It’s 11 p.m., Clear The Street
Milwaukee’s street festivals are fantastic. More so than even the city’s ethnic festivals held at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds, Milwaukee’s street festivals bring together a neighborhood and support the neighborhood’s businesses. Having festival grounds on the lakefront dedicated to public events surely makes Milwaukee a great place to be on summer weekends. But it’s the street festivals that offer something truly unique. The public can party at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds nearly every weekend during the summer, but it’s rare that one can stand in the center of the road on Brady Street enjoying a cold beer from Trocadero or gelato from Peter Scorinto’s Bakery. The use of streets as festival grounds affords attendees a unique perspective of the neighborhood. Unobstructed by the roar of engines, thousands of attendees are free to take leisurely strolls exploring the booths of local artists and sampling the wares of local eateries. Unfortunately though, the party is cut off abruptly at 11 p.m. so the street can be opened for traffic.
There seems to be no rational reason to clear the street of people at 11 p.m.. It’s not as if cars and trucks have been backing up for hours, just waiting for the opportunity to gun it down the open road. There is no late-night rush of passengers that would force MCTS to ask for the streets to be cleared so bus detours can be canceled. Nor is it that the fun is suddenly stopping elsewhere, as bars are at least three hours away from close and an increasing number of restaurants are open late in Milwaukee.
Are there misguided reasons for opening the streets at what appears to be a fairly arbitrary number? Possibly. Be it noise, crowd control, or fears of drunk driving, there are a number of reasons it’s possible that the streets are cleared starting at 11 p.m., but for each there is a solution.
If the idea is to clear the streets at 11 p.m. to quiet the neighborhood (which seems like an arbitrary time that is probably too late to please neighbors and too early to please festival attendees), it’s just as easy to achieve that by cutting off live bands at 11 p.m. Reducing the area of festival by opening a portion of the street in more residential areas that may help (think the west end of Brady Street), although that simply might replace the noise of chatter with the noise of rumbling motorcycles and accelerating cars.
The idea of clearing the streets at 11 p.m. as a way to ensure public safety by controlling crowds seems misguided. It’s pretty clear that streets filled with people are equally as safe (or dangerous) at 10:59 as they are at 11:01. If overcrowding is a serious concern, it might be best to expand the area of closed streets as opposed to clearing out people who don’t want to leave. The current strategy of using police and festival staff to order people to move only increases the chance that a dangerous incident might occur, as area taverns quickly become overcrowded. As I’ve witnessed on multiple occasions at Bastille Days, clearing the streets at 11 p.m. (which unlike bar time is a time people aren’t predisposed to respect) has led to completely avoidable conflicts with event attendees, MPD officers, and event security.
The best way to reduce conflict, bring revenue in to festival promoters and area businesses, and encourage people to have a good time is to begin the process of re-opening the streets at 2:30 a.m. Bar time, as 2:30’s affectionately known on Friday and Saturday nights, is a time most people are predisposed to clear out. Live music can certainly cut out well before that to quiet the extended neighborhood, but there isn’t a reason people need to be pushed to the sidewalk or inside a tavern before that. Limiting outdoor alcohol sales might be necessary to ease public safety concerns and expedite crowd dispersal as bar close draws near, but it’s misguided to push the people out. Working to open streets for a couple of cars to use them at an arbitrary time late in the night simply cuts off the unique experience that street festivals provide.