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100 Things Every Western New Yorker Should Do At Least Once: Attend the Allentown Art Festival

But is it art?

You could ask that question at the Allentown Art Festival, and lots of folks do, between bites of fried dough. It has become a spectator sport on social media, spotting the weirdest items.

A broom with Bob Marley’s face carved into the handle. A black velvet painting of a gorilla. Pots adorned with smiley faces. This is just a sampling of things that have caught people’s attention. A couple of years ago, debate raged when the festival banned one hot seller: trays fashioned out of melted-down Grey Goose vodka bottles. But is it art?

Who cares?

Founded in 1958, the Allentown Art Festival is the quintessential Western New York urban festival, held in the oldest part of town. Exuberantly crowded, it ranks up there with a hallowed few previous stops on our 100 Things tour: the Turkey Trot and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

History is in the air, along with the musty aroma from the antique shops. The festival has seen, and survived, its share of controversy.

In 1970, anti-war feeling sparked a riot. As The Buffalo Evening News’ story began: “The Allentown Art Festival, billed as Buffalo’s liveliest summer weekend event, ended Sunday night in a cloud of tear gas and the crash of broken bottles.”

In 2002, the Goo Goo Dolls’ Robby Takac had the idea of founding a music festival to keep the art company. The art festival rejected this offspring, prompting the music festival to seek a new home. Now known as Music Is Art, it takes place in Delaware Park, in September.

Recent murmuring has concerned the growing medical campus, which some fear will gentrify Allentown and make it less festival-funky. But tradition will prevail.

The festival runs along Delaware Avenue from North Street to West Tupper Street, along Allen Street from Elmwood Avenue to Franklin Street and – bear with us – in a rectangle, running along Franklin Street from Allen Street to Virginia Street and west along Virginia Street to Delaware Avenue. It takes place 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Be part of the art.

Sport a bright sun dress or your best Buffalo T-shirt, and add a cute hat. Appreciate the colors swirling around you. In the sunshine, the scene is like a kaleidoscope. In the rain, it’s a blurred chalk painting, with the multi-hued clothes, tents and umbrellas reflected in the pavement.

Rain or shine, browse your way among the booths. This is a juried show, and there is good art among the kitsch. Find it. Admire the whimsical gingerbread houses. Talk to strangers. Interview the artists. Buy something – a print, a piece of jewelry. Stop in at a restaurant that’s been around forever: Gabriel’s Gate, Founding Fathers, or the American Legion post on Franklin Street known as Troop I. Ask the police if you can pet their horses. Count the number of people you know.

Soak up the feeling.

I remember one June soon after college. I’d been away for a couple of months, and I was homesick. I flew back to Buffalo, as fate would have it, the weekend of the Allentown Art Festival. I think I went to it directly from the airport.

Never had the city looked more beautiful. I ate barbecue wings. I bought a vase, which I still have. I met up with friends and sat on patios. One memory especially sticks with me – the sight of a big guy quaffing a big beer. His T-shirt read “Buffalo.” It barely covered his big belly.

I grinned at the sight. How could you not? It could mean only one thing.

You are home.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com