Thursday, November 20, 2008

Alma Mater Blues

Queen's University made a splash this week by canceling the annual homecoming football game. The football game has, in recent years, been a cause for celebration among Ontario university students culminating in the now infamous Aberdeen Street party. The party is unsanctioned and illegal. The city of Kingston, after a car was flipped and burnt in 2005, panicked and called in the cavalry (in the form of police from all over the province). Having failed to actually stop the celebration in the subsequent years, the pressure has been on the administration at Queen's to do something. So they did.

While I sympathize with the administration's position as being somewhere between a rock and a hard place. As someone who was on Aberdeen Street at various points in his university career, I feel I should share my thoughts. I think perspective is necessary. I think a question that I don't think has ever been addressed is why Aberdeen became what it became. Here's what I think happened.
  1. Kingston is not exactly replete with bars. When Alumni and others come in for a party, what bars there are fill up pretty quickly. This leaves the 16,000 or so university students who have a work hard/play hard attitude with no legal means of showing their school spirit (read desire to get drunk as humanly possible). This led to a growth in (illegal) keggers in students' homes.
  2. In 2004, the year before the car, a major kegger complete with private security was organized by one of the households on Aberdeen Street. In previous years, Aberdeen was the site of much homecoming partying due to the fact that all but one of the homes on the short street was/is occupied by students. However, most of the partying toook places in the backyards and homes of the residents, disturbing only the one family who insisted on living there (I believe the student council eventually bought the house after being turned down in previous years). Most of the homes are also large houses housing large numbers of students and provide perfect locations for house parties.
  3. When the party's invitation list overwhelmed organizers (and the private security guy), the cops were called in to break up the sizable kegger. The street subsequently filled with slightly displeased students. A couple of these students inexcusably threw beer bottles at the departing security guy.
  4. This incident led to a panic on the part of the Kingston Police for the following year's celebration (the car year). The KPD attempted to block off Aberdeen Street for the night placing officers at the four legal entrances to the street. This failed miserably as people quickly found the unfenced backyards which provide easy access to Aberdeen and quickly began partying behind the police barricade.
  5. The attempts to block access to Aberdeen left the crowd in an anti-establishment mood and the now infamous flipping and burning of the car resulted. Side note: how the police missed the stolen, plateless vehicle parked conspicuously on an otherwise car free street as they drove up and down Aberdeen all day is still a mystery.
  6. When news of the incident spread, along with pictures of thousands of students drinking in the street, the party became a destination for students accross the province. This meant that Aberdeen remained a crowded, if mostly peaceful, party in the subsequent years.
This picture is perhaps not consistent with the image of riotous students at war with an overburdened police force portrayed in the media but it is a lot closer to the truth. The problem with canceling the fall booze fest is, in a word, Facebook. A group proposing a non-administration date for homecoming already has 1300 members within a day of the administration's decision. Yes, social networking can be used for more nefarious means than political organization.

What has always frustrated me is the lack of any desire from the University or the city to organize what is needed: an open air beer festival, preferably in one of Kingston's parks or on its main drag, Princess Street. A sanctioned and licensed event where beer is sold and is in a well lit venue with bouncers from the bars or police officers checking identification to discourage underage drinking would be a huge source of revenue for whoever organized it. I don't think students come to homecoming because it's rebellious, I think they go because it is a damn good party. Legalizing it would make it more accessible to the true cause of the celebration: the alumni coming home. While the University has tried to organize alternate events (Billy Talent anyone?) they either lacked the requisite space or the ability to drink, which like it or not, is what people want to do on homecoming weekend. Instead of making money on a fabulous Princess Street Party, everyone involved will have to bite their nails and hope that the new date doesn't catch on. It is really too bad.

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