September 28, 2012

Last Call for College Bars

Jordan Calabro, left, and Christopher Cheleuitte, Cornell veterinary students, let loose on the dance floor at Level B, a bar in Ithaca, N.Y.

The women, in the pre-fall evening-out uniform of tiny shorts and four-inch heels, had fortified themselves for the outing with tequila shots at home. They sat in Level B, a basement bar on the southwestern edge of the Cornell campus in Ithaca, N.Y., snapping photos of their two $18 fishbowls (each contains a half-bottle of vodka, or about 16 shots, and a plastic animal) and texting them to friends (no explanation necessary) to coax them to hurry over before the fishbowl special ended at 12:30.

The bar was as dead as a strobe-lighted library until shortly after 11, when suddenly, as if the campus bell-tower chimed at a frequency only students could hear, the place was sweat-inducingly full.

To anyone who has ever been to college, it doesn’t seem like much of a problem: how to lure students to bars, the earlier in the evening the better.

But bar owners in the Collegetown neighborhood of Ithaca recently convened a worried summit about just this topic. Once upon a time, in the Pleistocene epoch before cellphones and social media, students used bars as meeting places, heading there after class to find friends and to plot evenings over beer.

IT’S hard to look cool slurping blue-hued vodka through neon-colored straws from a fishbowl, and four sorority sisters, all Cornell University seniors, have long since stopped trying.

Students at Rulloff's, a bar in Ithaca.

After all, cool is irrelevant when you have arrived at a bar at the insanely early hour of just after 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, in the company of a fraternity “most of us wouldn’t go to a mixer with,” said Michelle Guida, 21, fiddling with her orange Hermès bracelet and gathering three straws to drink from simultaneously. “But it’s their bar tab,” said Vanessa Gilen, also 21, who did not look up from her iPhone as she sipped and texted furiously.

These days text messaging, Facebook and Foursquare make it possible to see if a bar is worth the trip (translation: who is there) without leaving the dorm. Meanwhile, location-based mobile apps like Grindr, which point to the nearest available candidates looking for sex or not-quite-sex, are helping dethrone college bars from their place as meat markets.

Students have spent so many hours pregaming (as in, getting as cost-efficiently drunk as possible, usually on hard liquor at a private party) that there is little need to waste money even on cut-price drinks, and they often don’t arrive at the bars until midnight or so, before the bars in Ithaca close at 1 a.m.

“Students don’t need bars to create a community the way they used to,” said Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell who specializes in restaurant psychology.

A line to enter Pixel Lounge in Ithaca, N.Y., for last call.

And it’s not just at Ivy League Cornell, where the libraries are open later than the bars, but in college towns across America like Iowa City, where at least four bars have closed since 2011.

Bars near Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania are so peripheral to Lanie Parr’s social life that she doesn’t know what time they close. That is not because she doesn’t drink. “We sometimes pregame even the pregame,” she said.

Pregames often are single sex, with men playing beer pong or video games, and women drinking vodka sodas or a peach-flavored Champagne called André and refusing to head out until they have captured the perfect photo, which they promptly post to Instagram and Facebook.

Drunken Cornell Students Troll the New York Times
“You could have this really amazing night, but if you didn’t get a picture, it’s like it didn’t happen,” said Ms. Parr, 22, a senior at Gettysburg, whose friends often order designer outfits from the Rent the Runway Web site because incessant documenting makes wearing anything more than twice taboo. “It’s crazy how much pictures consume our lives. Everyone knows how to pose and how to hold your arm and which way is most flattering, and everyone wants the picture taken with their phone.”

That preamble tends to delay arrival time at bars, another factor in their decline. At Cornell, three Collegetown bars have closed in the last year, including the 71-year-old Royal Palm Tavern, a storied dive where students convened at “Palms o’clock,” meaning in time for one last drink.

“These kids today won’t pay even $2 for a drink,” said the former owner, Lenny Leonardo, as he cruised down a highway in Florida, where he retired in August. “They buy a bottle of Southern Comfort and show up in time to try to get laid. But they just end up throwing up in my men’s room, and I get reprimanded because it looks like I’m the one who let them get this drunk.”

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