Howl! festival street fair slated for St. Mark’s


By Elizabeth O’Brien

The first annual Howl! festival scrambled to secure a new venue on St. Mark’s Pl. after the city recently turned down its request to hold a street fair extravaganza on Avenue A.

Last November, organizers began applying for the city permits required to close Avenue A between Houston and 14th Sts. They attended community board meetings and contacted merchants on Avenue A.

But the city said no to having the street fair on Avenue A about six weeks ago, according to Phil Hartman, executive director of Howl! Regulations stipulate that no more than one fair be held on an avenue per year, and another event had vied for use of Avenue A. Hartman said he did not know whether that event, sponsored by the Boys’ Club of New York Alumni Association, was O.K.’d, and a spokesperson for the city did not return a comment by press time.

No matter the reason, the rejection stung.

“Believe me, it was very distressing to get turned down,” Hartman said. “We had to start all over again.”

The new street festival will be smaller than the one proposed for Avenue A, with only a one-block stretch of St. Mark’s Pl., between First Ave. and Avenue A, closed on Aug. 24. The rest of the events will center on Tompkins Sq. Park. Hartman said he is grateful for the reception the festival has received from its new neighbors.

“We really appreciate the residents and merchants of St. Mark’s sharing their block.”

Some St. Mark’s Pl. merchants expressed support for the festival.

“For the most part, everyone’s looking forward to it, because it will bring a lot of people,” said Chris “Mojo” Cush, owner of Mojo Guitar.

A normal Sunday at the end of August might attract between 400 and 500 people to the block, Cush estimated, but a festival should draw 3,000 to 4,000.

Similarly, some shopkeepers on Avenue A are sorry to see Howl! go.

“I’m disappointed it’s not on Avenue A, but it’ still happening,” said Charles Branstool, owner of Exit 9, a gift store.

Not everyone is eager to welcome Howl! to St. Mark’s Pl., however. The block association says that it reluctantly agreed to the festival because it would help local merchants.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we want more chaos on the block,” said Anna Sawaryn, a member of the block association.

Sawaryn said that she and others were disturbed to hear that Howl! organizers contacted Clearview, a major New York City street fair organizer. From the beginning, Howl! tried to distinguish itself as a homegrown event that would feature local artists and businesses instead of the typical tube socks and sausage fare offered by the more generic festivals.

Worried that they might not find enough local vendors to fill up the booths, Howl! made initial inquiries to Clearview, Hartman said. Ultimately, the festival did fill its booths locally and did not have to engage Clearview’s services, Hartman said.

But the very fact that Howl! contacted Clearview, however tentatively, troubled Sawaryn and a few other critics.

“I’m extremely surprised they went to Clearview at all,” Sawaryn said. “They specifically told us this whole event is structured around local merchants. This shows it’s not for the neighborhood and it’s more of a money venture.”

Hartman said that Clearview never represented more than a last resort, which the festival fortunately didn’t have to use. Instead, street fair booths will center on local artists and businesses.

In addition to the street fair, there will be a weeklong series of events celebrating Howl!, from Aug. 19-26. The festival will revive some old community traditions and introduce new ones. Art Around the Park, once an annual event where artists would cover a 700-ft.-long canvas ringing Tompkins Sq. Park with their painting, is one tradition that will return after a hiatus of four years. The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, held last year in Tompkins Sq. Park and also Uptown, will also join the event, along with the inaugural Allen Ginsberg Poetry Festival. The drag extravaganza Wigstock will also return to the park.

Lady Bunny, one of Wigstock’s founders, said that she originally hesitated reviving the show after a brief hiatus. But she was persuaded largely because the organizers handled all the logistics of permits and port-a-potties.

“I can just breeze on stage in a stunning outfit and do the show,” Lady Bunny said.

Hartman said that the festival will try for an Avenue A location next year, and he expects that things will go more smoothly the second time around.

“I hope we’ll spend less time on permitting issues and more on programming and community outreach,” Hartman said.