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Police officers shut down a party at 18 Palmer St. The annual street festival took place on Palmer Street in Athens, Ohio, on Saturday, March 28, 2015. 

Series of changes come together to diminish once legendary OU street fests

Fests aren’t what they once were, and people around town are noticing.

Spring street fests in Athens are dying.

It’s not an immediate, fall-off-the-side-of-a-cliff death, but it's a slow, drawn out process Ohio University students and Athens residents have experienced in the aftermath of the wild 2012 Palmer Fest that led city and university officials to discuss how the street fests would be handled in the future.

In the years since, the street fests have been held earlier in the year (thanks to semesters), policed more strictly, shut down earlier and the subject of far less attention from out-of-towners.

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“The culture about fests is changing,” Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said. “I don’t know if they’ll stop. But they definitely have changed.”

Much fuss was made about how OU was ranked the No. 1 party school by the Princeton Review ahead of the 2011-12 academic year, which also happened to be the year Palmer Fest was deemed a riot — not for the first time — after a fire broke out in the basement of 11 Palmer St. just after 7 p.m. according to a previous Post report.

OU has since dropped from No. 1 to No. 3, 7 and now 13 in the successive years.

The annual street parties used to rage late into the night. This past season, entire streets were emptied and shut down in the 4 p.m. hour, and individual houses were shut down before many even arrived on the block.

No one reason is responsible for the calmer fest atmosphere, but rather a mixture of changes have led to “everything working in the favor of people who want the fests to shut down,” as Brandon Thompson, better known locally as DJ B-Funk, said. “The parties are just getting going, then they’re being shut down.”

Pyle, APD Captain Ralph Harvey and Lt. Adam Claar all said attendance at this season’s events was much higher than they expected, and that was part of the reason for shutting down the parties so early. They’ve also all said it’s not their intention to end the fests for good.

But the days of the fests that helped give OU the reputation as the best party school in the country are over.

From quarters to semesters

The first major reason for the dip in relevance of street fests has been the change in OU’s academic calendar from quarters to semesters in the 2012-13 academic year.

“The switch to semesters was the biggest hit,” Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl said. “To knock a month off, you have shorter days. The days are colder. The weather is less predictable.”

OU Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones said the change, coupled with the bad winters Athens has had during the same time frame, has led to the dates where the fests fall being even colder than March typically is in Athens.

“(It’s been) huge,” she said, adding seniors who experienced fests on quarters have said, “‘Wow, it’s not as much fun as it used to be.’”

However, Thompson, an Athens native who last attended OU in 2007 and has been DJing locally since, said the calendar-change reason for why fests have become less relevant is not entirely true.

“I’ve lived through everything, quarters, semesters, and everyone’s like ‘oh everything was so much better on quarters’ and yada yada,” he said. “People don’t realize what’s going on and taking action. What’s going on in favor of those who want fests to go away is that you have people who have never experienced what it should be like. It’s warm, you went out, it was crazy, it pretty much went all day.”

He recalled a Palmer Fest from earlier this decade where he worked from 1 p.m. until 11 p.m.

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“I remember the police officer came over and said the noise ordinance was going into effect in five minutes and we had to shut down,” he said “We could’ve gotten louder, but we worn ourselves out from partying all day. What I’m saying is I remember that, I was there. But people who have come in on semesters think (present day festing) is what it is. You don’t have alumni here saying this is how it should be, you’ve got people thinking ‘ah it’s cold I don’t wanna go.’ But I don’t feel like (the writing is) on the wall, people are still going out. We will party no matter what.”

Nuisance party enforcement

In the aftermath of the Palmer Fest fire of 2012, city officials needed to figure out a way to help shut down parties more easily so incidents such as that wouldn’t repeat.

Enter a beefed-up Nuisance Party Ordinance, which provides police with broad power to shut a party down for almost any reason deemed fitting. In 2014, a record number of nuisance party violations were recorded by APD, and Wiehl said in a previous Post report that the total will be substantially higher this year.

The law allows for police to shut a party down for reasons stretching from the blocking of sidewalks, an excessive amount of litter, unsafe conditions or “any other conduct or condition that threatens injury, inconvenience, or alarm to persons or damage to property,” per the law.

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Pyle has said, since his department has increased enforcement of the law, both rape complaints against fest-goers and use-of-force complaints against officers have dropped considerably.

“People attending are not expecting a riot now,” he said. “They’re expecting strict enforcement of the nuisance party (ordinance).”

And, from a police perspective, if what you’re doing is leading to fewer complaints against your own officers and fewer serious crimes occurring, why wouldn’t you continue to enforce the fests strictly?

“We’re shutting them down preemptively, not preemptively as in before they break the law, but before they break more serious laws, more serious offenses,” Harvey said. “We don’t get to the point where they’re so intoxicated somebody drags a couch out onto the road because we’re shutting it off earlier and enforcing the laws in place to do that with.

“You’ve got something that works, you keep working that,” he added.

Wiehl has said the change in enforcement is the result of the city trying to get ahead of the unruliness associated with the street fests.

“The longer you wait, the more alcohol gets consumed and the harder it is to control,” he said. “The expectations have been working well, people disperse, it’s a lot quieter as a result.”

The first thing officers look for when deciding whether to shut a party down — this is coming after warnings — is trash in the yards and then, belligerent partygoers.

“We certainly did not go out with the goal of shutting down fests earlier, but a byproduct of the large crowds at each of the fests created the conditions of us needing to shut them down earlier,” Pyle said. “Borderline belligerent in some cases. Several houses this year people were peeing within public view, some in the backyards as well. Daycare kids from the Lutheran Church were in plain site.”

Not every house was shut down by the police, Harvey said, but those houses were extremely few and far between. Pyle said some houses even called the department to help shut their own parties down.


It’s not just strict enforcement and cold weather making fests calmer, a big change has been the actions of those in attendance.

People are behaving better.

“I think that’s clearly reflected in the number of arrests,” Claar said. “They’re down from where they used to be.”

For Hall-Jones, the improved behavior has been a big relief.

“Like, do I go to bed at night anxious that I’m going to get a phone call about a fire or a student death? No,” she said. “From that perspective, the dying off of the extreme high-risk behavior, yeah. I haven’t seen a lot of that extreme high-risk behavior lately, which I’m pleased with and excited about.”

However, she doesn’t believe the fests are dying off in terms of attendance.

“We haven’t had bad situations at the fests for three years now,” Pyle said. “I don’t see that changing. I actually think people prefer the way fests are today. At least, maybe the residents.”

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And, although Pyle still said he witnesses over-the-top behavior, it’s nothing like what it once was.

“Out-of-control today compared with out-of-control in 2010, 2011 and 2012 is something completely different,” he said. “This should be the last group of people who attended a fest where it was a riotous situation. I think we’ve been very effective in changing the culture.”

The fest-street residents who used to think about how absurd their parties could be, well, aren’t plotting to the same extreme.

“People who used to be thinking ‘I’m going to have an out-of-control party’ aren’t there,” Harvey said. “Residents now don’t seem to be thinking like that. Better majority are the ones who want to enjoy themselves.”

The future

Wiehl doesn’t see fest season dying completely, but he wouldn’t lose sleep if the city didn’t have to spend between $40-$50,000 a year on them.

“We could spend it elsewhere that be nice, but we accept that these happen and it’s our responsibility to make it safe,” he said. “We try to streamline it and make it less costly. If you have to have someone there for 12 hours instead of 15, you’ll pay less.”

The police officers were insistent their intention is not to end the fests for good.

“If (students) want to fest, they can fest,” Pyle said. “The city of Athens, through ordinances, is saying you can do it, but here’s how you do it responsibly and if not, here is the repercussion. If that enforcement leads to the slow death of fests, that’s not our intent, but so be it.”

Harvey recalled the fest-landscape when he attended OU in the mid-1970s, and since he’s been in Athens ever since, he’s seen the annual parties evolve and change, regardless of police enforcement.

“The fests have come and gone,” he said. “There was Spring Fest. Then there were fests on the greens. Then various streets have had their fests. If Mill Fest stops happening as Mill Fest, it may be for a number of reasons. Before we changed anything in the early and mid 90s, there were things that waned. There are streets; you probably never heard of Franklin Street Fest, there was a weekend on Franklin Street with a bunch of big parties when I went to college. Were there as many people as Palmer Fest this year? No. But these things come and go. And I foresee this being another evolution of that.”

Although the fests don’t carry the same level of infamy they once did, Hall-Jones still sees students getting excited about them, regardless of how early they’re shut down or how bad the weather is.

“I think how the parties are managed might be changing,” she said. “I don’t see them going away.”

She added, though, that a good byproduct of the reputation of fests “dying” is that the out-of-towners will stop showing up.

“It would be really messed up to see fest season end,” Thompson said. “We pride ourselves on working hard and partying hard. I don’t think (fest season is) going to go away, it’ll just transition to something else if it has to change. We’re just too creative for (it to die).” 


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