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Allen West celebrates 20 years in shadow of Allentown Art Festival

By 1998, Allentown was primed for an alternative to its eponymous art festival.

Complaints about the festival's perceived persecution of Allentown shop owners had reached a fever pitch. The same went for criticism about organizers' opposition to musicians, buskers and other performers who naturally gravitate toward large crowds of people.

"God forbid," News columnist Donn Esmonde wrote in one of his more memorable takedowns, "that this extravaganza of high art, impeccable taste and fried dough be blasphemed by the wretched excesses of local shopkeepers."

The art critics were even worse, but then art critics are impossible to please.

Fortunately for anyone feeling stifled by the apparent fustiness and crustiness of the festival proper, a group of Allentown residents hatched a plan. In 1998, the Allen West Festival -- the funkier, more disheveled, and let's just admit it, mildly stoned cousin to the prim and proper Allentown Art Festival -- was born.

It may surprise critics of the Allentown Art Festival to know the Allentown Association's Allen West Festival did not arise directly from any of those perennial complaints.

Nor was it conceived as an "anti-Allentown Art Festival" -- though it has been adopted as such by many members of Buffalo's arts community.

Instead, it grew out of a simple desire to tame a section of the neighborhood that became an unmitigated drunken disaster area on festival weekends at least as far back as the 1970s.

The Allen West Festival, longtime Allentown Association member and festival co-chair Gretchan Grobe said in an article on the festival's history recently published by the Allentown Association, was conceived "to clean up the huge drunk fest on Allen Street, west of Elmwood Ave."

The idea came from a small committee of Allentown Association members, including the late Mary Tomaselli, who owned a neighborhood dry-cleaning business, and Allentown Association Vice President Jonathan White.

Despite some initial resistance from the Allentown Village Society (the organization that oversees the Allentown Art Festival) organizers from the Allentown Association and their colleagues on the other side of the neighborhood soon developed a positive working relationship.

"It was a little wild over on the west end and we wanted to tame it somehow," said current Allentown Association Executive Director Andrew Eisenheardt. "If we did not have the blessing of the Allentown Village Society, we would not be open."

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The Allentown Art Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 9 and 10 along Delaware Avenue from Tupper Street to North Street, Allen Street from Elmwood Avenue to Franklin Street, Franklin from Allen to Virginia Street and Virginia from Franklin to Delaware. The concurrent Allen West Festival runs along Allen Street from Elmwood Avenue to Wadsworth Street and Wadsworth to Hudson Street. Allen West runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on June 9 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 10. Visit allentownartfestival.com for more info.

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This year, the Allen West Fest will have 154 artist booths, about 40 percent of which will sell jewelry, with pottery, crafts, painting, sculpture and mixed media making up the rest.

Buskers, as usual, will stroll through along the streets. Allen Street restaurants will sell food on their sidewalks, unimpeded by city inspectors who have received calls from certain concerned citizens.

The general vibe of curated funkitude for which Allen West has become known will pervade.

"We're more bohemian, more urban, very tight, very congested," Eisenhardt said. He added that as Allentown changes into a more bar-focused culture and less of a bohemian enclave, the festival remains an important part of the neighborhood's identity.

"I don't want to lose our bohemian charm," he said. "Allentown is going through some major changes the last few years. Some of them are for the good and some of them are not for the good."

But one change everyone can agree on is the more or less conflict-free coexistence of Allen West, the main Allentown Festival and neighborhood residents. These relationships seem to have entered a period of relative peace after decades of strife, despite continued complaints about overreach from some Allentown businesses.

What's expected to be trending at the Allentown Art Fest

Few people, organizers agreed, even realize there's a difference between the main festival and Allen West -- despite a buffer zone of a few blocks and signs informing visitors that they are "Now Leaving the Allentown Art Festival."

"A majority of people in attendance may not understand the distinction," said former Buffalo Special Events Coordinator David Granville, who was involved in discussions between the two groups at the time Allen West was launched. "But that just goes to the vitality of Allentown, that you can have two groups be in sync with each other and have harmonious events at the same time, benefiting two worthwhile organizations and causes."

As for the main festival, very little about the setup has changed: About 388 artist booths, down from previous years, will line Delaware Avenue, Allen and Franklin streets. A few dozen food vendors will dispense the usual fried dough, sausages and other forms of LDL cholesterol.

But, said Allentown Village Society President Rita Harrington-Lipman, the tenor of the festival will be a bit more eclectic. After a long moratorium, organizers brought back musical performances to the fest a couple of years ago.

This year, they'll add a stage near the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site at 641 Delaware Ave.

"We have music all day Saturday and all day Sunday," Harrington-Lipman said. "It's an exciting time for us."

As for the Allen West Fest? Harrington-Lipman said she's a huge fan.

"They're a great show, and they're so much fun. There's room for both of us and we're both a little bit different," she said. "I think what they do is absolutely great. They're funkier than we are. That's the truth."

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