Arlington debates whether to rein in bar crawls


Alanna Persaud, 23, left, of Alexandria, kisses Carlos Matos, 28, of Alexandria. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Clarendon used to be the kind of place you take the kids for ice cream on Saturday afternoons. But on certain days they are out there, staggering through the streets and lawns, sometimes leaving a mess.

Not zombies. Bar crawlers — people who pay in advance to enjoy daytime drink specials at pubs.

A St. Patrick’s Day-themed bar crawl in the neighborhood on March 15 led to 45 police calls, 17 fights, 25 arrests, 16 calls for medics, 105 escorts of the stumbling to cabs and 10 bouts of public urination. Capt. Brian Gough said that one of those urinators managed to hit his police car, “and it was only 7 p.m.!”

Another crawler was a woman who police say showed up at the Arlington magistrate’s office around 11 that night, intoxicated, naked and demanding entrance to see her husband, who had been arrested for public drunkenness earlier in the day.

“We could have made many more arrests,” Gough said at a community meeting that police convened last week to discuss the bar crawls. He just didn’t have the manpower, even with 51 officers at the scene, to take more people to jail.

That event — which attracted more than 5,400 people — has sparked debate over whether the crawls need to be reined in.

Bar owners say the events, held about a half-dozen to a dozen times a year, are a boon for local businesses, bringing in thousands of potential customers. And participants say that although the crawls occasionally get rowdy, they’re a way to hang out with friends and meet people.

Arlington Police Chief M. Douglas Scott said he wants a limit on the number of crawls and the number of tickets sold. Right now, there’s no permitting process. At Wednesday’s meeting at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, police asked county board members, bar owners, event promoters and civic associations to come to an agreement on future bar-to-bar celebrations.

“It’s a logistical nightmare and also a safety concern,” said police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck. It’s also expensive: “Who’s ultimately footing the bill for these officers? Right now it is not the bar or the organizers.” Arlington police have asked for — and gotten — an extra $42,000 in the budget that was just adopted to deal with bar crawls.

Other D.C. suburbs don’t appear to be so afflicted. Montgomery County, Fairfax and Alexandria police say they haven’t had bar crawl issues. In the District proper, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) says bar crawl complaints are also rare. Outgoing Ward 1 council member Jim Graham says that’s not just luck.

“I did everything I could to discourage them,” said Graham (D), who lost his reelection bid last month to 33-year-old Brianne Nadeau. “I think the notion of 20-somethings wandering the streets in various states of intoxication, in the middle of an afternoon, is not a neighborhood-friendly activity.”

Bars in Adams Morgan and along H Street NE have signed agreements promising no crawling, though crawls remain popular in Dupont Circle. Dave Lindenauer of Bethesda-based Lindy Promotions, who credits himself with inventing the modern bar crawl decades ago, said that early on he helped craft a standard ABRA agreement that has kept people in the District happy, requiring, among other things, a designated-driver program and extra security. He’s expanded his business but has no plans to wade into the Arlington market.

“I see the way it’s going there,” Lindy said. “I know some of the bar owners and I’ve asked about it, and they said the county isn’t going to stand for it much longer.”

The District has a long history of night life, bar crawls or no bar crawls. North Arlington is just starting to become an after-hours destination, and bar owners there see the crawls as a natural step that comes with the growth the county has endorsed — as well as a way to help pay increasingly high rent as that planning leads to higher real estate values.

“We’re becoming an urban county because we wanted to be an urban county. The old county that we used to have is gone,” Hard Times Cafe owner Rich Kelly said at Wednesday’s meeting. “This is something we created.”

That rent, along with the taxes that bars pay, likely more than covers the cost of policing crawls, bar owners argue.

For the crawls, participants pay in advance or at the door of certain “check-in” clubs and get a wristband and a plastic cup that give them access to drink specials at participating bars.

A “Cinco de MEGA-Crawl” held in the Clarendon-Court House zone this past Saturday was not especially debaucherous, police acknowledged. Fewer than 1,000 people showed up, and the occasional clusters of loud, happy revelers walking the street caused no major disturbance.

“Last night was much wilder than this bar crawl,” said 26-year-old Jeremy Winston, a musician from Gainesville who came out Saturday with friends from James Madison University. But he has seen night life in the area heat up considerably after two years away: “I’ve seen some things in Arlington.”

Police did say that drunken driving had not been an issue at Clarendon crawls. Several people who showed up Saturday said they had planned to walk, use Metro or take a cab home. The car service company Uber signed people up and offered discounts to first-time customers at one of the check-in points.

“I love the themes — Cindo de Mayo, pink on Valentine’s Day, ugly sweaters for Christmas,” said Janice Arabaca, 33, of nearby Shirlington. The March 15 crawl was “out of control,” she agreed, but she said most aren’t.

For now, the Arlington County board is seeking public input. Then it will decide whether to take steps.

Some neighbors agree that the crawls add more to their lives than stale vomit. Peter Owen is a lawyer in the District. Now 44, he’s lived in Clarendon since he was 28 and has been happy to see the neighborhood develop into a place where young people congregate. When two paralegals in his D.C. law office told him they were going to the March 15 bar crawl, “it was kind of cool,” he said at the county meeting; he felt “vicariously hip.”

The next Monday, his co-workers told him they abandoned the crawl as soon as they arrived. It was too crowded.

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Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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