Editors’ Note Appended
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
In an effort to appeal to increasingly demanding students, bars are cleaning up their sticky-as-caramel floors, installing midcentury modern furniture, and offering more hard liquor. This while struggling to keep prices low. “Students want to get drunker faster and cheaper,” said Jason Sidle, general manager of Rulloff’s Restaurant and Bar in Collegetown. In its last decade, the Royal Palm Tavern sold about twice as much hard liquor as it had in the previous one, Mr. Leonardo said.
Mike McLaughlin, 21, a senior at Cornell, said, “I drink liquor because it takes too long to drink beer.” On the drinks menu at Rulloff’s, “Bitch Fuel” (vodka, gin, rum, peach schnapps and lemon-lime soda) is a popular recent addition, but Mr. Sidle has also required all his bartenders to download mixologist apps to their phones. “We get all these requests for weird drinks we’ve never heard of because they’ve seen someone drinking it on Facebook,” he said.
After sales slumped in recent years at He’s Not Here, the oldest bar in Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina, Dave Kitzmiller, the bar’s longtime owner, added murals and spruced up the restrooms. “Ours had such a bad rap, the ladies didn’t want to come because of them, and if the ladies don’t want to come you’ve got a problem,” he said, adding that they began serving $12 bottles of Champagne, which women empty into the bar’s famous 32-ounce beer cups.
Mr. Kitzmiller, who retired in March after more than 40 years as owner, said he used to order 100 cases apiece of Schlitz and Budweiser and sell them all in a weekend. (At capacity, the bar accommodates 1,000 patrons.) Now, he said:“No one orders bottles anymore unless it’s the ladies drinking those flavored things like Smirnoff’s. It’s all draught and craft.”
Meanwhile, crackdowns on serving under-age patrons coupled with students increasingly fearful of fake identification troubles trailing them to the job market have further cut bars’ clientele. By midafternoon most days, the pleading Facebook messages start popping up on upperclassmen’s phones: “Need a handle!” (Translation: a half-gallon of liquor.)
“These freshmen, if they’ve met you once, they’ll ask,” said Ally Momo, 21, a Cornell senior. “They’d never ask you in person, but they’ll find you on Facebook.”
Cornell’s freshmen may be especially desperate, she said. The university banned them from fraternity parties after an alcohol-poisoning death in 2011. Now entry to a fraternity party requires an iPod-touch-like scanner for student IDs that flashes up the class year and prevents any card from being used more than once an evening.
But no matter where the drinking is done, the morning after is often the same. Tracy O’Hara, 21, a Cornell senior, said: “I can’t imagine what it was like before Facebook when you could just spend the morning after a big night out recovering. Now you have to spend, like, an hour untagging photos. And then you read your texts and you’re like, ‘Oh, so that’s what I did last night.’ ” (It’s job-recruiting season, which means even most students who can drink legally untag every photo, she said.)
Her friend Mr. McLaughlin (who estimated he sent 25 texts as well as an e-mail to his fraternity listserv just plotting the start of his evening) could have a lot of reading to do.
After drinking two Manhattans, a half-bottle of wine, a glass of Champagne in celebration of a friend’s job offer and almost a half- bottle of vodka, Mr. McLaughlin decided, about 11:15 p.m., to rally his friends to go to Dunbar’s for its “Group Therapy”: $6 for a pitcher of beer and a carafe of kamikaze shots of vodka, Triple Sec and lime.
But after he ordered ( though before he paid), a friend received a text about a more appealing deal: Women they wanted to hang out with had staked out a table at Rulloff’s. The group made the five-minute trek uphill, passing Pixel Lounge, an arcade-turned-bar where students often end up to dance and hook up.
“If it’s before midnight, it’s too early to go there,” said Peter Brogan, 21, who was in the male pre-fall evening uniform of shorts, a button-down shirt and flip-flops. Downstairs at Rulloff’s, the group became so involved in a drinking game called Fingers that suddenly it was 12:45 a.m., too late to go to Pixel. They texted to find out how long the line was at the hot dog truck a block away (too long), then split roughly along gender lines, the women wanting frozen yogurt and the men, Collegetown Bagels.
Mr. McLaughlin downed two bagel sandwiches and flipped back and forth between Facebook updates and texts, looking for hookup contenders. Mr. Brogan (who would like the record to reflect, especially for his parents, that he has a job after graduation) sipped a pint glass of sangria left by a previous patron and shot down prospects. “Don’t do that,” he said to Mr. McLaughlin, referring to one woman. “She likes you.”
“Come on, let’s go smoke cigars and play drunken Madden,” Mr. Brogan said, moving his thumbs to mime an Xbox controller. Mr. McLaughlin’s phone lit up and he jumped, but alas, it was only a Facebook status update.
Editors’ Note: September 27, 2012
An article on Thursday described the effect of social media use on the bar scene in several college towns, including the area around Cornell. After the article was published, questions were raised by the blog IvyGate about the identities of six Cornell students quoted in the article or shown in an accompanying photo.
None of the names provided by those students to a reporter and photographer for The Times — Michelle Guida, Vanessa Gilen, Tracy O’Hara, John Montana, David Lieberman and Ben Johnson — match listings in the Cornell student directory, and The Times has not subsequently been able to contact anyone by those names. The Times should have worked to verify the students’ identities independently before quoting or picturing them for the article.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 27, 2012
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the surname of Christopher Cheleuitte. It is Cheleuitte, not Chelewitte.