Where I grew up, the Plain Three-Day was an event built around a beer tent. It might’ve been called something else; we just called it the Three-Day. Beer drinking, grilled burgers and brats in the tent, and some softball at the field next door.
As high schoolers, we did our best to get past security at the beer tent entrance but typically failed. So we’d get someone to buy us beer and haul out to the country atop some hill or cornfield, or the farmhouse of someone whose parents were out of town. I’m not advocating underage drinking. But I challenge anyone to tell me it doesn’t happen.
There’s an idea circulating among Downtown business owners, Metro police and the city to fence off Fremont East on First Friday in July. As everyone surely knows by now, First Friday is the one-night-per-month art walk/street fair some 2 miles southwest of Fremont East. Now a decade old, it’s more popular than ever, attracting close to 30,000 people when the weather is perfect.
When it was but a few years old, First Friday still did well, but the crowds weren’t as large. I’d typically skip the art part—most of the art I liked I couldn’t afford, and the stuff I could afford, I typically didn’t like. Friends and I would sit in the few bars near Fremont East and wait as people migrated from First Friday to the Griffin, Downtown Cocktail Room and Beauty Bar. Fremont is the place to go when First Friday ends. Over several years, I never witnessed a single fight there.
These days, few of the friends I used to go out with on those nights dare to visit Fremont East when First Friday strikes. Fremont East is jammed beginning around 10 or 11, and underage drinkers drink openly outside, hanging in groups, their chests puffing out and their bravado growing in the haze of alcohol. It’s no fun being around amateurs, or even pros who just happen to be nasty drunks. Bump into someone who isn’t used to being in a crowd of drinkers and, suddenly, the bumpee is spoiling for a fight.
For lack of a better comparison—and this will offend some—for some locals, Fremont East on First Friday has all the appeal of a weekend trip to the Las Vegas Strip.
In May, eyewitnesses reported seeing various gangs on Fremont staring each other down. They sat outside the bars, either too young or too cheap to go inside, and drank from 12-packs or 40-ounce cans of malt liquor. One kid rode a low-rider bicycle with his shirt off, purposely exposing a tattooed swastika on his chest.
Two weeks ago, several witnesses told me, the tension was just as high. At the Beat last week, three people were talking about their appreciation of First Friday. “It’s 20,000 people,” one woman said, then quickly added, “Of course, 15,000 are teenagers.”
They all chuckled.
Few actually find it funny. One shooting on Fremont East, business operators fear, and the good will that street has struggled and fought for could disappear in a flash. That may or may not be the case. Two weeks ago, police said, two people were shot in the Fremont Street Experience, which is a few blocks west of Fremont East. No one died; injuries were minor. And the Experience seems no worse off.
Fremont East, however, isn’t lined with decades-old casinos like the Golden Nugget, Binion’s, the Golden Gate and the Four Queens, places whose names alone might overshadow news of a shooting. So now there’s talk about putting up a fence around Fremont East and letting only those with IDs showing they are over 21 pass. The kids want to drink and fight? They can do it somewhere else.
Some business owners will welcome the idea, believing it will lend a modicum of security for their customers. And, of course, others will complain.
They’ll be the ones standing outside the fence looking in.
MORE Joe Downtown: Where casino project could have been, the Arts District is growing