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Long Live the New Orleans Set-Up

The "set-up"—a half-pint of liquor, one mixer, share cups and ice—is more than a staple order at many locals-only NOLA bars: It's a community ritual. Sarah Baird on what we risk losing as those bars, and the ritual itself, fade away.

Chances are your primary memory from 2013 probably has nothing to do booze. It was the year that scientists successfully cloned human stem cells for the first time. Bitcoin was a popular topic of conversation. Kayne West had still not gone entirely off the rails.

However, in New Orleans, 2013 will always be remembered as the year of The Great To-Go Cup Battle.

A mainstay of drinking in the city, the to-go cup is a cultural touchstone. Far more than just a way to legally drink in public, it effectively serves as a rallying cry for life to be lived out in the open and enjoyed to the fullest. It is liquor-soaked New Orleans joie de vivre at its finest.

For a series of harrowing months in 2013, though, rumor swirled that new laws were brewing to take away the right to use to-go cups, effectively nixing all drinking-in-the-street revelry. A mild form of public hysteria ensued. New Orleans, it seemed, might fall prey to becoming—gasp—a little bit more like a regular city, and that simply could not stand.

But to-go cups are an integral part of New Orleans visitor culture—the Bourbon Street effect, if you will—and there’s no way anyone at City Hall is going to put those almighty tourist dollars into jeopardy. My concern then, and now, is the slow disappearance of a more locals-only drinking ritual: the set-up.

Popular primarily in African-American neighborhood bars across the city, the set-up isn’t so much a drink as a drinking style. Order one from the bartender, and you’ll be asked to select a half-pint of liquor and a mixer of choice (my favorite, weird as it sounds, is Scotch and pineapple juice). A bartender will then gift these prizes to you with a few plastic cups and a bowl of ice. That’s it. From then on out, it’s up to you to build your own drinks with whatever ratios of mixer-to-liquor your heart desires.

“I think one reason people like the set-up is because you get your money’s worth,” said Ronnie Thomas of The Little People’s Place in Treme, whose favorite set-up combo is vodka and cherry juice. With glittery paper footballs hanging from the ceiling and a fold-out plastic table that’s constantly full of hot plates, crock pots and (during Lent) some of the best fried fish in the city, Little People’s is a decades-old neighborhood hangout that’s a true landmark of the Sixth Ward. Recently, city officials cracked down on the space for operating without a liquor license, placing it on short-term hiatus as its long-term fate hangs in limbo. But as we chatted on a sunny January afternoon, Thomas—and a chorus of friends sipping beers they’d brought from home on a stoop out front—seemed hopeful. “I’m fighting it,” he said.

But the set-up is about far more than an economical night out. The bars that rely on this drink service have become important community meeting points for their respective neighborhoods, the style of drink undoubtedly fostering conversation. Share cups, share ice, share stories.

The seemingly relentless drumbeat of gentrification in New Orleans, though, means that longtime, set-up friendly neighborhood bars—like Candlelight and, further Uptown, Sandpiper Lounge—are feeling the squeeze, under threat from skyrocketing rental prices and neighborhoods that increasingly feel less like home and more like playgrounds for here today, gone tomorrow AirBnB tenants.

Beloved watering holes across Central City, Treme and the Seventh Ward that serve as a kind of second living room for their neighbors currently sit at the crux of a conversation that’s long overdue about race, culture and what community actually means in New Orleans today. As bars that offer the kind of atmosphere conducive to set-ups dwindle, so, too, will a piece of the city’s unique drinking fiber.

If New Orleans is now pushing bars to now close their doors (but not, in theory, close down) at 3 a.m., as the mayor announced this week, what hope is there for a less infamous facet of the liquored-up tradition?

Perhaps, though, the set-up is destined for a spike in popularity in the coming years. There are some mighty fine cocktail bars in New Orleans, but what the city does best is allow people to use drinks, like the set-up, as a conduit for larger conversation—a way to listen, talk and gather. As we head into uncharted territory in 2017, we’re going to need these gathering points—and, who am I kidding, a drink—more than ever.

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