A barber shop’s take on the problems of First Friday

While walking down Broad Street one afternoon, I happened upon several men talking in a barber shop. They gave me intriguing insights into the possible origins of the large teenage crowd at the recent monthly art walk, as well as solutions that First Fridays’ organizers, and Richmonders at large, need to consider.

It’s a warm afternoon in downtown Richmond. I’m walking along East Broad Street, my shoes clopping on the sidewalk, heading east from Madison. I’m in the middle of the stretch of Broad that has hosted the First Fridays art walk for the last ten years. Recently, however, there’s been a fulsome number of teenagers populating an event once dominated by a largely older crowd. As a result, there have been an increase of complaints, and even arrests during the last three art walks. Like others in Richmond, I want to know why so many teens have crowded these streets, and what can be done to alleviate the problem. I’ve heard comments from people all over the city, but today I’m more interested in what local businesses have to say about it.

As I walk, my eye catches a particular barbershop, one of several that I come across as I walk down Broad. I peer inside and see several men talking. I decide to go in.

There are six black men, some in their early thirties, some middle-aged. One barber stands trimming the hair of a young man seated on his crown-like chair. Another barber relaxes in his own, currently vacant red leather chair. The rest of the men sit comfortably in chairs directly in front of the line of barber stations that stretches to the rear of the shop. All of the men are reticent.

Except for one.

A man that looks to be in his forties and who wears glasses tells me how the owner of the shop once allowed people to display artwork in the window overlooking Broad Street during First Fridays. After all, why shouldn’t a barber shop, not at all the stereotypical business that one thinks of when one conjures the Richmond art walk that’s celebrating it’s tenth year, nonetheless want to participate in the festivities.

“Real nice vibe before it got rowdy,” says the standing barber, now warmed-up to me. He trims the front of a young man’s hair line with a precision that would rival that of a straight ruler.

There’s a unanimous nod from the other men. “They stirred the pot,” says another, of the largely juvenile crowds that have populated the past several events. The men all agree.

The man in glasses tells us something that he said to a nephew, who is of comparable age to the recent migratory youths at these events, on the August 5 event. “I told him ‘don’t bring your ass down here.’” There’s fighting, taunting, and general misbehavior. “Have to change the way things are,” says one man. More nods.

They’re all in agreement that there’s an issue. But that raises the question, How did it all start? I have no idea, and I don’t know if they have any idea either. But I ask anyways.

“Something ‘bout a Friday night,” says the standing barber, not entirely confident in that hypothesis. He brushes the small clipped hair off the head of the young man who’s now done with his cut.

“They’re not coming down here to look at art,” says another man sitting in a chair across from the standing barber. A couple men nod and say “that’s right.” With school out, students have no extra-curricular, school-related activities to keep them occupied. We all agree to that. But why have so many juveniles descended upon First Fridays? Why now?

One man, who’s been relatively quiet for the duration of the conversation, chimes in and says that local Hip-Hop radio station, Power 92.1, held a live broadcast earlier this summer that coincided with a First Fridays event.

This, according to Clovia Lawrence, is not correct. She’s the Community Outreach Director at Power 92.1. When I talked to her yesterday over the phone, she was emphatic that the only association that the radio station has had with First Fridays was to organize The Lounge @ Center Stage, an event tailored to a younger audience at 6th and Broad streets. If anything, they seem to at least be trying to do something about the teenage population.

It’s understandable, however, why the man at the barber shop would conflate the radio station with the music. At the May 6th First Fridays event, Power 92 had a “call-in” portion at the Rite-Aid on the corner of Broad and Belvidere, as part of their roaming Friday Night Live weekly programming. No equipment was set-up, says Lawrence, as the location was merely one of a series of several locations that were apart of that week’s Friday Night Live programming.

Shortly after First Fridays started attracting a noticeably juvenile crowd, Lawrence took part in a meeting that included members of the Young Adult Police Commissioners. It was at this meeting that young people told her that a beauty salon and barber shop business had been playing Hip-Hop music outside of their storefront, as well as sponsoring “Battle of the DJ’s” “spin-off” contests. This, says Lawrence, attracted a large amount of people, “east and west” of Richmond. She did not know the name of the business or where it was precisely located.

Back at the barber shop, one man, one of the youngest of the group, seems utterly convinced that the kids that have shown up for the last several First Fridays events are not all residents of the city. He thinks that there are those that come from “two-parent homes” that use their Friday night away from the suburbs, and specifically their parents, to go wild. He uses the analogy of college freshmen who leave the supervision of their parents for the first time as a way to explain the possible draw that relatively bored teens have to being around other like-minded contemporaries.

No matter what the initial cause of the influx of teens, all of the men are convinced that social networking has played a role. Someone can very easily post a meet up on Facebook or Twitter to promote a get-together involving a particular circle of friends. This could happen for one circle of friends, and another, and another…

The theory in the barbershop is that once teens knew of a venue on Broad Street that played music and hosted music-related competitions, they then planned and organized future hangouts to coincide with First Fridays–even though they may have been ignorant of First Fridays intentions to promote local art galleries. Last month, city officials, in conjunction with the organizing efforts of Clovia Lawrence, recognized the increased numbers of juveniles at First Fridays events and staged a program for this young demographic.

The topic of the youth-centric area that was put in place by the City of Richmond Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department, called The Lounge @ CenterStage, comes up at the barber shop. Virtually all of the men write it off just as it seemed young people did during the last Friday event. “Unless Snoop Dogg” performs, says one man, kids aren’t going to bother themselves with it.

I ask the men how organizers of First Fridays should progress with, and ultimately remedy, future events. They all acknowledge that the art walk events are worth saving. They all think it’s a boon for local businesses when not glutted with teenagers.

“Change the day,” says the only upright barber. He thinks emphatically and convincingly that Friday nights are not the best nights to stage the event. Saturdays and Sundays, he feels, are better days. He evokes the recent Watermelon Festival in Carytown, namely how it took place on a Sunday during the day, and how that had little-to-no reported incidents. He thinks something in the 12pm-5pm window on either a Saturday or Sunday would allow an “older crowd” to attend without disruption from a heavy teenage contingent.

Most teens, says one man, would either be “sleeping,” or “on the computer” during those times, and wouldn’t venture to Broad Street in the late morning or early evening. The other men agree with this. Most of the problems during the recent First Fridays have arisen during the later hours, with last week’s issues occurring after 9pm when the event had officially ended. It’s quite clear: an earlier time is the most reasonable and appropriate fix.

At least so says the barber shop.

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Nathan Cushing

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

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