Playback: Welcome to Terrordome: Sixth Street During SXSW

Appraising APD's solution to Sixth Street during SXSW

Texas Relays was a walk in the park compared to SXSW's music weekend on Sixth Street. (Courtesy of Alyssa Wilson)

Last Saturday night on Sixth Street, closing time: Local wisdom cautions you to avoid "Dirty Sixth" during Texas Relays, a track and field summit drawing a largely African-American crowd to the city's entertainment district, but I've been here all night and no one's picked my pocket, tried to sell me Molly, nor have I witnessed a single fight. Police officers leaning on orange and white crowd-control barriers look a little bored.

Compare that to the havoc of two weeks prior, on the final night of South by Southwest: A barricaded police lane in the center of the street pushes crowds to the side and creates a human traffic jam. Loiterers start fights and sell drugs, and a stampede ensues after a 22-year-old Killeen resident fires warning shots into the sky after an argument. No wonder APD Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain calls Sixth Street during the Festival a "challenging environment for public safety."

Others call it bad for business.

A source at SXSW says that Saturday door totals for their venues on the local equivalent to New Orleans' Bourbon Street came in at one-third of the previous year's numbers, and that Friday was down as well. Bartenders up and down the street confirm that they netted significantly less tips over the last two Festivals. That's because the real party is in the street, which compelled APD to erect a roughly 20-foot-wide open artery in the center of Sixth during SXSW.

Rather than allowing space for emergency or official use vehicles, the lane, which debuted last Halloween, helps officers manage the crowd, according to McIlvain.

"It really comes down to officer safety," he says. "It creates a safe zone where we can more effectively view and manage the crowd and not be completely surrounded at all times. When you don't have that, it becomes so dense that it's hard to even keep track of your fellow officers, and they're pushed to the walls."

Bob Woody, a major Sixth Street stakeholder whose bars include Shakespeare's Pub, the Blind Pig, and Coppertank, believes the barricade configuration contributed to the air of hostility on Sixth during SXSW.

"It makes the street more crowded and creates pinch points," he offers. "When you inhibit people's possession of space, that's when things get bad."

McIlvain expects APD to repeat the barricade during next year's SXSW.

"If that means we have a little backed-up foot traffic, we know and anticipate that, but it's part of dealing with the overall situation," he explains.

Local garage-blues duo the Ghost Wolves canceled a Saturday night SXSW show at B.D. Riley's due to the chaos on Sixth. The band's sound engineer, Joe Ben Clark, says that he and drummer Jonathan Wolf parked the van and sojourned down Sixth at 7pm to check out the bar and load in for their 10pm set.

"The energy was so negative down there. The street was full of people who were angry and all you could hear was 'Molly! Bars! Weed! Ecstasy!'" he recalls. "You'd be checking your wallet to see if you got skimmed yet. It was hard to even walk to the bar, so the band made the decision to cancel."

McIlvain says APD made at least 29 narcotics-related arrests on or near Sixth Street between March 11 and March 20. In addition to APD's "eye in the sky," SXSW also has cameras trained on the thoroughfare.

"We have a command center and we see people constantly dealing drugs," confirmed the SXSW source.

Veteran Austinites may remember a time when SXSW was condemned for being too white. Now it's criticized for being a lighthouse for hip-hop devotees. Like Miami's Urban Beach Week, another spring gathering where minorities become the majority, it exposes the racial attitudes of locals.

During a casual conversation, I asked one local businessman who co-owns multiple bars on Sixth, "How was SXSW for you?"

"Too many niggers," he replied, not knowing I'm a reporter, then threatened to sue me if quoted.

The shifting of racial demographics amongst those who visit Austin during the Festival is widely attributed to SXSW booking more hip-hop, but ancillary events like Fader Fort, which has presented both Kanye West and, this year, Drake, and Vevo's 2011 takeover of the Seaholm Power Plant with West and Jay Z, have conditioned fans of hip-hop to come from all over the state to SXSW sans wristband with the expectation of seeing major rappers for free.

Bob Woody, whose Coppertank is a major Downtown venue at SXSW, says the buck stops with the Festival.

"SXSW needs to take all responsibility for anything that happens inside the enclosure because the reason the street is shut down all day is for the crowds expected for their event," he says. "Even the barrier lane is SXSW's fault because they didn't present a better idea to the police department."

SXSW sees the lawless atmosphere of Sixth Street as a year-round concern.

"We're not going to be able to solve the problems of Sixth Street during SXSW if we don't solve it the rest of the year on weekends," maintains our source. "I think the only solution is to stop closing the street year-round."

Opening the entertainment district to cars Thursday through Saturday nights isn't as counterintuitive as it sounds. In 2005, Tampa officials attempted to clean up crime in Ybor City's Seventh Avenue party strip by opening it up to vehicles on the weekend and, thus, eliminating the party-in-the-street mentality. The following year, a group comprised of APD staff and Pecan Street Owners Association members visited Ybor City and wrote in their report that, "Opening to cars eliminated the 'Wild West' atmosphere." Crime dropped 20% in the first year. Our source noted that it'd require widening sidewalks and removing parking spaces for that to work on Sixth.

Woody disagrees, saying the traffic closure on Sixth is a necessity and there would be safety issues if it were opened up to cars. He has his own suggestion for a way to tamp down the street party during SXSW.

"I'd have no problem with taking underage people off these streets – gating the crowd, getting IDs checked and backpacks looked at, and enforcing the curfew," he says, referring to the 11pm juvenile curfew for Sixth Street that APD doesn't actively enforce. "I think it would take 15-20% of the crowd away, and I'm fine with that because it's only taking the possibility of a noncustomer out of the equation."

Half Notes

Explosions in the Sky played an intimate set at End of an Ear last Friday. "It's been 16 years since we've played an in-store," confirmed guitarist Munaf Rayani. The homegrown instrumental quintet levitated five songs from eclectic new LP The Wilderness (see "Texas Platters," Apr. 8), peaking with heavy exploration "Disintegration Anxiety." Afterward, Rayani requested applause for End of an Ear, saying, "We're lucky to have a record store like this in Austin." Earlier that week, after a worker at adjoining retailer New Brohemia told "Playback" the building had been sold and was slated for demolition, End of an Ear owner Dan Plunkett offered no comment on whether his beloved record emporium would relocate, but downplayed the situation's severity, saying nothing is happening right now.

Asleep at the Wheel has weathered its 1,000th personnel change with pianist/singer Emily Gimble leaving the landmark swing act after two years to focus on her solo career. The band's management is staying mum on her replacement, but it's clear that deluxe pianist Connor Forsyth will tickle their keys for the time being.

Behind the Lens: Two Sixties-specialized music photographers, Pattie Boyd and Henry Diltz, hit us with their best shots Friday at Stateside at the Paramount Theatre. Diltz shot the Doors' Morrison Hotel cover and David Crosby's iconic toy gun photo. Boyd's the famous model and muse, who married both George Harrison and Eric Clapton while inspiring "Layla," "Wonderful Tonight," and the Beatles' "Something."

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SXSW, SXSW Music 2016, Bob Woody, APD Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain, Ghost Wolves, Explosions in the Sky, End of an Ear, Emily Gimble, Pattie Boyd

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