Windsor draws under-21 crowd with younger legal drinking age

Kari McKinney, Jonc'lyn Bush-Burman, and Jeff Romero, from left, wait to be let into Bentley's Roadhouse on Oullette Avenue in Windsor, Ont. They, like many Americans under 21, cross the border occasionally to hit the bars.
Kari McKinney, Jonc'lyn Bush-Burman, and Jeff Romero, from left, wait to be let into Bentley's Roadhouse on Oullette Avenue in Windsor, Ont. They, like many Americans under 21, cross the border occasionally to hit the bars.

WINDSOR, Ont. - In March, tens of thousands of college and high school students head for Florida, Texas, and hotspots south of the border. Mexican beach towns such as Cancun offer all-you-can-drink specials, and its 18-year-old drinking age is loosely enforced.

But an hour north of the border from here there's a “Spring Break” every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. The drinking age is 19 in downtown Windsor, Ont., just beyond the tunnel from Detroit.

Police estimate 15,000 to 20,000 young people, cash in hand, stream into Windsor on those nights, making a beeline for a four-block stretch of Oullette Avenue, home to about 25 saloons.

Young adults - far more males than females, mostly white, and from Michigan and Ohio - line up, IDs in hand, outside Bad Hare Saloon, Pepper's, Hippo's, Don Cherry's, Woody's, and Bentley's. Chartered buses that brought fraternity and sorority groups from universities wait on nearby streets.

At 11:30 p.m. on a mild Saturday night, Laura Pollock, a sophomore at Michigan State University, waits to get into Bentley's bar. Traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, flows by nonstop.

“Maybe it makes people feel better that the [U.S.] drinking age is 21, but kids will get around it. And if they think back to when they were kids, they found a way around it too,” said Ms. Pollock, of Shelby Township in suburban Detroit. “You'd be amazed at how much goes on.''

She's the designated driver for her two girlfriends, and has limited her drinking to a shot and a beer so far, she said. Her parents know where she is. “They tell us to be careful and make sure we have a sober driver.”

Bentley's is jammed. The bouncers permit one person to enter for every one that leaves. They examine a phony ID and question a youth. He quickly walks away, leaving the ID with the bouncers.

To save money, some kids buy a fifth of duty-free liquor on the American side of the border and “preload” in Windsor in their car or the parking lot before hitting the bars.

Across the street from Bentley's at the Electric Fish, a young bride-to-be is wearing a white veil and a T-shirt that reads “Suck for a Buck.” It's covered with pieces of candy which men nibble off in exchange for a dollar.

At The Loose Screw pub, hemp ale is advertised. And at the Honest Lawyer pub, a group of cigar-smoking twentysomethings have driven up from Columbus for a stag party. The bouncer waves them in because they're over 21 but he rejects Americans under 21. He says they're too much hassle on the weekends. Besides, the bar is nearing capacity.

Police are a tolerant presence here, generally not interfering unless situations become unsafe.

“It's like a little spring break for them. As long as they're having fun, we don't mind,” said Staff Sgt. Greg Jolie of the Windsor police department. “We were young once.”

Windsor assigns 20 officers to the area Thursday through Saturday. They're especially alert at 2 a.m. when thousands of youngsters pour onto the streets. Occasionally, massive brawls break out. And each weekend, about 40 of the most obnoxious offenders end up in jail, or worse.

In June, a 24-year-old Columbus man, Matthew Smith, fell from a second-story walkway in Windsor and landed head first. He smashed every bone in his face, developed a blood clot at the rear of his brain, and lost several teeth. But he survived.

He had gone to Windsor with friends for a weekend of partying, and was drunk when he toppled, said Judy Smith, his mother. She's hopeful that her son, who has no medical insurance and is living with his parents, will recover fully and be able to return to work someday.

Although Ontario's drinking age has been 19 for many years, Windsor wasn't “discovered” by the masses until about three years ago, said Jim Yanchula, City Centre Revitalization Manager in Windsor.

“Five years ago you could have shot a cannon down the street in downtown and not hit anyone,” said Mr. Yanchula. In the late 1980s, strip clubs and then casinos attracted a steady flow of mostly over-21-year-olds. Nightlife really took off after Casino Windsor was built in 1998, he said.