U of I’s Unofficial doesn’t trump Polar Bear’s rowdiness

At the University of Illinois, things may be bigger, more expensive and generally better, but Carbondale may still know how to party harder.

Over the weekend, the annual Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day party swept through Urbana-Champaign. The tradition was supposedly started as a way for bars to sell lots of green beer to students while they were still in town before leaving for spring break. Evidently it worked, and now every year the streets are  swamped with thousands of green-clad college students.

Comparing Unofficial to Carbondale’s own Polar Bear party seems only natural and especially intriguing, given SIUC’s reputation as a party school. With about twice the number of students who probably have quite a bit more disposable income to spend on booze, can the Illini out-party the Salukis?

First, consider some numbers.

According to a March 6, 2011, article in the News-Gazette, police issued a total of 328 notices to appear in court Friday of the 2011 event. In addition, there were four arrests for violations of state law, the article said.

According to a Jan. 27 article in the Daily Egyptian, Carbondale Chief of Police Jody O’Guinn said police responded to a total of 267 calls for service and arrested 59 people for underage drinking.

Granted, the numbers aren’t measuring quite the same things, but they begin to give some picture of the scale of each event.

Also, consider the respective sizes of each university. U of I has more than 41,000 students, according to the university’s website. SIUC has less than half that, with a slightly fewer than 20,000 students, according to its website.

Unofficial is also set apart from Polar Bear by special regulations on bars and liquor stores, namely that no underage patrons are allowed in bars during the weekend of the event and stores cannot sell any alcohol before 10 a.m., according to an article in the Daily Illini.

There’s also the fact that most of the Polar Bear party is centered around the Pinch Penny area, while Unofficial has no real headquarters. Rather, the party is spread across the large area of Urbana-Champaign, though the bars along Green Street take the brunt of the festivities.

The geographic logistics of the two parties are what make them hardest to compare based on general impressions, though wandering the streets of the city for a little while can give one something to go off of.

Of the two Unofficials I’ve been to, this year’s seemed comparatively tamer, though again, it’s hard to say because it is spread over so wide an area.

Last year’s event was hit by a cold, early March downpour, but there were still scores of people wandering the streets. By the time I’d made it from my friend’s apartment to the nearby grocery store, I was completely soaked and freezing from what seemed to my southern Illinoisan sensibilities a bitterly cold, northern winter.

None of this seemed to deter the revelry.

Though I arrived in town well past the traditional early morning initiation of the festivities, things still seemed somewhat tame in comparison, even given the slightly better weather.

And things seemed especially tame compared to at least some of what I saw at Polar Bear this year. From what I could tell, there were no TV smashing contests or drunken, mid-winter swims in Boneyard Creek, the waterway that cuts through the middle of the city.

And while Green Street, Champaign’s equivalent of The Strip, was crawling with people, much of the residential area I walked through seemed devoid of especially rowdy partying. Sure, there were plenty of people getting drunk, but things didn’t get too surreal.

Granted, there were a few moments that linger in my memory: a large apparent blood stain on the sidewalk, which caused nearly everyone in my group to say, one by one, “Is that blood?” as we walked past it, was also disconcertingly close to a pile of pancakes in someone’s yard. There was the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in Geovanti’s, a sort of Italian Sam’s Café famous for its chicken strips, the deliciousness of which while sober cannot be confirmed.

There was also the realization that Champaign is not a city designed for visitors, and the ensuing parking nightmare.

Parking illegally under my friends’ apartment building seemed like a good idea at first, though a note telling me to leave by 7 p.m. and then simply getting honked at by the rightful owner of another spot across the garage convinced me that taking my chances with the 3-hour public lot several blocks away was a reasonable idea.

Perhaps the fact that parking trials are what stick out to me most must say something about the event, or me. In any case, based on personal experience, though Unofficial may be fun and boast some impressive attendance figures, Polar Bear is where you want to go to see the crazy stuff.

 

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