NY Festival of Light crowds overwhelm DUMBO

Too much of a good thing leads to early shutdown

November 10, 2014 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Some of the spectacular lighting effects that visitors to the NY Festival of Light missed on Saturday.  Photo by Mary Frost
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The Belgian-block streets of DUMBO became so jammed with spectators hoping to take in a spectacular light show Saturday night that organizers had to shut it down two-and-a-half hours early.

The NY Festival of Light (NYFOL) had received positive press after its Thursday debut, with glittering photos on social media drawing expanding crowds each successive night.

On Saturday, police shut down DUMBO’s York Street station as thousands tried to surge through its single entrance /exit door. Travelers were directed to the High Street station, which also became packed.

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The crowds were already overwhelming by Friday, local residents and workers said.

Doreen Gallo, of the of DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, told the Brooklyn Eagle that she and her daughter became alarmed as they were boarding the train at York Street on Friday at 6 p.m.

“There were 1,000 people in the F train. I alerted two officers on the platform that this is extremely dangerous and [asked them] to alert the precinct Captain. I called Councilmember Levin and alerted him as well. When we returned at 9:45 p.m., the station was packed but there were a lot of police officers throughout the station and holding people from going in to the subway,” Gallo said.

“Man alive! I have never seen DUMBO so crowded in my life. DUMBO suddenly seems so small,” said Wayne Chambers, who works in the neighborhood. Chambers said after seeing the crowds, he ended up walking to the Borough Hall station to get home.

One Brooklyn Heights resident reported seeing a “friendly mob” trying to cross Prospect Street and Cadman Plaza East on Friday night as he was driving to the Brooklyn Bridge. A traffic cop was trying to move people and cars peacefully through the congestion — something “never before seen at that level,” he reported.

Linda Miller, spokesperson for NYFOL, told the Eagle that organizers were taken by surprise. “Attendance exceeded our expectations.  I don’t think that anyone thought the turnout would be what it was.”

She said NYFOL had learned from the experience. ”It taught us that yes, there is a demand for a festival of light in New York, and that in order to best serve our audience, we will have to rethink the next festival.”

Miller said that NYFOL did not know how many people tried to attend on Saturday. “All we can say is that from the photos we have seen and what we experienced ourselves at the venue, the festival was too crowded.  We could not properly direct the audience and to that end, we thought it best to close down early for the sake of everyone’s safety.

“We extend apologies to those who had complaints, and we hope they will understand that we are taking their comments to heart,” she said, adding, “Fortunately, the response we’ve been getting has been more favorable than not.

Good for Business

The event was produced in partnership with the DUMBO Business Improvement District (BID).

Alexandria Sica, executive director of the DUMBO BID told the Eagle, “The response to the Festival of Lights exceeded expectations. We made the decision to close early on the last night to ensure the safety of everyone who came. We apologize for any inconveniences experienced in the neighborhood.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the participants thought the Festival of Light was magical,” Sica said, adding that the vast majority of comments were “extremely positive.”

While crowding was certainly an issue, “It was very popular for a first-time event, and people were excited about it,” she said.

Despite the problems, Sica said that the festival was good for neighborhood businesses.

“DUMBO businesses did experience a major boost during the festival,” she said, citing the Archway Cafe, on Pearl Street, as one restaurant that benefitted from the crowds.

Alison “Dewey” Oblonsky, owner of Dewey’s Candy Store at 41 Front Street, had high praise for the event. “It hit it out of the park Thursday, Friday and Saturday!” she enthused.

 November is usually a slow month, she said, so the timing was perfect. The NY Light Festival “was even bigger than the DUMBO Art Festival, and we thrive during the art fest,” she said.

“I’ve never seen so many people, but it was a really cool group of people, with international flair,” she added.

DUMBO Too Small for This Size Event?

Early reports on social media were glowing.

“The New York Festival of Light is everything you imagined,” Mashable tweeted.

But later arrivals commented that the Archway under the Manhattan Bridge (and the Pearl Street Triangle next to it) were too small for the Times Square-sized crowds. Others said the neighborhood’s roads should have been closed and extra police brought in for crowd control.

Many of those turned away had waited in line for hours to see the festival’s sophisticated effects and projections.

Dan Bretl tweeted, “That was the worst public event experience ever. #nyfol had to shut down 3 hours early cause the crowds were too dangerous.”

Leonard Zelig said on NYFOL’s Facebook page, “I went last night. The event was out of control. It was like Times Sq. at rush hours with some light testing happening…”

Pamela S commented on Yelp, “It drew the crowds of the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting, with none of the organization, crowd control, or pedestrian space. We found ourselves wedged in a mass thousands, everyone jostling and maneuvering; trying to get through or get out. All I overheard was ‘How do we get out of here?’ ‘Keep moving!’ ‘Watch it!’ etc. The subway system, streets, and neighborhood were completely overwhelmed by the crowds drawn to this event.”

Eleanor Alper, an artist who lives at 100 Jay St., praised the festival, however. She said she attended the event twice on Thursday, “before the crowds came.”

“It was such an amazing thing. Nobody wanted to leave,” she said. “People are so used to little displays of light — little cellphones and laptops.  This was a huge display of light, all directions, colors and textures — pulsating, alive multi-dimensional.”

While commenters agreed that local restaurants and other businesses were packed, Gallo questioned whether this type of event would have a long-term positive effect on DUMBO’s businesses.

“It is like when the 4th of July crowds descend, and then leave when it’s over,” she said.

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