CLEANING UP The mayor. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
Orange has become the new scarlet.
At least that’s the case in Providence, where police last fall pinned scarlet letter-style orange stickers to rental houses near Providence College—a deliberate exercise in public shaming that alerts passersby of homes where screaming crowds, public intoxication, underage drinking, and other similar forms of alcohol-induced delinquency have taken place.
Providence once was famed for its high tolerance for vice, thrice electing a mayor who had a felony conviction for lobbing a smoldering log at his wife’s suspected lover. But the city, at the behest of Mayor Angel Taveras, is now in the midst of a crackdown on drinking, smoking, and stripping that may be unprecedented in its 377-year history.
The “battle of the bottle” began in January 2013 when undercover police officers slipped into the Karma nightclub downtown. The officers confirmed what anyone who has been to similar nightspots already knew: you need to buy a bottle of liquor to get VIP seating. But what no one knew was that the city had decided to enforce its new interpretation of an obscure state law making bottle service for distilled spirits illegal. Karma and a dozen other clubs were slapped with $14,000 in fines. Karma’s owners appealed and the city successfully fought them all the way to Superior Court.
The ban was developed with an eye toward the volatile mixture of bottle service, legal drinkers, and 18-year-olds at Providence night clubs, but the prohibition extends to all bars and restaurants, which means that responsible diners can no longer wash down a steak with a bottle of bourbon. Call it prohibitionism-lite: bottle service for wine, which has a lower alcohol content, is still permitted.
Hookahs were next. One week before last Christmas, police fanned out across the city, seizing 13 hookahs from four bars. Presumably, the bars had run afoul of what amounts to an accounting rule: businesses are exempted from the indoor smoking ban as long as 50 percent or more of their revenue comes from tobacco use. At least two of the raided businesses — Opa Restaurant and Nara Restaurant and Hookah Lounge on Atwells Avenue — make no secret of the fact that they are hookah bars. One can’t help but wonder: are they skirting the law or just struggling with sales?
A ban on candy- and fruit-flavored tobacco products had already gone into effect in January 2013. City officials said they were protecting kids from the tobacco industry. But a state law against selling any tobacco products to minors already exists. Mayoral spokesman David Ortiz said “research has shown” (he did not specify further) that in spite of the law, children still obtain tobacco products. Two years earlier, the Providence Housing Authority had banned smoking indoors at five residential high-rises. One gets the sense that Providence City Hall is haunted by the fear that someone somewhere may be smoking — and enjoying it a bit too much.