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Mike Casey didn’t give birth to the idea that became First Friday, but he was there at the beginning and to this day he embraces it wholeheartedly. Not everyone does. Others in the neighborhood take refuge in First Thursday or Second Saturday, when fewer people come to Southtown, and those who do patronize art galleries, meet for drinks or dinner in what is fast becoming a restaurant district, and leave the neighborhood like they found it.
Casey, a longtime “King William” resident and a sort of unofficial mayor or ambassador for the neighborhood, likes it all, including the untamed crowds of young people who render the Southtown air electric with energy. Head down to Southtown this Friday and see for yourself. With the start of Contemporary Art Month, it might be the best time of the year to experience it. First Friday is a three-act play. Not everyone stays for the whole show.
The work week slowly comes to a close on Friday afternoon. For most of the city, that means a traffic jam along the three main expressways leading northwest, north, and northeast out of Downtown. A different kind of traffic starts to build along South Alamo Street south of Cesar Chavez Boulevard, or Durango as my friends who are still stewing over the name change, call it. There are more cars, but they seem to be cruising rather than commuting. They share the road with a lot of bicyclists, and plenty of people on foot.
Rosario’s, one of the city’s most successful restaurants –a loud, ringing Tex-Mex cash register — fills early. Down the block and in the open, The Friendly Spot comes alive with the most interesting cross-section of residents from the ‘hood. A young professional with a loosened tie nurses a beer next to a heavily tattooed woman theatrically working a cigarette, a wholly unremarkable scene, something out of a Brassai photograph. Kids frolic on the playground while parents enjoy a drink and catch up with friends. A Frisbee flies by a few feet overhead. No one seems to notice. The metal fence fronting the sidewalk is lined with parked bikes. A century ago they would have been horses.
Throughout the neighborhood, even off South Alamo, other destination spots are thriving even before sundown. The patio at The Monterey on S. St. Mary’s Street quickly fills with the first wave of hungry customers. New arrivals have to park across the street from the lot featuring the 1964 red Mercury Monterey with the head and tail lights blinking and beckoning. A block away on S. Presa Street, newly opened Bliss already looks full. Flames from an outdoor fire are visible from a distance. Back on S. Alamo, the sidewalk tables at Le Frite are all taken.
There is a lesson here: All these gathering spots are local businesses, not imported from somewhere else. When I take visitors to experience San Antonio, these are the kinds of places they most appreciate. Home grown businesses are the key to unlocking the city’s full potential. Forget about franchises. They make money for their owners, but they don’t make a city.
While people unwind from the week, vendors spend the late afternoon nailing 2 x 4s, stapling vinyl cloth, setting up booths and laying out their wares. An air of anticipation grips the neighborhood as the first visitors stream in from Downtown. Cyclists ply the roadways, some wearing helmets and riding $5,000 road bikes, headed toward the San Antonio Missions, while others, sporting backpacks rather than helmets, pedal townies, fixees or rentals. You can sense their joy, hair flying in the wind, as they savor life in one of the city’s only neighborhoods where a car is not essential.
Casey has walked the 50 yards from his office on South Alamo to his home on South Alamo. Shed of his trademark seersucker suit and bow tie, he settles into his front porch perch to take in the scene as passersby head south to the Blue Star, many pausing to greet him. Everyone knows Casey. Friends drop by for a beer and a bit of conversation, as do tenants who live in apartments in one of the houses Casey has acquired since first moving here in the 1970s. Casey never paints the peeling facades of his houses, but he loves his tenants and they love him.
Sunset comes and the crowd starts to build. A table at Feast, inside or out, now requires getting your name on the list, but plenty of people seem willing to wait their turn, a nice mix of elegantly dressed baby boomers and hipper millennials. People are spending money, which was the whole idea behind First Friday when it was first conceived in the mid-1990s. I still remember Sam Gorena, Lewis Fisher and Irby Hightower, among others, coming with charts and graphs and maps to the Express-News to talk about the Southtown concept. The art scene and neighborhood ambiance, they believed, could be leveraged into greater economic and social activity. That vision still attracts many of my friends to Southtown on First Friday, but after a few hours they are off the streets, either heading home or enjoying a private party in someone’s Southtown home. The night belongs to the kids.
The First Friday founders were more successful than anyone expected at bringing attention to the neighborhood. Since the ’90s, economic activity and real estate values have steadily risen. The recession slowed things down, but not as much as elsewhere. What the Southtown pioneers created, in fact, grew into something that some angry residents eventually tried to kill. They didn’t succeed, but they did win important concessions. Street parking on quiet residential streets was curtailed. Open containers were outlawed, as were street sales of alcoholic beverages. Police cracked down on public drunkenness. Still, by 10 o’clock on this stormy February night, the main drag of Southtown is a throbbing mass of young people. Thousands jam the street from South Presa down to the Blue Star. Residential blocks throughout the neighborhood are clogged with the parked cars of visitors, more than a few parked illegally. Alcohol consumption is undertaken more liberally. Voices grow louder. The air carries the sharp scent of burning weed. Everybody is, well, moving, yet hardly moving. People are just hanging. Hardly any money seems to be changing hands among vendors and shoppers. It’s no longer about that. It’s just fun to be out there, to share the energy, to be part of the scene.
More police take up positions at key intersections to keep people and vehicles moving. Last Friday, swear to God, I witnessed a bike jam in front of The Friendly Spot. Cyclists had to get off their bikes, headlamps and reflectors blinking in the dark, and walk their bikes through the wall of people spilling off the sidewalk and into the street down to Tito’s. This is the First Friday that many have come to disdain. Turn the corner and there’s someone urinating in a flower bed. Mornings brings discovery of fast food litter and broken beer bottles discarded in front yards.
I ask myself if I am just getting old as I walk through the warren of costume jewelry booths and street art displays. Most of it, I think, is junk. Am I one of those Rick Santorum, college-educated snobs, or am I right? Isn’t most of what’s on display awfully amateurish? I suppose it depends on who you ask. In the second of the two First Friday videos posted here, one street artist refers to his renditions of Bozo the Clown as priceless. He’s serious.
I pause to watch a small gaggle of SAPD officers who are encouraging various young people to don goggles that simulate the effects of being inebriated. One at a time, the begoggled teens attempt to walk the line, but they lose their equilibrium and falter. The disorienting experience serves as a reminder not to risk behavior that might get you pulled over and arrested. The kids enjoy the faux police encounter and clamor to be next. The cops, too, are enjoying themselves. I like the cops in San Antonio. Every now and then I encounter one who acts like a jerk, but the vast majority treat people well and fit nicely into the fabric of the community. First Friday would be a different beast without them. With their presence, the reports of gang activity, assaults, and that sort of thing are largely imagined. It’s the noise and the mess that turn off most residents.
Come down and check out the three-act play called First Friday. Come early and ask someone where Mike Casey lives. Maybe he’ll invite you in for a beer. And don’t forget: Pick up your trash. If you’re going to leave anything behind, make it a piece of your paycheck.
ABOUT THE VIDEO TEAM:
Carlos Maestas was imported from Sacramento, California at the age of 14. After graduating from MacArthur High School, he attended The University of Texas in San Antonio and started his company, Key Ideas, during his final year in college. He also earned an MBA from the University of Incarnate Word.
Carlos has a passion for helping nonprofits tell their stories and build awareness of important issues both in our city and around the world. His work has been featured on the BBC and has taken him as far as West Africa. There he helped document the work of a nonprofit from San Antonio which assists Liberian communities recovering from two civil wars that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.
His associates, Alejandro Dehoyos and Rob Fike, assisted in the production of this video.