September First Fridays event features much police, relatively few art walkers

If you had attended the First Fridays Art Walk this past Friday, you would have seen a very different Broad Street than what Richmond is typically used to—one heavily trafficked by police, and little pedestrian presence. Despite the incommensurate ratio of police and art walkers, this past weekend bodes well for the future.

Despite an official suspension of First Fridays in consideration of the Labor Day weekend and to curb an increasing adolescent presence during the art walk, galleries nonetheless were open and people attended the stretch of Broad Street that for ten years has produced the art walk.

I felt sweat drip from my underarms while pedaling on my bike. Beginning in the Museum District I stayed on Grove Avenue until cutting over to Grace, and then on to Broad, expecting to see either a ghost town or a near stampede of reckless youth. There was neither.

Arriving at Broad and Madison streets at roughly 9pm, the thoroughfare seemed atypically barren: no parking was allowed on either side of Broad, a special event restriction put into effect from 5pm – 11pm. On the sidewalks were hand-holding couples, the occasional groups of friends, and solitary onlookers. Compared to previous First Fridays events, there was roughly a quarter to even as little as 1/5 of the amount of previous summer crowds. The carless streets mixed with the light population of pedestrians felt, well, rather eerie at times–an eeriness reinforced by the abundance of uniformed police.

Officers were stationed in two-block increments stretching, primarily, from Madison down to Adams streets. Groups of police consisting of as few as two, to as many as six, occupied both sides of the street to deter crime and to reassure crowds. Although these goals were achieved, an upshot to the increased police presence was that it could look as though the multi-block section of Downtown Richmond was in a cautious state of martial law.

I asked several officers amid on several different sections of Broad whether they had experienced any issues throughout the evening. Each one of them responded that they had not. The officers I spoke with told me that they had been stationed on Broad beginning at 6:30pm.

The only flashing lights of a police vehicle, however, were on Broad and Madison, where an officer directed traffic so that pedestrians could cross the street to visit the many galleries that were open. No live or recorded music could be heard along the art walk corridor.

Towards the end of my visit, I spoke with Captain Michael Snawder. When I asked him why cars were forbidden to park along Broad, he said that it was to increase the visibility of officers. Should a crime have taken place, an offender could block himself or herself from view by hiding behind a parked vehicle. This would inhibit an officer from effectively testifying that they indeed _saw_ a given defendant commit the crime with which they would otherwise be charged.

Before leaving Broad Street, I asked Capt. Snawder his thoughts on the evening. While not entirely similar to that First Fridays events before the swell of teenagers and crowd issues, he and I both felt that it was more in-line with what the event, traditionally, has been like in both mood and lack of crowd-related issues. Capt. Snawder also said that future events will have to abide by a recently passed noise ordinance that will prohibit loud music, both live and recorded, from being played beyond 50 feet from its origin source (PDF). Not only will this diminish the overall volume of the event, minimizing it’s effect on crowd raucousness, but should steady the flow of pedestrians traffic on the sidewalks, when musicians and their audience would force passersby to walk into Broad Street amid ongoing traffic.

Both Capt. Snawder and myself think that the true litmus test for First Fridays will come on October 7, when it’s expected that the art walk will officially resume. Capt. Snawder said that his hope is to one day require only a handful of officers to casually stroll through a more vibrant, and confident art walk crowd, a crowd less concerned with unruly teens, and more with art displayed in galleries.

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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