prop up their very drunk friend; another drunk 20-something woman grabs my shoulder rather than hit the sidewalk. An ambulance, red lights and siren wailing, races south down crowded King, followed by a firetruck, followed by another ambulance. A pedi-cab proceeds merrily behind.
The pandemic is history, and the Upper King party is back. Like medics on a battlefield, the army of EMTs and cops is here to tend to the wounded and deal with the misbehaving. A large woman, her hands cuffed behind her back, is led peacefully, if noisily, down King by two cops.
‘’I love this (expletive),’’ she shouts as she is stuffed into a police cruiser.
We have spent years debating whether we have too many hotels downtown. It is past time we ask whether there are too many bars, particularly too many bars crowded into a few blocks on Upper King. While Charleston has always loved a party, no one ever asked if we wanted our own mini Bourbon Street. We don’t.
Upper King has become a circus late at night, a dangerous circus. People are having fun, businesses are making money again, both good things. But it is also a place with too many drunks and drugs, guns and gangs. Gunshots and brawls in the late night have become all too common.
The city has flooded the zone with cops, made King Street one way Thursday through Saturday and restricted parking. It has backed away from a curfew for those under 17. It was judged “too divisive” — shorthand for concern that black kids would be targeted. It’s not enforceable. But there should be nothing divisive about this: If your 16-year-old is on Upper King after midnight, he or she shouldn’t be.
We need to turn the lights off earlier, 1 a.m. being better than 2. (Your mother was right about nothing good happening after 1 in the morning.) It’s not like it all stops when the bars close, either: It’s then that the drunks go foraging for food and drugs. Corner stores and the street-food stands feed the circus into the most dangerous hours. Close them all down in the business district. Send the drunks home, or at least off to the Waffle House.
The bars need to do a better job of policing themselves. Someone sold that woman on the gurney her last drink. As usual, the bad operators hurt the good.
‘‘It is my intent to shut some of these places down,’’ says Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds. Not a moment too soon.
Longer term, we need to recalibrate who and what we want to be. College of Charleston enrollment has doubled to 11,500 since the mid-’80s, and the city has become everyone’s favorite tourist town. Together, those trends changed the balance from the time the bars first migrated to Upper King in search of cheaper rents and the city designated it as an “entertainment zone.’’
How much is too much of a good thing?
There are more than three dozen restaurants and bars in the four blocks between Spring and John streets — and, importantly, room for many more if left unchecked. What is a healthy business district most of the day and night is not in the early hours of the morning when people are there to get hammered.
The city moved, belatedly, to slow the hotels. It should do the same with the bars on Upper King. “Zoning is part of this discussion,’’ says Reynolds.
Dick Harpootlian, the combative Columbia senator, is teaching a master class in change. He has spent years battling the notoriously rowdy Five Points clubs in Columbia, helping neighbors contest one liquor license after another. Now he is sponsoring statewide legislation that would require bars to derive 51% of their revenue from food and nonalcoholic drinks.
There were about 20 Five Points bars when Harpootlian started his campaign; today, there are maybe half that. He wants to replace them with restaurants and other retailers.
“We are making tremendous progress, but it is a work in progress,” he says.
Upper King isn’t Five Points yet. But late-night Upper King isn’t what Charleston should be either. Dial back the circus now.
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.