You may have seen these signs around South Orange advertising “Downtown After Sundown” concerts in Spiotta Park and Sloan Street this July. Outdoor concerts are, of course, a summer staple. But in this case,
they’re they’ve also served as part of a strategy to keep the streets safe — and avoid a repeat of the flash mob that converged on South Orange Avenue this March.
That unusually warm night, between 300 and 500 young people suddenly converged on South Orange Avenue and stormed through the village streets in a melee that is thought to have been ignited by social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Flash mobs, a term coined in 2003 for impromptu gatherings stirred up by cell phones and pagers, were described in a 2003 article by Rob Walker for The New York Times Magazine as a “fad,” all in fun — an assembly of the “well-wired folks who gather suddenly, perform some specific but innocuous act, then promptly scatter.”
But the incident in South Orange was part of a string of flash mob incidents that had taken a more sinister and violent turn, with arrests and injuries reported in Philadelphia and New York in the past year.
There were no injuries reported in South Orange that night, but there were arrests for fighting and a robbery of an iPod. There was a similar, but smaller impromptu gathering downtown South Orange last August, which prompted residents to demand action from authorities.
In response, village administrators and the police department
and Main Street South Orange put a plan into place to increase the police presence on the weekends and encourage adults and families to gather in town squares to listen to music or to safely stroll the streets. A Citizen’s Public Safety Advisory Committee, which was formed about six months prior to the March 20 incident, and meetings held a meeting on the Thursday following the melee with members of the South Orange Board of Trustees and police.
Village president Doug Newman sought to assure residents and local media afterwards that South Orange streets are safe.
And in mid-April, Main Street South Orange and the village announced Downtown after Sundown, a series of summer concerts — part of a planned effort devised before March 20 to attract residents into South Orange’s downtown on Friday and Saturday evenings built on last summer’s Staycation Concert series — would be held every Friday and Saturday night in Spiotta Park and on Sloan Street through July. Both locations are in the center of the downtown.
Tonight’s concert on Sloan Street features the Courtney Sappington Jazz Duo and in Spiotta Park, the Holli Ross Trio will perform. The concerts run from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
South Orange police are also monitoring streets and social media to catch any call-out to gather.
According to Board of Trustee member Michael Goldberg, the concerts have been a successful and welcomed addition to South Orange Avenue and have given the downtown a “great vibe.” He added, “The feedback from residents, police and performers has all been very positive.”
But what happens in August, when the concerts are slated to end?
“We have just received generous sponsorship from a number of merchants (details to be released shortly), which will allow us to fund concerts through the month of August,” said Goldberg. “Tonight, one concert is generously sponsored by The UPS Store and The Beaded Path.”
Goldberg also said that the Public Safety Advisory Committee meets monthly and is planning a National Night Out for Tuesday, August 3 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Flood’s Hill in South Orange.
“They are also doing research on the creation of an auxiliary police department and a combination fire department to consider supplementing our career public safety staff with volunteers,” said Goldberg.
Has the police monitoring of social networking sites actually prevented any mobs from flashing? The question has been posed to the South Orange Police Department, including to Chief Jim Chelel. We’ll update when we hear back.