The difference between East Market Street on any given night and the first Friday of the month is the difference between looking at a postcard and being there. The stillness of the daytime is erased by sidewalks filling out as the sky darkens and the street lights up. Couples walk arm-in-arm and lively friends cluster, at times laughing uproariously. Some carry small plastic cups accented with shallow splashes of deep red, while others make known the degree of merriment they intend to maintain, hands laden with the visible tokens of many a spirit laid to rest. As the night wears on, some words slur, but as the sidewalks checker in the absence of light and businesses close their doors, the crowd thins, leaving the carousers alone to own the night.
First Friday Trolley Hop is a mélange of activity. Primarily an exhibition of art at galleries on East Market and Main streets, restaurants and retail stores also keep the lights on for aficionados, tourists and revelers who frequent the event. It has, without question, been a major factor in reviving the area.
Now, by some East Market merchants’ estimations, the Hop is at a critical juncture. As more businesses participate in the area’s premier cultural event, some believe the drinking and revelry have gotten out of hand. And, while a coordinator for the Hop who is also an official with the Downtown Management District assures that there is no threat of a shutdown, the chatter is that something might need changing. Metro Police increase foot patrols in the area now; otherwise, nobody can do much of anything about crowd control.
And there is much debate over whether the crowd needs controlling.
When Rebecca Simpson, owner of Jenicca’s Café and Wine Bar, first came to East Market, it was to experience the Trolley Hop, and she was charmed. A little more than two years after the café opened, her experience on the other side the bar — serving a crowd that has bellied up three deep — has provided her with a different perspective.
“There are some wild people who come down just to party. People can get a little out of hand,” she says, adding that the Hop has been something of a blessing. “We wouldn’t survive without it.”
Other East Market merchants have gotten a bad taste dealing with shoulder-to-shoulder drunks. Scout owners Sam Bassett and Jim George chose to suspend their retail store from the Hop in March. After grappling with rude and disrespectful people and some substantial theft, “We had to decide if it was worth it,” George says. Much of this they attribute to alcohol furnished at many of the galleries and shops. “The liquor has gotten out of control. It’s just not safe,” George says. Though they chalk up a lot of their success to the gallery hop, they believe a change is needed.
“I think (it) can be a good thing again, it’s just lost its way. Anything that brings people down to the area is good in that respect, it just needs to be maintained,” Bassett says, suggesting the event could be held quarterly rather than monthly.
Though most of the businesses still serve alcohol, some, such as Garner-Furnish Studio, have opted to serve non-alcoholic beverages — a move prompted, in their case, by a visit from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. However, owners Denise Furnish and Joyce Garner view the event as more low-key than out of control.
“If people are expecting a wild party downtown, I’m afraid they’re going to be disappointed,” Garner says.
Red Tree, another retail shop on East Market, took a different approach after a warning from the ABC. To stay compliant, the store purchases a special-events permit each month, says Leigh W. Cole, director of sales, marketing and displays. Though the permits are costly, Cole says the social atmosphere at the hop is “an invaluable marketing tool for the neighborhood. I think everyone feels that.”
Gill Holland, owner of Gallery NuLu, agrees that the exposure and community-building aspects of the gallery hop are “the ultimate positive.
“I can’t see how any retail would not be thrilled at having 400 people walk by their store, even if they’re drunk and keep walking and don’t come in. They know where the store is for a future purchase. For me, it’s all about long-term building the brand of the neighborhood,” Holland says.
“It’s art education that these people are getting out. Even if they have a glass of wine in their hand, they’re looking around at stuff … they’re in and amongst it. Even if they don’t pay attention, it’s subconscious in some way,” says Brook White, owner of the Flame Run Hopshop and Gallery.
Although a crowd with a potential to get rowdy is not typically desired in the art world, most gallery owners and artists are willing to put up with a little bit of spirit for the greater good — to connect with those who are genuinely interested.
“It’s wonderful to be able to talk to a variety of people,” says Reba Rye, an artist and member of Zephyr Gallery.
Louisville artist Sarah Lyon says it’s easy to get cynical, because “there are people who give it a bad name, but you can’t assume everyone is ignorant and not appreciative. It’s a community-building event. There’s a chance of people being exposed and opening up their world to something else.”
Malik Dasant, 29, a Louisville native, and friend Daniel Jackson, 23, visited the hop for the first time in August and took full advantage of the opportunity to engage the artists, introducing themselves and inquiring about their work.
“When you get to talk to the artist, you get to hear where they’re coming from as opposed to what you got from a piece of art,” Dasant says.
“The more people see it the more they understand it,” White says.
First Friday’s success is a matter of perspective that will depend on individuals’ willingness to deal with the din that goes along with an event that has begun to grow into its britches. Throwing the baby out with the boozy bath water would be a bit hasty.
“I think overall the Trolley Hop has been advantageous. And I would hate to see it just cut off or canceled, I think that would be a real detriment and a bad thing for the city, because it’s known all around the region,” White says.
Holland agrees. “The positives so greatly outweigh any people that puke on your front stoop,” he says. “Let’s not chop down the forest for a bad tree every now and then.”