Sunday, August 2, 2009
Urban festivals make cities fun
In the spectacular film about the diaspora after Hurricane Katrina "Axe in the Attic" there is a woman who was displaced to Florida. She remembered that everyone there went to the mall on the weekends. "I said, 'Don't you people have a fest? Don't you have a jazz fest, a river fest, any kind of fest?'"
What is a city without a fest? I think festivals are a modern version of the market fair, which would create centers of exchange, energy and imagination in times when cities were smaller and travel much harder. A few years ago I spent a delightful few days in a city near Avignon which was the site of one of the largest medieval markets in Europe, and I was very interested to learn how such markets worked. I think that today's festivals follow in the footsteps of those long ago events. A city without a fest is a city without a way of quickening its heartbeat and stimulating its methods of exchange.
So far this summer, I've been to Moosefest in Bennington, Vermont, with my medical school classmate, Dr. Martha Stittelman, and Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally in Binghamton, NY with my college classmate, Dr. Francine Rainone. Moosefest is an art installation on and around Main Street in Bennington. The moose are large and fabulous, big enough to stop traffic and interesting enough to provoke conversation. Martha asked the useful question, "How does art stimulate the urban economy?" Happily for me, we could see it at work as we walked around: people were walking on Main Street to see the moose (plural: moose), and that meant that all kinds of other things were happening, beginning with two young girls who were playing violin to raise money for the local animal shelter. People gathered around to hear them play, smiled at each other, gave money, left feeling better about the world and their place in it and voila! we have a better economy because of art. Martha, who rarely goes to Main Street, was proud to show it to me, and I enjoyed seeing it. My favorite moose: Camping Moose.
Binghamton's Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally was celebrating its 25th year. "Spiedie" are Italian skewered meat, a version of shish kebab, started no one knows when or how. This is only in Binghamton, so it is very local treat. Spiedie Fest is a community festival held in a local park, which becomes Main Street for the weekend. As such, it sets a fine example of what all Main Streets should be: it has rides, crafts, a vintage car show, music, and, of course, spiedies. I loved SpiedieFest because it was simple and real -- the crafts were actual things people had made, not tube socks. A special highlight was that the New York State Comptroller's Office had a tent there and Francine and I both found that we were owed money! Free money, good crafts, tasty food! If every Main Street had those things, people would be pouring in the way they were pouring in to Spiedie Fest! Food for thought...