About two years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Is Riverhead a Cracker Barrel kind of town?”
At the time, I was lamenting both the closing of the former Riverhead Project restaurant and an informal poll we had done among readers that determined Cracker Barrel was one of the five businesses they’d most like to see come to town.
Ultimately, the piece was about what I saw as the missing link to downtown revitalization here: diverse entertainment.
“If Riverhead is to see a true revitalization … downtown Riverhead needs to be fun. Sure, it needs events for families and restaurants that can be supported by those types of events, but it also needs a nightlife,” I wrote. “It needs housing and events for young adults. It needs to become a dining destination with even more restaurants.
“Patchogue comes alive after 5. Riverhead falls asleep.”
That narrative has shifted in the two years since and perhaps never more than this past week when the first Alive on 25 was held, giving the Riverhead Business Improvement District its best event yet. If you weren’t there but are familiar with Alive After Five, the best way to explain it is if everyone at the popular Patchogue event got on a giant boat — think the Noah’s Ark replica being built in Kentucky — and sailed east to Riverhead, where they docked on the riverfront and then spilled into the streets.
Ray Pickersgill, past president of the BID Management Association, said it was like a “giant block party.” While I understand the sentiment, that might even be selling this event a little short. When I think back on the one block party we had on my street growing up, all I remember is spending the whole day watching everyone’s dad slowly get drunk and waiting for the guy up the block to officially declare his pig fully roasted. The first Alive on 25 was much more fun than that day.
The BID deserves to be commended for consistently coming up with outside-the-box events to attract people downtown. The Cardboard Boat Race — when not impeded by schools of dead bunker — is a fantastic day on the riverfront. Events like Santacon and March of the Leprechauns have also helped to boost business at local bars. The Poe Festival around Halloween is also a good time.
Alive on 25 takes what works about some of these other events and adds even more food and music to the mix.
Even if I tried, I couldn’t have counted all the genuine hugs I saw people exchange last Thursday, truly happy to unexpectedly bump into someone they knew. The event also transcended age, providing one of those rare times outside of a wedding when you might see a little girl dancing next to a teenage boy and someone else’s grandma. One of my fellow editors also pointed out how great it was to see such a racially and ethnically diverse crowd, particularly in light of recent national events.
This eclectic mix of people and tastes is actually very Riverhead. This is a place where people grow up on farm properties and in waterfront houses — Polish Town and The Greens. It’s a community with more African-American and Hispanic residents than the national average. It’s a town with a raceway and an aquarium, a water park and a major shopping mall.
In other words, there are many different types of people living here and plenty of reasons for many more visitors to come. Alive on 25 seemed to bring everyone together, concentrated in one large space to enjoy so much of what makes Riverhead — and in particular its downtown — a special place.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say the beer gardens were a tad restrictive. Assuming you’re drinking casually and talking among friends, even someone who drinks just a beer or two is going to be stuck in one place and not circulating for a good amount of time. That said, I do think it made things easier on the security, EMT and police — all of whom were very present at last week’s debut — and is therefore worth keeping in place. (Patchogue also now limits drinking to restricted areas.)
Another suggestion would be to get the downtown restaurants cooking and serving food from booths in the streets. My family ate off one of the food trucks last Thursday, but then felt bad about not supporting a business that calls Riverhead home. A few years back, we attended Taste of Mystic in Connecticut and remember a system where people bought tickets worth $1 each and then walked around to different booths, dropping off a handful of tickets for a taste. With this approach people are spending a little bit of money with everyone and trying more than one thing.
Lastly, a more diverse selection of music could have been planned for the first event. Never before have I witnessed so many white men singing reggae-tinged music in one place. Perhaps the event would benefit from clearly defined areas where you know you’re getting classic rock here, country or R&B there, and just one stage playing Sublime covers.
Then again, if these little things are all I — someone who’s paid to have an opinion — have to complain about, then Alive on 25 is certainly off to a flying start.
It’s a great way to spend a Thursday night in downtown Riverhead, the perfect place to host such an event.
Photo Credit: Katharine Schroeder
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].