Op-Ed: Calling Out Santacon Organizers to Tame the Annual Problem

Posted on: November 22nd, 2013 at 10:37 am by

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Santacon, December 2012

Santacon is an event that many people love to hate, and with good reason. Once a mildly-irreverent holiday costumed jaunt through the city, the event has grown into a large mob of regional participants who start drinking early and often on event day. The variety of offenses that Santacon presents are still rather mild – the event does not involve serious property destruction or violent crime, not yet anyway – but the quantity of drinking-related violations is overwhelming to every neighborhood unfortunate enough to experience them. The event has become a punching bag for community forums and publications. Local residents who once enjoyed the event as a creative afternoon wandering the town are now repulsed by the louts who dominate it.

State Senator Brad Hoylman recently penned a public letter addressing Santacon’s organizers to plead with them to work with the community on a plan to address these issues. This public letter was published on the PCV/ST Town & Village Blog on October 24. It’s still relevant, as Santacon’s proposed December 14th event date looms closer.

Hoylman has demonstrated effective leadership by passing over an opportunity for straight pandering – after all, what are the benefits of trying to rationalize a bar crawl among the landowners and conservative residents of the area? – in order to reach a compromise for valid use of public space. While we have little reason to expect that the current organizers of Santacon will do better than to produce a drunken immature spectacle, the cultural roots of the event are of a completely different nature. Whimsical cultural public gatherings in the daylight hours should be encouraged to the extent that they don’t cause unreasonable neighborhood disturbances. We’ve seen a sad tradition lately of politicians, at all levels, taking reasonable public liberties and calling for crackdowns simply because intolerant neighbors were irrationally annoyed or panicked. Brad Hoylman could have done that, but he didn’t. I salute him.

The Santacon organizers face a tall-order; they must abandon their own unstructured approach to event promoting and face the reality that crowds need to be controlled much better than they have been in the past, to curtail an overwhelming presence of community violations and public disturbances. They must do this in the face of established expectations of a booze-fest from its newer regional participants, a situation that dismays many of the locals that once enjoyed it responsibly. Anyone throwing such a large and obvious event should make a good faith effort to work with the community and stakeholders on planning and environmental concerns, just like any large scale project should. To do otherwise is irresponsible above and beyond any political disagreement with the government or legal system. The insistence on Santacon’s organizers to be cheekily opaque and mysterious serves no public goal; it’s time that they grow up and abandon that approach and transition quickly to a structured, transparent event planning process.

One point that sticks out in Hoylman’s wording is the request for the organizers to cooperate with NYPD. It’s worth noting that the NYPD has shown an inability to be hospitable to any spontaneous or unstructured public non-criminal gathering in recent years. Local leaders and community groups should denounce that as unacceptable, no matter how annoying public gatherers can become. Enforcement efforts during Santacon should be restrained and focused, and should not devolve into a violent, bystander-beating free-for-all.

There’s a lot to regret about how this situation developed, including the fact that this situation is symptomatic of how New York City is losing the qualities that made it such a special place for culture of all types. The past is over, though. We need to plan for the future of this event whether we’d like to or not… That might include making decisions to ensure this event has zero future if it insists on disruption. But we’re not at that point, not even close. The city has weathered years of Santacon when it was a calmer event, and it’s not an act of lunacy to suggest that it could be produced with a much-reduced level of debauchery, like almost any normal city weekend.

The Santacon organizers can and should do a better job of making sure the event arrangements are better arranged to handle the crowd volumes and to make sure public space spillover is minimized except for when Santa is on the move. That will probably involve making the event plan public in advance, and it’s too bad if the organizers consider that to be a burden. The organizers should also present to community leaders a stronger set of initiatives to prevent heavy intoxication from persisting among attendees throughout the day. If both sides can come to an agreement on such a plan, it would ensure that our city continues to be a source of safe, responsible, rewarding cultural events that do not suffer from heavy-handed suppression tactics. I compel my neighbors in this city to follow Hoylman’s lead to that conclusion.

-Written by Brian Van Nieuwenhoven

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