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First Friday fallout

Southtown residents fear the ghost of the old St. Mary’s Strip

Justin Parr
First Friday crowds spill onto the street, creating traffic problems for residents, business owners, and SAPD.

 

During June’s First Friday, Current contributing photographer Justin Parr and I were on a mission — to spot the notorious peeing dude who leaves his mark during post-First Friday festivities. We wanted to capture him flagrante delicto for this story, so we waited at the corner of East Johnson and Madison ... and waited. As we were about to give up and head our separate ways, I saw movement coming from a bush. While Justin and I stared at an indistinguishable figure a few dozen feet in front of us, a scuffle took place down South Alamo. (I refuse to call the fight “gang activity” as reported at the King William Association meeting held a week-and-a-half after the incident — considering no one in attendance witnessed the alleged rumble.) Sadly, we didn’t capture either of the incidents.

To neighborhood residents, the “peeing dude” has become a symbol for the teens, tramplers, and tipsy partygoers they say frequent Blue Star galleries for the free wine and beer, not the art.

“The people that come to First Friday, unfortunately, don’t come for the art,” King William Association President Brad Shaw said. “If we can ever get First Friday back to an art walk, that would be great.”

When I began to research this story, I didn’t consider violence an issue in the neighborhood — nor do I now, and neither does San Antonio Fear Free Environment officer Erik Doyle, who said, “We’re not seeing a huge spike in criminal activity [in Southtown].” But the apocryphal gangland clash got the wheels turning at the KWA, the Southtown Mainstreet Alliance, and the Lavaca Neighborhood Association. The issues that rankle area residents and businesses have remained the same since First Friday’s 1994 inception: food vendors, alcohol consumption, parking, and noise. But with Southtown on the cusp of becoming the happening place to reside with the upcoming opening of the St. Benedict’s Lofts, the growing popularity of the arts (Contemporary Art Month is in full swing), and Casbeers relocating to the old Church Bistro site, fresh rumors of violence are motivating area business leaders to claim ownership of First Friday, an event that has never really belonged to any organization. 

First Friday was born in the mid-’90s, when Southtown Mainstreet Alliance of San Antonio Director Sam Gorena “was brainstorming on a way to organize our activity and label it as First Friday, a night of celebrating art,” says one9zero6 Director and Blue Star board member Andy Benavides. “What we were intending to do was in effect; people were paying attention to what we were doing as artist(s) and business owners.” The neighborhood subsequently blossomed, Benavides’s rent doubled, and he left to lay the foundation of the South Flores Arts District — home of Second Saturday.

First Friday proponents are quick to point out that the monthly event is partly responsible for the neighborhood’s reputation as one of the best places to live in San Antonio, but Southtown Mainstreet Alliance Executive Director Juan Gutiérrez, who has been on the job for almost two years, has taken to frequent declarations that First Friday has become unmanageable, with crowds reaching upwards of 2,000 to 5,000.

“It’s a monster of its own,” Gutiérrez said. “So, what Southtown is hoping to do is take control of the event or any event that happens in Southtown within the commercial corridor.” Gutiérrez has been talking to the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a central clearinghouse and facilitor of national, state, and local networks seeking to develop tourist- and event-friendly neighborhoods. Southtown Mainstreet Alliance has also requested $800,000 from its Tax Increment Reinvestment Fund to be used for signage, pedestrian lighting, and curb and sidewalk enhancements.

“We need to go back to the premise of why this event was originally started — to promote businesses of Southtown and to promote local artists and craftpeople of San Antonio — and we need to be able to purge all the non-art vendors in the area,” Gutiérrez said. Although First Friday attendees flock to the roasted-corn stand near South Alamo and Cedar and the turkey-leg stand in front of El Sol Studios, restaurant owners could do without the food vendors cramping their style, he says. “The purpose of the event is to support our businesses, so allowing food vendors in the area is defeating the purpose of the event,” Gutiérrez said.

“It’s not just about First Friday, either, it’s any event that’s held in Southtown needs to have a mechanism in place to deal with events so that they’re not impeding on the rights of the community in the neighborhood.”

KWA President Brad Shaw noted that they’ve already addressed some of the First Friday fallout without decreasing the event’s popularity. Beer bottles used to litter yards and streets the morning after First Friday, but in June 2004, the San Antonio City Council voted to make the King William neighborhood an alcohol-free zone, confining open bottles and cups to the Blue Star parking lot and private property, and the problems with underage drinking and public intoxication have declined. 

“It’s a very vibrant neighborhood,” Shaw said. “And we’d like to keep it like that.” 

Sure, the food vendor that dumped its grease late Friday nights outside B&D Ice House was kicked to the curb by Gutiérrez and others, but more still needs to be done.

“It’s time for the neighborhood to grow up,” said Steve Yndo, past president of KWA, current president of the Southtown board of directors, and managing general partner for St. Benedict’s Lofts.

Word around the ’hood

Business owners and Southtown devotees have plenty to say about the current state of their neighborhood, where an ongoing clash between the historical elements and modernizing forces simmers beneath the surface. In addition to that long-term tension, those that reside and work in Southtown are concerned about the direction First Friday is headed. The consensus among area business owners seems to be that First Friday needs to get back to its roots. 

“We, as merchants, don’t want to lose that,” Inter Artisan International Folk Art co-owner Jacob Maldonado said. Maldonado has been in business for two-and-a-half years on South Alamo, right next door to the King William Association office. He calls himself the “neighborhood watchdog.” When word hit the street of possible gang activity, he simply shrugged. “I’ve never, ever seen a gang member in this area,” Maldonado said. “If there was gang violence, I wouldn’t be here.”

Gangs of another sort are on the mind of Lavaca Neighborhood Association president Seahn A. Lobb. “Unfortunately, over the years, the art walk has really lost its innocence because of non-art street vendors. It has, to be quite frank, become a First Friday flea market.” 

Gutiérrez would like to solve that issue by creating a process for judging what is art and what isn’t. “Spurs T-shirts, sunglasses, beer-labeled mirrors — that isn’t art in my eyes,” Gutiérrez said. “Everything has its rightful place; that stuff belongs in a flea market.”

Casa Chiapas owner Eddie Martinez has called the old Espuma location his own for nearly two years. Although he’s in the middle of all the action on any given First Friday, he can relate to people that are growing weary of the monthly street party. “I’d like to see the event become more art-oriented,” Martinez said. “I think it’d be a true art walk instead of a Fiesta event.”

Maldonado, whose shop is open seven days a week, said he doesn’t mind trinket vendors selling outside his business on First Friday because they’re screened. He’s very picky when it comes to who sells outside his shop, he said, because the quality of vendors’ goods “reflects upon your shop.” 

Maldonado adds that Southtown is a tough area to run a profitable business, but he thinks business owners “should focus on the 29 days we’re in business — that’s what we need to worry about ... First Friday is just one day.” 

Yndo expressed the same sentiments in his email. “My biggest concern is that First Friday seems to overshadow, in wider San Antonio’s mind, that Southtown is open seven days a week. It’s the tail wagging the dog,” Yndo said. “We spend 90 percent of our time dealing with the four to five hours of First Friday a month rather than devoting our energy into developing a sustainable, arts-based economy that functions 365 days a year.” 

Another North St. Mary’s Strip in the making?

Many people the Current spoke with compared First Friday’s growing popularity to the heyday of the St. Mary’s strip. Back in the ’80s, the strip was known for its eclectic music and dining selection. But following a few high-profile crime-related incidents, including the December 1990 fatal shooting death of George Waters III, and organized neighborhood opposition to the noise and late-night traffic, tenants abandoned the area and left the strip looking like a ghost town.

“St Mary’s Street was, like, incredible. I remember when it was jumpin’,” Gutiérrez said. “They had Saluté, Tycoon Flats, all these bustling restaurants and bars ... but all it took was one shooting, one event like that, one accident like that, and now it’s nothing.”

St. Mary’s strip has recovered in recent years and isn’t exactly “nothing.” With Joey’s, the White Rabbit, Demo’s, the Limelight, Candlelight Coffee House, and, of course, Hardbodies, the area once prone to violence has overcome its negative image and is quickly becoming hang-out central again. But its rise and eventual decline has left Southtown wondering if the same fate could befall its monthly art walk.

At a recent meeting with King William and Southtown residents, officer Doyle articulated their fears: “We’re on the cusp of seeing another North St. Mary’s,” he said. Although crime hasn’t been at the top of residents’ list of concerns until last month’s rumored gang fight, with open-container laws and noise ordinances routinely ignored and people spilling onto streets from crowded sidewalks, many fear it’s only a matter of time before something goes drastically wrong. Residents and business owners say they know what they have on their hands and are working non-stop to fast-track vendor ordinances to get the celebration back under control.

“At the end of the day, when you look at all the issues, we all have the same concerns,” Gutiérrez said. “We all agree in principle, but it’s just that in practice we’re not able to come to that common language that helps us talk to each other.” •

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So, you want to be a First Friday vendor?

Anyone familiar with San Anto’s First Friday knows it thrives on locally produced art. But non-art vendors thrive, too, bringing in cheap Fendi knock-offs and mass-produced imitation shades by the truckful to unload on the willing and blasted. No rules or regs currently exist to stem the tide of cheap-o junque, but applicable permit guidelines are listed on the Southtown website, southtown.net.

First Friday art-walk vendors must comply with City regulations and acquire a vendor’s permit (a one-year license goes for a reasonable $180), and submit to a background check.

With a proper permit in hand, vendors next approach Southtown Mainstreet Alliance Executive Director Juan Gutiérrez to request a spot to park their goods for a four-hour time slot during First Fridays. As of press time, Gutiérrez estimates that at least 30 vendors are licensed for the Southtown area. But before anything is set up and sold, business owners have the final say on what can/can’t be sold in front of their shops.

Jennifer Herrera

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Art-walkin’ into trouble

Heading out this First Friday thinking you’re above the law while you consume that Dos XX in public view, set up food booths sans licenses, or blare your amp in front of a bevy of irate King William Association members? Think again. Police officers, neighborhood watchdogs, and pissed-off business owners won’t stand for it.

At a meeting held last week at the San Antonio Police station for the King William Association and Southtown Mainstreet Alliance, residents were given a packet of ordinances that apply to First Friday and any other large block party that occurs in San Anto. Following are a few of those rules and regulations:

Article I. In General
Sec. 4-4.3

Consumption of alcoholic beverages on or near public streets in the King William area of the central business district.
(a) A person commits an offense if the person:
(1) Is on a public street or on public property within twelve feet of a public street in the King William area of the central business district
(2) Possesses a container for an alcoholic beverage that is not sealed (an “open container”) or consumes an alcoholic beverage.

Sec. 21-52, Noise nuisance enumeration

(1) The playing or permitting or causing the playing of any radio, television, phonograph, drum, juke box, nickelodeon, musical instrument, sound amplifier or similar device which produces, reproduces, or amplfies sound.
(10) The making of noise which exceed 70 decibels on business zoned property
(12) The making of noise which exceeds 85 decibels ... of noise measure for noise emanating from entertainment zoned property

And the newly added ordinance [to discourage congregation around certain areas — doesn’t mean house parties require permits] ...

Sec. 21-80. Definitions.
Party, gathering or event shall mean a group of five or more persons who have assembled or are assembling in a manner so as to create a substantial disturbance of the quiet enjoyment of private or public property.
Person responsible for the party, gathering or event shall mean:
(1) Any adult person in actual or lawful control of possession of the premises;
(2) Any adult person who organized the party, gathering or event;

Jennifer Herrera

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