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Juneteenth traditions still strong, but crowds are thinner than usual

The smell of barbecue intertwined with the sound of live music Sunday while walking along East Park Avenue on Buffalo's East Side.

And reaching North Fillmore Avenue brought on the sight of several dozen vendors selling African arts and crafts, ranging from jewelry to soaps to clothing on the second and final day of the annual Juneteenth Festival in Martin Luther King Park.

While the festival's tradition was still in full swing this year, many vendors and attendees of the event said participation in Juneteenth doesn't compare to years past. And this year might have been the worst one yet.

Cheryl Brown, 44, attended her first Juneteenth in 10 years this weekend. "I didn't even think there were this many people who still came," said Brown, a Niagara County resident.

Despite the thin crowds, those who attended enjoyed food, culture and music -- not to mention the weather that featured temperatures above 80 degrees and a refreshing breeze. Many dads also were on hand with their families to mark Father's Day with the festival that kicks off summer for the East Side.

The celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, included more than 130 vendors, many of whom experienced a slow weekend of business.

Patricia Edwards was one of the vendors frustrated with the low attendance. Edwards, who sold $10 crocheted hats, said she made two sales Saturday and none as of 2 p.m. Sunday.

"I'm thinking about not doing it next year," said Edwards, who took part in her second Juneteenth as a vendor.

Last year, she made a profit after paying off the nearly $300 fee to set up at the festival. Attendance at the festival is down from last year, and fewer people participated Sunday than Saturday, Edwards said.

While she thinks the shooting in the park about a month ago that left one man dead and four others wounded hurt attendance, she believes the tradition and image of Juneteenth should have brought more people out this weekend.

At least that's how Edwards, who has been attending since she was a teenager about 20 years ago, views the festival.

"It was like heel to heel," said Edwards, adding that there used to be more vendors and activities in years past. "There were so many people here."

But something that has remained consistent over the 37 years of Juneteenth is the police presence.

A Buffalo police lieutenant said there were 49 officers on foot, eight on patrol, six traffic units, six K-9 units and Erie County sheriff's deputies on horseback at the festival Sunday.

"It's been very peaceful here," said Daniel Derenda, Buffalo police commissioner. "There's officers here everywhere. We haven't had a problem at Juneteenth in many years."

Derenda and Mayor Byron W. Brown were at the festival for a couple of hours Sunday to meet some of the participants.

"It's a great celebration of culture. And another great Buffalo festival," said Brown, adding there was good weather to go with a wonderful turnout.

While many at the event would not agree with Brown about the turnout, no one was complaining about the police presence or the fun to be had at the festival.

For Mike Tatum, of Buffalo, this year's Juneteenth offered a good spot to celebrate Father's Day. But he would have been there anyway.

"This is an annual thing for us," said his wife, Lori Tatum.

The Tatums were joined by their 11-year-old son, Mike Jr., who was attending his first Juneteenth. "We just got here, but it looks fun," Mike Jr. said.

Not far away at the intersection of North Parade and North Fillmore avenues, a man singing on a makeshift stage said, "If you're a father today, raise your hand." Seconds later, many of the several dozen gathered put their hands in the air, including a few Buffalo police officers riding on Segways.

While there was still plenty of entertainment to be had for the smaller-than-usual crowd Sunday, it was a bad weekend for business for many vendors.

Pat Clark, of Buffalo, has been attending the Juneteenth festival for about 30 years and has been a vendor for the past three, selling handbags, jewelry and scarves. And this year had the poorest attendance in recent memory.

"Yesterday was slow and today is even slower," Clark said.

email: jharris@buffnews.com