What a difference a year makes. All About Downtown Jersey City Festival is a day long street fair celebrating everything about the downtown neighborhood of Jersey City. How can you celebrate everything? All is a lot isn’t it and implies aspects beyond the material. But, gathering in the street among friends and neighbors and having fun and a pleasant time is really all the reason you need.The Improvement Districts in each J.C. neighborhood organizes these Saturday events, which happen during the warm weather months, although I’m not sure if all the other sectors of our fair city do the same. My favorite booth was the one promoting Jersey City Heights, cross marketing erasing cross town rivalries. I don’t what I loved more – the irony or the unawareness of the irony.
Anyway, they closed off the main thoroughfare of Newark Avenue, no vehicular traffic allowed. Last year, which I believe was the first time for the event, was a little lame and seemed to be over by six. This year was better attended and larger, more energy and more fun and lasted until 10.
A dearth of community events no longer exists in Jersey City. Now the problem is making each one unique and successful. Maybe the scale of this event better suited its setting – the main street of commerce. Canopies lined the streets on both sides from the Grove Street plaza a good two blocks up to Jersey Avenue. On Bay Street, which diagonally intersects Newark, the inflatable bouncy rides for children were assembled. Lots of kids were there and unlike some other street fairs, perhaps due to the anti-grid layout of these downtown crossroads, the children’s section was sufficiently segregate yet fully accessible. It can be a tricky balance. If the kids aren’t properly catered to, not only will most young parents avoid an event, the children can be subjected to potential hazards or even be hazards themselves but catering to kids can soon overwhelm the rest of an event turning it into a kids only afternoon/evening, dissuading parentless adults of all ages from either checking it out or staying once they have. Children should be seen and heard and a multi-generational crowd is what downtown is all about but you don’t want to feel like you’re crashing downtown day at a day care center. With a reassuringly responsible children’s area, organizers attained an optimal generational balance.
One of the organizers told police estimated the crowd at 25,000 but that was for the whole day. An impressive if unverified attendance.
We’re used to the municipal canopies, which are white with green and white lettering. Other folding canopies of different colors, but of the same design and size, were also visible indicating that the demand for vendor booths was high and had to be accommodated. Corporate vendors, such as ZipCar and Yelp and there was even a beverage company handing out samples, were present. That’s what happens when the target market population of 25-45 swells in a given area. The corporate presence increases with each event.
Aside from that apparently irrevocable trend – make of it what you will – the increase in booth numbers resulted in an increase in vendor variety – crafts, clothing, food vendors and community-based non profit organizations. Again, an improvement over last year. More diversity, more things to look at, more reasons to linger… More was more and more was better.
The layout was also improved, using the two stage approach, but instead of book ending the street fair with two stages, there was a main music stage at Barrow Street –midway on Newark, with rows of booths east and west. East – at the Grove Street spot – were food trucks and a DJ and also a mechanical bull, which seemed more of a kids ride than an exercise in Urban Cowboy nostalgia. There was a DJ and I was told there some dance performances, but when I was there I only saw crowds and nothing organized. A friend mentioned some of the food trucks she had only seen in New York City. More than the usual suspects of mobile food vehicles seemed present, although because of hygienic qualms I rarely eat food off a truck. She ordered a Belgian waffle dish that was basically a week’s worth of deserts served on a paper plate.
At the Barrow Street stage, I caught a great set by “Aminal”(which is not a typo). It was the only full set I was able to see. Start to finish was a high energy presentation of hard rock with heavy metal overtones combine with a defiant jam ban sensibility. They might have played fast and often aggressive, but the willingly explored the nuances within the multitude of riffs. The bass thundered, the drums lay down a solid foundation and the two guitarists traded leads. A spoken word piece, which isn’t on the EP I picked up, which had a free-form, bluesy melody backing it, was a high point as a jaunty melody of a song about a whale, whose title I can’t recall. A fine cover, jammed out cover of Pyscho Killer climaxed the set, which ended with an encore an irresistibly rousing Back in the USSR. High-Energy and well honed musical chops, Aminal is the illegitimate child of Henry Rollins and The Allman Brothers.
As Aminal began packing up their instruments and equipment, what seemed spontaneous but was actually planned, drummers arrived at the intersection of Barrow and Newark. Night had fallen, the early autumn was cool and comfortable. Congas, bongos, cowbells, tambourines, maracas – if it could be carried and tapped, slapped, struck or shaken it was there. A drum circle was formed and rhythm exploded then rippled out amongst us all. Then we followed the drummers towards Groove, a boogie parade past the booths, most of which were empty by now and beginning to be packed.
We congregated in front of the DJ stand, who added electronic accents to the rhythms. Those without instruments clapped along. The rhythms of the drum circle became concentric, rippling out through the throngs manifesting in free-from dancing and even some hula hooping. The people will have their party. The rhythms echoed up Newark Avenue, past folded canopies waiting to be carted away and up into the night sky and the universe we all share.