Sunday, October 14, 2007

Harvest Homecoming's "swill walk" an emblem of clashing demographics.

I'll be cross-posting this essay later in the week at NA Confidential.

New Albany’s annual Harvest Homecoming festival started life quite small and inconspicuously four decades ago, and it has since grown into what its organizers claim is the second largest gathering of its type in the state of Indiana, trailing only the Indianapolis 500 celebration.

There are numerous themed events for two weeks preceding the yearly parade, then four “booth days” during which streets in the heart of New Albany’s historic business district are closed, yielding to want amounts to an enormous food court with games, information and music thrown in for good measure. At its best, the ideal of Harvest Homecoming is civic-minded and predominantly local in nature, with generations frequenting the same rolled oyster booth or chicken dinner emporium run by the same church or charity.

When Harvest Homecoming took its embryonic shape in the late 1960’s, and unbeknownst to most people living at the time, New Albany’s downtown was about to commence a long, painful and degrading descent into dormancy. As my ruminations today are not intended to constitute an essay about the familiar phenomenon of inner-city urban decay, I’ll leave it at that, and observe that Harvest Homecoming’s governing committee might plausibly say that for a long period of time, certainly by the 1990’s, the festival’s four-day, early October run was about the only game going downtown.

Consequently, Harvest Homecoming has been planned accordingly. Now, with stirrings of downtown revitalization far too strong to be ignored, the plan likely will have to be modified in coming years. Unfortunately, a case can be made that Harvest Homecoming’s demographic and the demographic spearheading downtown revitalization are heading in opposite directions, with potential difficulties that might as well be addressed now rather than later.

For those who have glimpsed a bit of the planet outside New Albany, and who have had the good fortune to be exposed to post-secondary education and its expansion of consciousness, there almost inevitably exists a measure of ambivalence about Harvest Homecoming as the institution has evolved – some would say “devolved – over the years. This ambivalence does not imply rejection of it, but simply a recognition that sometimes the closer one is to something, the harder it is to see how it really looks.

The festival’s stewards are “lifer” volunteers who work hard year-round, and while any fair critique of their performance might point to a deeply ingrained conservatism and a general reluctance to think outside the Bud, their fundamental aim of maintaining a family-oriented annual celebration is admirable.

Admirable, yes, but certainly not easy to ensure, and no single Harvest Homecoming “event” grandly compromises the committee’s goal of a family friendly festival like the Friday afternoon “beer walk,” which might be termed the “swill walk,” and so I think I will.

From the outset, make no mistake: The official Harvest Homecoming committee is no friend of the swill walk, and bristles when people contact the organizers for information about it. Although in the past, I merely shrugged and considered the committee’s attitude toward the swill walk to be an extension of its customary stodginess on other matters, this year I made it a point to observe the swill walk in progress.

The committee is right on target. It isn’t a pretty picture. In fact, the swill walk is a civic embarrassment, and as part and parcel of a litigious society, it’s probably only a matter of time before something ugly occurs and the torts begin flying. Speaking personally, at a time when many in my sector of the beer business are trying to raise the bar when it comes to responsible beer consumption, the swill walk sadly reminds us that neo-Prohibitionists occasionally have something approximating a valid point, and that the activities of the nation’s mass-market swill merchants are as much of a daily threat to our ability to offer the populace a changed paradigm as those who would eliminate alcohol entirely on grounds of its intrinsic “evil.”

Like many other aspects of life, there surely are evils intrinsic to the consumption of beer. Most of us are devoted to the ideal of lessening these, so why encourage their exaltation?

The way it works is this. Every year on the Friday afternoon of Harvest Homecoming, a style show is held at the riverfront “beer tent” (“swill tent” is more like it) during lunchtime, and the show’s conclusion is the unofficial signal for hundreds of people to begin, or in many cases to continue, drinking while traversing a jagged route through the blocked-off and humanity-packed downtown streets where food and activity booths hold sway.

The ubiquity of gratis Anheuser-Busch advertising paraphernalia, which is generated in-house at the local wholesaler at a scale that would humble the propagandistic Communist and Fascist regimes of old, provides ample evidence as to the underlying grease that lubricates the phenomenon of the swill walk, namely, that the local A-B wholesaler has agreed not to cash the checks written to pay for two-story stacks of Bud Light until the week following the festival’s conclusion, something that is of borderline legality in the state of Indiana.

Meanwhile, duly oiled, the denizens of the swill walk surge through the most congested harvest Homecoming area, participants stumbling from one bar to the next, slamming liquor shots and chugging beer from cans that are seldom recycled while screaming obscenities in proximity to children, then urinating in places that even someone like me – a veteran of Oktoberfest in Munich and Pamplona’s festival of San Fermin – is hard pressed to imagine.

Once I saw a port-a-can being nearly toppled by drunks. Around the corner, bikers clad in ominous black costumes queued a short block away from where this year’s “teen scene” stage was erected. How Pamplona manages to achieve a balance between its children and an invading wave of Euro trash is beyond me; perhaps we might ask, because the New Albany way doesn’t seem to be working.

The family-unfriendly effect of all this is hard to exaggerate in print, and when taken in the context of an overall festival that sadly has devolved over the decades into low, lower and lowest common denominators – a metaphor applicable to the city as a whole – it’s frustrating, indeed, to witness the chaos and know that I’m in the same business.

I’m neither na├»ve, nor out to bring the furies crashing down on the urine-stained drunks gracefully bellowing at each other during the swill walk. It is not my intention to frown on the profit motives of downtown bar owners, who probably reap several weeks of revenue in three days during Harvest Homecoming, and who are happy to accept largesse as offered by wholesalers eager to see the cash registers hum.

Of course, I well understand that my “good beer” segment of the marketplace is small, but I also maintain that this niche is upwardly mobile and in keeping with humanity’s constructive (as opposed to anarchic) instincts, and furthermore, that it is capable of sense and sensibility in addition to windfall weekend profits.

If NABC’s projected downtown brewing project comes to fruition, I hope to be able to illustrate that beer quality can be good, not bland, and that better beer can be consumed responsibly in a wholesome, entertaining and better atmosphere – which, after all, is the lesson any thinking human being takes away after sitting for a couple of hours drinking beer in a Bavarian beer garden, with playground equipment and young children generally in close proximity. Our future beer sales during Harvest Homecoming will be contained and controlled as far as humanly possible, and we’ll try to offer a higher common denominator. We may fail, but we’ll try.

Disclaimers aside, and in spite of my reluctance to tempt unfavorable karma by saying it aloud, the swill walk that takes place during Harvest Homecoming is aided and abetted by a blind eye to illegality, and while I can understand this coming from the local gendarmes, I find it curious that the state tolerates it.

You’re free to disagree.

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