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As Buffalo festival fatigue sets in, scaling down may be the answer

On the weekend of July 17-19, Buffalo suffered a severe bout of festival fatigue.

Police shut down Galbani Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival 40 minutes early on Saturday after fights broke out among the tightly packed crowd.

The grass-roots cultural phenomenon known as City of Night, which radically downscaled from the grain elevators of Silo City to the calmer surroundings of the Old First Ward, drew vitriolic reviews from festivalgoers who were disenchanted with the move and its perceived organizational problems.

Hamburg’s 30th annual Hamburger Festival, at least according to the inexhaustible complaint machine that is Facebook, was curiously devoid of hamburgers.

As the region enters yet another year of unabated festival growth and attempts to cram ever more beer-fueled fun into the five months when it doesn’t hurt to be outside, trouble is creeping in at the edges.

So far this summer, festival overload has manifested in many forms: Crowds packed so tightly that a few bad apples bring down the whole operation. A group of volunteer organizers whose noble attempts to corral their own runaway festival wound up alienating its core audience. Vendors who didn’t deliver on an event’s single reason for existing.

All of these issues are symptoms of the region’s apparently insatiable festival addiction, and mostly qualify as growing pains. That means they’re generally good problems to have.

When it comes to crowd control, it would be easy to amplify the Italian Fest fisticuffs into a bigger problem than they really were. But it still points to a potential issue with security if the city continues to jam more festivals into an already overloaded season.

“Something new every day is coming here,” said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who downplayed his decision to shut down the Italian Festival on Saturday and said he made it out of “an abundance of caution.”

“I think for the most part we’ve had a very crime-free, trouble-free festival season. It’s been years since we really had any major issues,” he said. For each festival, police officials meet with festival organizers to create and revise custom-tailored security plans, making improvements from year to year as crowds grow, Derenda said.

But even so, he added, the amped-up festival schedule has made policing the events more difficult and expensive.

“It just keeps increasing, and it’s one of the issues we do have because we start authorizing overtime,” he said. “We cannot sanction events unless we feel they’re safe and we can provide what we need to provide. … We do what we can with on-duty people and at times we do supplement with overtime for different events. If the city is going to sanction the events, I think we have to police them and we have to make it safe for everybody.”

One thing that seems definite is that as festivals grow in size, so does the potential for problems.

That’s one of the reasons that City of Night’s committee of volunteer organizers relocated to the Old First Ward neighborhood from the gritty surroundings of Silo City, which drew nearly 13,000 people to its event last summer.

Dana Saylor, a member of City of Night’s sponsor Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo and one of its co-founders, said she and her fellow organizers never envisioned the small community festival they launched in 2012 would grow so quickly.

“We initially thought of it as a fun art party,” she said. “And I think as we matured in this event and as an organization, we started to see that our role was not just to throw a fun art party, but to draw attention to a place that people may not have had a clue about before.”

It turned out to be a little bit too much attention, according to Silo City’s Rick Smith, who said the crowds the festival was drawing had become overwhelming for his post-industrial complex to handle. A proposed $10,000 fee to use the space this year was too much for ELAB to handle, and turned out to be just the push they needed to scale back the scope of what they had created.

City of Night organizers took a lot of Facebook flak for their decision to move the festival away from its beloved home and they certainly could have done a better job communicating why the move was made, but it was ultimately the right decision. Painful as it is to break up with part of your audience, sometimes the solution to festival fatigue – on the part of founders and the attendees alike – is to hit the brakes.

Despite communication problems and a few organizational issues, they deserve credit for bringing their festival back to its roots without instituting an admission fee. That’s often the easy way out for organizations looking to control crowds or merely to break even, but it ends up turning what ought to be egalitarian events into class-exclusive zones.

Like urban advocates, festival organizers have been learning over the past several years, sometimes the hard way, about the downsides of induced demand. It’s the concept, generally applied to road and highway construction, that building more lanes actually creates more traffic. On the festival side, it means that if you build it and it has at least one beer tent, more people than you can probably control will come.

In the same way we’re seeing road diets and other urban traffic solutions create better neighborhoods, following City of Night’s lead and putting some limits on the size and scope of our summer festivals may actually help them to grow in the authentic way their founders intended.