As a former farming town ensnared in Charlotte’s sprawl, Monroe, North Carolina has had a tough time making a play for tourism and relocation dollars.

Union County’s seat doesn’t have a waterfront or uniquely quaint downtown, so its recent self-promotion has focused on what you can do there when you’re not doing much of anything else. Department store magnate John Montgomery Belk’s Neoclassical mansion on South Hayne Street is reportedly being remade as an Airbnb, and at least one television show has done a segment on the local winery’s treehouses, which can be rented by the night or the hour.

Even the town city’s marketing coordinator, Matthew Black, doesn’t think of Monroe first when he’s planning dinner or drinks with friends. “I’ll admit it,” he says, “I’ll go to Charlotte.”

But it’s Black’s job to rev up Monroe’s evening scene. So, when North Carolina in 2021 legalized “social districts,” or bounded outdoor areas in which it’s legal to drink beer, wine, and spirits sold by licensed bars or restaurants, Black got ready to register his city with the state’s alcohol commission. On June 10, following a short delay in delivery of the commemorative cups, Monroe taprooms and wine slushie shops for the first time offered to-go drinks.

Most residents were too preoccupied by the monthly Friday night classic car show to notice.

Jeff Yow and Jimmy Trull in Monroe on June 10

“I like this tea!” Jeff Yow, who’d parked his lawn chair in front of a mortuary, said when told he could be sipping something stronger.

Yow’s friend, Jimmy Trull, countered that water was the best beverage to enjoy when admiring restored cars. Shaking his head, Yow thrust his plastic bottle forward. “It’s Gold Peak!” he said, his enthusiasm mounting. “This is good stuff right here. It’s sugar-free.”

Monroe was the fifth city statewide to launch a social district, with at least a dozen more seriously considering following suit this year. Backers of the setup say it has the potential to invigorate pedestrian areas and reduce paperwork hassles for event organizers who would rather not confiscate an art lover’s Pinot Grigio when he’s done looking at a gallery’s pastels.

Yet there’s little evidence from Michigan, which adopted social districts in 2020 as a pandemic relief measure for businesses, that the arrangement has been an economic godsend. Black says his colleagues there told him to anticipate a few visitors titillated by drinking in the streets, but to prepare for that excitement to fade when the next town over ropes off its own social district. And as Monroe discovered in June, locals who like a wholesome hobnob and those drawn to unimpeded drinking are two groups that may not overlap.

It’s technically legal to stalk certain streets of Monroe with a cocktail at 8 a.m.

Still, municipal governments’ embrace of the social district program is worth noting. Not because it’s mysterious—elected officials acclimated to relaxing liquor laws during the pandemic, and fears of a recession are stoking interest in all sorts of new revenue sources—but because it represents a sea change in the official Southern stance on public consumption, outside of historically Catholic cities such as Savannah and New Orleans.

Few states were as fervently anti-alcohol as North Carolina, where the temperance movement was fully organized by the 1830s. One of the movement’s adherents was University of North Carolina president David L. Swain (who would likely be pleased to know his namesake county in the western mountains remains semi-dry.) Swain in 1840 sent letters to the parents of UNC students, lamenting a wild “festival in the woods” at which young men drank “wine and ardent spirits” before returning to campus to vandalize classroom doors.

Toward the close of the century, North Carolina gave local governments the authority to ban alcohol or set up government-run dispensaries; the latter was then the prevalent system in South Carolina, which shares a border with Union County.

Attracted by the prospect of additional operational funds for their schools and chain gangs, as well as the chance to shine statewide, leaders of Monroe in 1898 shut down their city’s three saloons and opened a legal liquor shop.

“The results are there is no more orderly town to be found than Monroe,” J.E. Clark wrote in his 1902 publication, Sketches of Monroe and Union County. “Where formerly crowds of half drunken loafers gathered in mobs about the bars and on street corners, the streets are clear and as orderly as a lady’s parlor.”

Yet the dispensary was short-lived. North Carolina in 1908 became the first state in the country to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Even after its legislation was superseded by federal law, it held the dry banner high: North Carolina refused to ratify the amendment repealing Prohibition. Its residents still believed, as Swain put it back in 1840, that liquor was a threat to “justice, morality, and good breeding.”     

That outlook was internalized by Monroe natives Johnnie McGorey, a full-time parent, and Kimberly Medlin, an oncology research coordinator, who were sipping pineapple hard seltzers from Southern Range Brewing on the social district’s first night.

Johnnie McGorey and Kimberly Medlin drinking within Monroe’s social district

“I never would have thought that Monroe would have a bar scene,” said McGorey, who’s long been envious of the liberal drinking laws in New Orleans, where her brother lives.

“I’ve never done this before,” Medlin said of drinking openly while window shopping. “It makes me feel like, ‘Am I going to get yelled at?’”

That wasn’t a concern of an older man standing nearby, who said he wasn’t aware of the social district, despite prominent sidewalk signs signifying its borders. (For those more familiar with Jewish law than liquor legislation, social districts are something like eruvs, the demarcated areas within which certain Shabbat rules don’t apply.)

Perhaps one of the main reasons that legal drinking zones haven’t generated more buzz is that when a state’s been cracking down for so long, its residents learn how to get around the law. For decades, grown North Carolinians thought nothing of filling their water bottles with vodka for family-friendly outings.

“Nothing ever stopped me,” the man said. “I’d have a beer, and if they told me to get rid of it, I’d get rid of it.”

Then he went back to drinking from the koozie-covered can he’d brought with him.

This piece is reprinted with permission from writer Hanna Raskin’s substack The Food Section.

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