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Police snuff out illegal fireworks

Tonight, for the first time in many years, the sky above Geary Street is likely to be silent, dark and free of brilliant -- but illegal -- fireworks.

The Buffalo Police Department Tuesday revoked the city permit for Jack Stewart's long-standing, well-attended block party on his South Buffalo street.

The move comes one day after Stewart admitted in The Buffalo News that he regularly launches an elaborate fireworks show as a finale to the party.

"The reason was that, from all indications, he was going to be engaging in illegal activity. That's not what [the permit] was for," said Police Department spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.

Stewart said he hopes to go ahead in some form with the party, because he doesn't want to disappoint people and he has spent thousands of dollars on rented equipment and provisions.

"The show must go on," Stewart said, though he recognizes his stretch of Geary is likely to be the most closely watched street in South Buffalo tonight.

He's upset the city is trying to shut down his party and feels he was singled out among the hundreds of area residents who defy the fireworks ban because of his public statements.

But city and law-enforcement officials say the decision was made because of the potential for criminal activity and because of concerns over possible injuries or fire damage.

"Fireworks are illegal. We don't condone illegal activity. Also, it's a safety issue," said Common Council Member Michael P. Kearns of South Buffalo, who did not make the permit decision but supports the move.

Stewart has been holding an extravagant Independence Day party, replete with fireworks, for 20 years.

Each year, he gets permission to block off a stretch of Geary Street, hires a band, buys food and beverages and rents portable toilets, tents and a bounce house for the kids.

Neighbors chip in where they can and host their own parties that merge into one giant affair attracting hundreds of people from across South Buffalo and the city.

The party always concludes with a dazzling fireworks display launched by Stewart and a crew of volunteers from a parking lot at the corner of Geary and Seneca streets.

Stewart said he takes every safety precaution and he has never had an incident in 20 years of pyrotechnics.

On May 28, 2006, however, Stewart was arrested by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who also confiscated a stash of his ordnance.

The arrest didn't stop him from holding the event last year, albeit with donated and leftover fireworks.

This year, Stewart was looking forward to holding a bigger and better party, as he told The News for its Monday editions.

But at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Buffalo police officers handed Stewart a notice canceling the street-closing permit he had received from the city's Department of Public Works.

Stewart is convinced the publicity sank the party.

"Absolutely. That's what it was," Stewart said.

DeGeorge said the decision to revoke the permit was made by Deputy Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

It was not a direct response to The News article, DeGeorge said. Stewart came to the attention of Buffalo police following his arrest last year, he said.

When asked, if that was the case, how Stewart obtained a permit in 2006 and again this year for the block party, DeGeorge said he wasn't sure.

"I don't know. I'm assuming he went through the normal process," DeGeorge said.

As for whether Stewart plans to defy police and set off fireworks this year, he not surprisingly won't say publicly.

On Tuesday, neighbors, perfect strangers and even rank-and-file police drove by his house offering Stewart support and encouragement.
Stewart hopes to find a way to go forward with the party and work around the revoked permit and intensified law-enforcement interest.

"It will be beautiful no matter what," he said. "It's about having fun, it's about bringing community people together. And that part will go on."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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