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Doylestown First Friday rankles some residents

Welcome to vibrant, historic Doylestown, say backers of the borough's hugely popular First Friday event. And welcome to hometowners' hell, counters a small but vocal group of residents who want the monthly tradition shut down.

Festooned in balloons is Gavin Cigne, 14, along State Street. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Festooned in balloons is Gavin Cigne, 14, along State Street. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

Welcome to vibrant, historic Doylestown, say backers of the borough's hugely popular First Friday event.

And welcome to hometowners' hell, counters a small but vocal group of residents who want the monthly tradition shut down.

"First Friday reduces downtown Doylestown to a carnival-midway-boardwalk attraction, a virtual parking lot, and a babysitting service," complains Gary Frazier, 54, a school psychologist and longtime borough resident who last month helped launch the Anti-First Friday Coalition.

His group - about three dozen strong, and growing, Frazier says - claims the 6-year-old event has exploded beyond the town's capacity, drawing thousands of outsiders who make noise, clog sidewalks and streets, gobble up the locals' parking, and unleash "roving bands of teens" who wander unsupervised.

The backlash saddens organizers, who say First Friday is a fun, family-oriented attraction featuring live music and special events that showcase the town and its merchants.

"We've grown by leaps and bounds, and with growth we've worked to make adjustments," said Bob Quon, 48, a local florist and volunteer executive director of First Friday Doylestown Inc. "But when it gets to the point of us versus them, it's ridiculous. This is supposed to bring people together."

U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Ludwig, president of the Doylestown Historical Society, turned up the flames this week with a guest column in a local newspaper. He wrote that the center of town, overcrowded by nonresidents, "sometimes seems like a 'war zone' - to be avoided by those who have a right to be here."

The idea of ripping First Friday - typically a symbol of civic wholesomeness - confounds and bemuses organizers of similar events.

"Too crowded? I wish that was our problem," said Sherry Tillman, chairwoman of First Friday Main Line.

"There's trouble right here in River City!" chuckled Rick Snyderman, the art gallery owner who launched First Friday in Philadelphia's Old City in 1991. "Has there ever been a time when there wasn't that mentality? I'm not making light of it, but change makes some people nervous."

In towns large and small, the social and economic lure of art strolls, outdoor music, and extended business hours has created an array of First Fridays, Second Saturdays, and the like. Hatboro, Media, Oxford, Phoenixville, and Kennett Square are but a few of the Philadelphia-area venues.

"I'm usually too tired on Friday to go out, but I love the fact that Doylestown has it," said Trish Maxson, 52, a pharmaceutical worker who lives in town and doesn't see teens and traffic as big problems. "It's just more lively."

Paul Dziewisz, 42, a fitness trainer who lives in Chalfont, said he was puzzled by "this walling of the borough from outsiders. It's such a great town, so share it with people. If it's a safe and fun atmosphere, embrace it."

But critics argue that the 6-to-9:30 p.m. event launched in 2005 has grown to a point of diminishing returns. The town, its museums, and restaurants draw so many visitors already, they say, that a special event to bring in even more is overkill.

"We used to go to First Friday early on, when it was more quaint and manageable," Frazier said. "In the last four to five years, things have just gotten out of hand."

Some retailers and restaurateurs complain that the crowds hurt their business; others claim to be flourishing.

Quon points out that more than 150 merchants support First Friday as sponsors, and a local nonprofit group is allowed to promote its work each month.

Whether shoppers buy anything on First Friday is beside the point, organizers argue, because the free exposure to newcomers will pay dividends later.

If Facebook is any guide, the antis have some catching up to do. Their fledgling site had 41 members Friday - including public officials and reporters monitoring it. The First Friday committee's site had 601 supporters.

Borough Councilwoman Joan Doyle said she doubted the event was endangered.

The Bucks County seat of 8,100 draws up to 20,000 visitors on a regular weekday, she said, and critics may be making First Friday a lightning rod for a range of quality-of-life issues.

"We are not a small, sleepy town, and everything can't remain the way it was 50 or even 20 years ago," she said. Though complaints can be addressed, she said, "I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Ground zero for First Friday is the corner of State and Main Streets, where musicians perform in the Starbucks parking lot.

Surrounding sidewalks are typically packed with teens shrieking greetings to friends and strolling en masse, along with dog-walking, stroller-pushing adults who pause to chat with one another.

First Friday can swell the borough's evening population to 12,000 or more, Police Chief James Donnelly said, forming human "dams" on the sidewalks that can force pedestrians dangerously into the streets.

Accordingly, the borough contributes up to $7,500 per year to pay for added police protection on First Fridays, mostly for crowd control.

"We'll have enough officers there to make it safe," Donnelly said. "It is taxing on the police, but we do what we need to do."

Though much of the work consists of herding teens and preteens, Donnelly said, there is no evidence that the youngsters cause any added crime.

"We have a vandalism problem, but I wouldn't attribute it to the kids in town on First Friday," he said. Serious crime tends to happen when the bars let out, long after the teens have gone, he added.

Over the years, First Friday planners have reduced the number of performers, moved from louder to softer music as the hour grows later, and submitted a list of special events to borough officials for preapproval.

"I think we manage this about as well as it can be managed," Borough Manager John Davis said. "The bottom line is, do you like the finished product?"