Losing our buzz: Does Chico State still deserve its party reputation?

This story was originally published by the Chico News & Review on April 14, 2016.

A police SUV passes a house party at Third and Ivy streets, in the heart of the student neighborhood south of Chico State’s campus. Young people are drinking on the lawn and sidewalk; some are most definitely underage. On the roof of the two-story house is a white banner that reads “Tequila Sunrise” in red and black lettering. About an hour earlier, college kids were dancing on the roof, too, but the party’s chilled out now. It’s 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 31: César Chávez Day.

Some party-goers see the cops, are mildly alarmed, and move from the sidewalk to the lawn, but most just keep drinking. A young man in a halfway-buttoned tropical shirt—a resident of the house, perhaps—appears on the front porch with a red cup in hand and tells everyone, flat-out, to get off the sidewalk or leave. This appears to satisfy the police, because their SUV keeps moving.

The scene replays all day on different lawns and porches. Elsewhere, in another city, police might not be so tolerant. Elsewhere, students might not start getting hammered at the crack of dawn in the name of a civil rights activist.

But this is Chico. In this neighborhood, on this day, the cops kind of expect this stuff.

And why wouldn’t they? Partying is built into the city’s identity, or at least that perception has endured for nearly 30 years, ever since Playboy ranked Chico State the No. 1 party school in the nation and the infamous Pioneer Days riots a few months later drew further attention to the city’s drinking culture.

“We’ve been fighting the party image ever since that damn Playboy article came out,” said Sgt. David Bird of Chico State’s University Police Department (UPD).

Bird shares the common observation that Chico still parties, for sure, but not the way it used to. The longtime residents; police officers; bar owners; and university employees, administrators and students interviewed for this story say the big, blowout holiday weekends closely tied to Chico’s party image—Labor Day, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and César Chávez Day—have become much more subdued and manageable for local law enforcement.

It’s just different now. The crowds at West Fifth and Ivy streets don’t reach the same fever pitch; old college bars have closed; hardly anyone floats the Sacramento River to Beer Can Beach on Labor Day; and on Halloween, downtown isn’t jammed with 15,000 people in costumes. It’s no accident—the university and city have been working toward this for years—and most people probably believe it’s for the best.

In a 24-hour period starting at noon on César Chávez Day, Chico Police arrested a total of 18 people, mostly for “poor decision-making” fueled by alcohol, according to a press release. By comparison, police arrested 50 people on the same day in 2011. Take it from Bird, who patrolled from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and has never seen the festivities so low-key.

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Photo by John Domogma

“Definitely the best year in my 14 years,” he said. “Halloween last year was extremely tame, as well. Those are the two biggest days, and big events are the worst; they’re the scariest. That’s when you don’t have police officers keeping an eye on all the kids.”

Chico State President Paul Zingg, set to retire in June, cites the toned-down atmosphere as one of the community’s major accomplishments during his 12-year tenure. He pointed to a December 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education—a national newspaper covering academia—that recognized Chico State, along with Yale University, University of Nebraska and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, for successfully combating deeply rooted party cultures.

“People are encouraged that we’re dealing with the seamy side of the party scene,” Zingg said. “Now, the question is making sure we don’t take the fun out of the university or the community.”

As the CN&R observed during an afternoon ride-along with UPD on César Chávez Day, Chico still has fun, and likes to drink. A lot.

Hands cuffed behind her back, Sarah is vomiting through the open back door of a police cruiser. Her hair keeps getting in the way. Between heaves, she asks Det. Bill Kolb, who’s holding the door, if he has a hair-tie. He doesn’t.

It’s about 3 p.m. on a beautiful spring day, though you wouldn’t know it here, at the university police station on the bottom floor of the parking structure on Normal Street. Officer Jason Plainer says he spotted two women, Sarah and her friend Emily, walking all wobbly in the street and arrested them for public intoxication. They’re both under the legal drinking age and visiting Chico from other universities.

Emergency responders with Butte County EMS arrive, assess Sarah’s condition, put her on a stretcher and lift it into the back of the ambulance. She’s going to the hospital to be treated for acute alcohol intoxication.

While Kolb attends to Sarah, Emily, still in the backseat of the police car, says she needs to use the restroom.“Can you hold it for a few minutes?” Kolb asks. She says she can. A few minutes later, Kolb helps Emily out of the vehicle. He looks in the backseat and sighs. “She peed,” he says.

There’s always been an ugly side to Chico’s party scene. The height of the madness came in 1987 during Pioneer Days, Chico State’s now-defunct spring celebration. Chico State had just been designated the country’s top party school by Playboy.

As described in an article published in the CN&R on April 30, 1987, a riotous crowd of more than 1,000 people broke the windows of businesses with rocks, hurled beer bottles at police officers, flipped a TV news car over and set a bonfire at the intersection of West Fifth and Ivy streets. Police officers, in turn, reportedly knocked rioters’ heads with batons. Before the chaos, then-Chico State President Robin Wilson had promised to “take the thing [Pioneer Days] out in the backyard and shoot it in the head” if it got out of control. The next morning, true to his word, Wilson canceled the celebration entirely.

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Photo by Howard Hardee

Nick Andrew was there. At the age of 23, he and his business partner, Kevin Riley, had recently opened Riley’s Bar & Grill at Fifth and Ivy. He recalls the fire, the mob and staying up all night to defend the bar.

“We actually had the cops help us close the bar and get everyone outside,” he said. “We didn’t want everyone heading out into this riot. It was pretty scary.”

Andrew mostly remembers those days fondly, however. Used to be that students could just walk into any house party; the frat houses were open to everyone. “It wasn’t violent,” he said. “It was just fun.”

The old days are fading fast, it seems. A couple longtime, college-oriented bars, The Graduate and LaSalles, closed in the last year, and with downtown’s newest drinking establishments has come a shift away from drink specials and cheap pitchers of beer.

In the case of LaSalles, it’s definitely for the best, Andrew said. He’d know, because he owned it. The bar attracted an increasingly seedy clientele base, including gang members, and there were several stabbings and a shooting. “I closed LaSalles because of the violence,” he said.

And so Riley’s stands, a fixture of a passing era, along with the University Bar and Madison Bear Garden. Chico’s drinking culture is different, Andrew says, but still active. If anything, he observes young people drinking harder than in his day.

“When I would go to a party in college, there was a keg of beer, and if somebody had a bottle of hard alcohol, it was weird,” he said. “Now, 21-year-old girls are coming to the bar and ordering shots of flavored vodka—nothing in it, just booze.”

On the sidewalk outside the university police station, Emily is unsteadily attempting to walk a straight line toward Officer Plainer. She’s wearing a pink bikini top and dirty jean shorts that show her panties at the waist. She fails the sobriety test and an EMT hands her a blanket. “Here,” he says. “Your top is, um, small.”

The emergency responders determine that Emily isn’t at risk of an alcohol overdose. Kolb puts her in the backseat of a different cruiser—Plainer has to clean urine out of the other one—and tells her she’s going to sober up in jail.

This reporter asks Emily if she’s had a lot to drink. “I guess so,” she says, shrugging.“I feel fine. Everyone is being so serious.”

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Photo by John Domogma

Emily very likely exceeded Chico State’s definition of high-risk drinking—more than four drinks for women and five drinks for men in two hours.

The university’s Campus Alcohol & Drug Education Center (CADEC) encourages students to drink in moderation rather than preaching abstinence, said Program Director Trisha Seastrom. High-risk drinking is associated with blacking out, regrettable acts, getting sick, overdosing, getting in fights and sexual violence.

That level of consumption is commonplace, but perhaps becoming less prevalent at Chico State, according to a study recently completed by CADEC. In 2008, 63 percent of students self-reported indulging in high-risk drinking in the previous two weeks. As of December 2015, that figure was 48 percent, much closer to the national college average of 44 percent.

It might be that fewer students are drinking hard before they get to Chico State. In 2013-14, for the first time, CADEC recorded a drop in the rate of incoming freshmen who reported participating in high-risk drinking—from 33 percent to 25 percent—and it’s stayed there. Further, through CADEC’s Reach Out and Respond (ROAR) program, new students are immediately getting educated about the risks of heavy boozing, the signs of alcohol overdose and when to call 911.

“This past fall, for the first time, every single incoming freshman went through Wildcat ROAR before [his or her] first full weekend in Chico,” Seastrom said.

However, there are indications that Chico still struggles with alcohol. Statistics provided by Enloe Medical Center show that people ages 18 to 22 are increasingly visiting the emergency department for diagnoses related to alcohol (see “Overdoing it”).

Christina Chavira, Enloe’s spokeswoman, said the numbers come with caveats: In addition to alcohol overdoses, they include cases in which alcohol was the secondary reason for the visit (i.e., alcohol contributed to an assault or accidental injury). The stats also don’t track patients’ student status. Additionally, Enloe serves a region much larger than Chico alone, and the emergency department has seen a marked increase in the total number of patient visits for any reason over the listed time frame.

Seastrom correlates the increase in ER visits to more 911 calls—i.e., people are calling for help when their friends are dangerously intoxicated—and that’s good.

“They’re doing exactly what we’re asking them to do,” she said. “Any one of those calls not made could have been another student losing their life from alcohol overdose.”

In his SUV, Bird patrols the streets and alleys of the south campus neighborhood, passing hot-spots like the corner of Fifth and Ivy, frat houses and apartment complexes known to be currently raging. It’s about 3:30 p.m.

 
 

Young people are moving party to party, paying little attention to traffic. Nearly everyone is tanned and beautiful. Tank tops, flip-flops, short shorts and sunglasses are everywhere.

There are also lots of sombreros and a few fake mustaches, supposedly in tribute to César Chávez, the Latino-American civil rights activist. The most misguided partiers, Bird says, wear togas. “It’s like, seriously? You think it’s that ‘Caesar?’”

At an intersection, a group of young women crosses in front of the SUV. Most are wearing cut-off shorts that come up way past the waist, ’80s-style, apparently at the expense of fabric elsewhere. Bird shakes his head.“Sometimes I wish I was the fashion police.”

Chico Police Lt. Rob Merrifield was out that day, too. He oversees the city department’s patrols of the south campus neighborhood, downtown and Bidwell Park.

“I don’t really know what to attribute it to, but [César Chávez Day] does seem to be a little smaller each year,” he said. “The crowds never really materialized like in years past. … Those giant, raging parties with 500 people in a backyard, we don’t really see those anymore.”

That’s been consistent on all holidays for the past two years, he said, along with a significant reduction in the number of people getting arrested (see “Party off”). The tally of arrests isn’t necessarily reflective of the level of activity—police may be too occupied with managing large crowds to slap cuffs on anyone—but Merrifield acknowledges that police haven’t been as busy.

For instance, special events like St. Patrick’s Day used to be all-hands-on-deck situations for Chico PD. In some cases, they enlisted more than 100 officers from outside agencies. This year, the department brought in little help—just a couple of officers with California Alcoholic Beverage Control—and even gave some officers the day off. “It used to not even be a question—on a special event, you knew you’d be working,” Merrifield said.

The south campus neighborhood still drains police resources. On weekends, it remains the area of the city with the most calls for service. “We still spend most of our time working in that area,” he said.

As Mayor Mark Sorensen noted during a Chico City Council meeting on Dec. 15, big parties “suck up 100 percent of police resources” on some weekends. In recent years, members of the council have consistently suggested that the university should assume more responsibility for its mess.

A turning point came in February 2012. After a string of drug-related student deaths, 21-year-old Sigma Pi pledge Mason Sumnicht’s admission to Enloe Medical Center with a blood alcohol level of 0.468 was the last straw. (He died nearly two weeks later.) The Call to Community Action, a document signed by Zingg and dozens of local leaders, basically copped to a citywide substance abuse problem and called for collaborative solutions.

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“It was a ‘come to Jesus’ kind of moment,” Zingg said. “The first thing you do at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is say, ‘Guess what? I’m an alcoholic.’ Then you go from there.”

Since then, the Town and Gown Committee—a panel of city and university leaders—has become “stronger and more institutionalized,” Zingg said, which has set in motion a number of actions. Most recently, Chico PD and UPD agreed to an updated memorandum of understanding that recognizes that the departments serve the same community, said UPD Chief John Feeney.

“The main difference for us is that we now have authority to enforce laws within a mile of campus,” he said. “In the past, there was some confusion for our officers whether they were allowed to police off-campus. … At night, many of our students are off-campus. To be effective and to support the Chico Police Department, our officers need to be out there as well.”

In recent years, the Chico City Council has passed a number of ordinances aimed mostly at student neighborhoods, including a social host ordinance that holds tenants, landlords and property owners financially responsible for nuisance activities related to underage drinking on private property; and adjusting the city’s existing noise ordinance, allowing police officers who encounter noise at “unreasonable levels” to act immediately, without having to wait for a complaint to be made.

Steps have been taken to quell specific events, as well. “The university was very concerned with Labor Day,” Zingg said. “The rap on Labor Day was that it was a student problem.”

The last big year of the float, 2012, saw the death of 20-year-old Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo student Brett Olson, 63 water rescues and 13 people taken to Enloe Medical Center by ambulance as an estimated 12,000 tubers hit the river in one day. The following year, under pressure from both the city and university, the Glenn County Board of Supervisors followed Butte County’s lead and banned alcohol on that section of the Sacramento River over Labor Day weekend.

The float, Zingg observed, now is a “nonevent.”

“Half those people are probably underage,” Bird says. He’s watching a party on West Sixth Street at about 4 p.m. There are so many, he couldn’t cite or arrest them all even if he was so inclined, he says, and “all that would do is use up taxpayer money and piss off an entire group of people.”

So, he looks for behavior that stands out, like fights, stumbling and parties spilling into the street. On Ivy Street he encounters one young man, shirtless and filthy, who appears to be picking fights. With him, Bird gets serious. “Get his ass home,” he tells the man’s friend. “Now.”

“I will. We’re going, we’re going,” the friend replies.

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Photo by Howard Hardee

Bird also tries to make early contacts. If he sees college kids rolling kegs into a backyard, for example, he talks to them about keeping the party contained on the property and off the sidewalk.

He stops his SUV in front of another apartment complex. Above a sizable crowd, a couple of guys are carrying 30-packs of Keystone Light up the stairs. There’s an inflatable water slide in the parking lot.

“That is awesome,” Bird says enthusiastically. “See, now this is a party. People are drinking, having fun, everything is low-key; probably because everyone is high. I can smell it from here.”

Kolb’s voice, fuzzy and crackling, comes in over the radio with an update on Emily. On her way to jail, she’d thrown up in the car.

With Kolb and Plainer both cleaning bodily fluids out of their vehicles, and Sarah and Emily going to the hospital and jail, respectively, Bird reflects on why the young women started drinking in the first place—to have fun. At some point, though, it became more of a bummer than a good time.“Nobody involved is having fun now,” Bird says.

And fun, or at least the promise of it, is what draws many students to the university.

“It’s not bad to have a reputation as a fun place,” Zingg said. “There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It’s all about balance. Some people come to Chico because of that reputation.”

Taylor Fencyk, a 21-year-old Chico State student majoring in psychology, is from San Diego and knew that Chico partied. But that’s not why she likes it here.

“At first I was so attracted to the trees and that it’s a small community,” she said. “By the end of my freshman year, I was adventuring more in Bidwell Park and Paradise, which is why I’m most in love with Chico.”

A desire to live well may factor into Chico’s chilled-out party scene, Bird said. “I see more people walking around wearing fitness clothes now than I ever have,” he said. “I think people are more concerned with healthy living, and that’s hard to do if you’re constantly drinking.”

Both Zingg and Seastrom agree on that point. Construction of the WREC, the student gym, was completed in 2009, and it’s made an overwhelmingly positive difference in the student neighborhood.

“That really created a whole different set of choices,” Zingg said.

In any case, for Zingg, Chico State’s party-school image never had much merit in the first place.

“For Chico to have had this reputation of being an out-of-control party culture, that was an exaggeration,” he said. “To consider Pioneer Days the defining event in Chico’s story … I mean, you’ve got to be kidding. It’s been 30 years. We are making progress, but where we started was never as bad as some folks wanted to believe.”

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