But even St. Patrick’s Day revelers and event planners who are accustomed to large crowds and hours of parade-watching are seeing changes. The size of the party has exploded, and more than ever, safety concerns are forefront in the minds of festival planners.
“What is different now is the crowd,” says Jay Burke, General Chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. “St. Patrick’s Day is on the map, not only nationally but perhaps worldwide.”
In the last 15 years or so the Irish heritage celebration has become two distinct events with a small amount of overlap—the mostly-locals parade in the daytime, and the mostly-out-of-towners party scene on River Street in the afternoon and at night.
“The strong tradition in Savannah maintains the value of the parade, even with the party around it,” says Megan Hussey, a Savannahian who’s lived here all of her life except for her college years. She marches in the parade with her father Tom every year as part of the Clan Na Erin heritage group.
“River Street is more of the tourist attraction. I don’t like River Street,” Hussey says. “I think people use it as an excuse to get out of control.”
A local top cop agrees.
“The people drinking themselves into oblivion at two a.m. are not the people sitting on the parade route at eleven a.m. It’s a different event at two in the morning,” says Captain Gerry Long, the downtown precinct commander for Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.
Capt. Long has worked every St. Patrick’s Day since 1982.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s on River Street “there were a lot more of the local folks, they dressed up,” says Ansley Williams, co-owner of Spanky’s on River Street.
“The people who came to the parade came to River Street afterward. They were a good looking bunch,” Williams says. “Over the years it became out of towners, people coming for the hellraising. Now we’re trying to create a better atmosphere, with the gates. We want to create a happy, healthy, clean environment.”
Tommy Holland is a lifelong Savannah resident and unofficial historian of the local nightclub scene.
“I was part of the crowd that hung out in front of Spanky’s,” he remembers. “That was the active end of the street then. It was a time when you partied and had a cocktail with your local friends, as opposed to now when you go down there and there are no locals on the river.”
How large is Savannah’s celebration? Estimates vary but all are in the hundreds of thousands. This year’s Saturday holiday has everyone bracing for the largest parade-watching crowd ever.
“It opened our eyes last year with the parade being on a Friday,” says Burke. “Weekday parades don’t get as many visitors. The crowds were tremendous. It was scary in some areas.”
Public health and safety measures have been stepped up. The most stringently enforced no-no’s include drinking in the parade, public intoxication, drinking in prohibited containers or outside the festival area, and public urination.
“People come through here and act like there’s no tomorrow,” says Capt. Long. “All of these things are not acceptable in normal society. Why would they be acceptable on St. Patrick’s Day?”
With rare exceptions, all 586 sworn police personnel will work the big weekend, with help from a half dozen other law enforcement agencies.
Crowd management on River Street was a reason the Savannah Waterfront Association began sponsoring a St. Patrick’s Day festival in the late 1970’s.
“There were hundreds, thousands of people with nothing to do, all pushing and shoving to get inside these bars,” says Williams.
“It was really scary. We got the city to let us do the festivals for food and beverage sales,” he says. “We brought in the porta-potties in the mid-eighties, shortly after we started the festivals. That was one of the things we had to address in order to get permission to do it.”
Capt. Long recounts details of simulated sexual acts, public strip tease shows, and flashing.
“These are not new things. 1998, 1999 and 2000 were honestly off the chain.”
Flashing on River Street has mostly disappeared, but it’s a part of the party’s history. It took on a life of its own as soon as it started in the 1970’s.
Ansley Williams apologetically admits to being an instigator of the “T’s for T’s” tradition—women exposing their breasts in exchange for a free t-shirt.
“That was one of the more stupid things I have done,” says Williams. “We had no idea what we were going to create. It was my partner that did it but I can’t deny my involvement. We spent two years enjoying it and five years trying to quell it. We weren’t the only ones doing that but we were infamous.”
The installation of gates on River Street, which began in 2001, is one of the most visible tools to manage the crowds. Rick Lott, executive director of the Savannah Waterfront Association, ticks off several reasons for the gates.
“One was a desire to do something to stem underage drinking during the festival. Another was to make sure no weapons were coming into the area. And lastly, to make it a revenue generator,” he says.
The Waterfront Association uses the proceeds from the $5 wristbands to pay for renting Rousakis Plaza, hiring bands, and paying staff organizers.
“Anyone interested in coming down to cause problems, they see the gates and they turn around and go somewhere else,” says Williams.
While the heaviest enforcement in recent years has focused on cleaning up River Street, one of the most difficult changes to make in the past two decades was the ban on drinking in the parade by marchers, which was for many of Savannah’s Irish a part of the St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
“It was something we had to do,” says Burke. “In the past five years you can’t drink in the parade anymore. We have been pushing it for the past 20 years, and pushed hard for the past ten.”
Two new precautions for 2007 are a direct result of the need to manage the parade-watching crowd.
Families like the Hussey’s and the Burke’s, who have staked out parade-watching and after-party spots in the squares for decades, may still do so, but the rules are tighter this year regarding how far in advance they can begin their vigils, and what can be brought into the squares.
“There were megatons of litter and boxes of trash in the squares that people just threw down,” says Capt. Long. “Chippewa Square had to be disinfected three times before the rotting food smell and urine dissipated.”
Along the most crowded portions of the parade route, barricades will be installed to keep parade marchers and watchers separated. “The parade almost came to a halt last year, there were so many people getting out into the street,” says Capt. Long. “A lot of people don’t understand, and think it’s a penalty. They have a different perspective than law enforcement has.”
“We have one of the largest parades of any kind, inside and outside the ropes,” says Burke. “They have barricades at Mardi Gras, with no contact between people inside and outside of the parade. You’re trying to move 50,000 people through a route of a half million people. It’s a challenge.”
“It’s a locals’ parade, and some of that is being lost by the large crowds,” says Carmela Aliffi, who has attended nearly every year, including marching with Blessed Sacrament classmates in the 1960’s. “I hate that in front of the cathedral a barricade is going up so you can’t go up and kiss your uncle on the cheek, and interact the way we always have.”
“The parade without question has a whole lot more police presence,” says Holland. “They are taking a more serious attitude about things they tended to overlook. I think it’s a plus. I want my great-nieces and nephews to be able to go and enjoy it like I did, but I want to know they’re safe without worrying about something happening to them.”
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