Beach Party Blues

Galveston grapples with economic woes, racial overtones and new ways out of a spring festival

Tourism drives the Galveston economy, and so it would seem residents would welcome a yearly event that attracts about 150,000 visitors in April. But now city officials are looking to the east -- East Beach, that is -- to try to corral the raging, unwanted beast that has become Beach Party Weekend.

The informal festivities, which begin this year on April 19, draw the ire of a growing number of Galvestonians who say the unruly crowds -- and municipal costs -- add up to an annual disaster.

The event began in the mid-'80s as Kappa Beach Party, a gathering of college students hosted by the historically black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. During the '90s, crowds grew enormously, and the beach event morphed into a cruising spectacle replete with rowdiness, loud music and scenes that would fit perfectly into videos hawked on late-night TV with ads that scream: "These girls are WILD!"

Guidry News Service
Visitors show off stretch limos and ample skin for the wild weekend.
Guidry News Service
Visitors show off stretch limos and ample skin for the wild weekend.

Galveston Police Chief Bob Pierce says most of the 150,000 visitors spend their waking hours cruising a ten-mile wedge formed by the two main streets of Broadway and Seawall Boulevard. An estimated 50,000 vehicles create traffic nightmares that disrupt local life to the extent that dozens of businesses close because their employees can't get to work. Some Galvestonians perceive that they are being held hostage in their own city, and forced to pay for it.

Crowds have become decidedly less collegiate -- Kappa Alpha Psi disassociated itself from the event a few years ago -- and increasingly vocal citizens complain that the event has become little more than an exercise in lawlessness and near-total disregard for island sensibilities.

Clouding the issues of traffic, noise, nudity and littering are allegations of racism. Beach Party attendees are mostly black, and many of Galveston's African-Americans say the carousing is not much different from that of the mostly white or racially mixed crowds that descend on the island during Mardi Gras or spring break. Others say that if Beach Party were a similar gathering of white youths, the event would have been banned long ago. The argument has divided the city along somewhat predictable racial lines.

"I think a lot of [the opposition] is racial," says Dwayne Darden. The 34-year-old Houstonian operates kappabeachfest.com, one of a dozen or so Web sites devoted to Beach Party. "I always try to put myself in the other guy's shoes, and I understand how people might fear a large crowd of blacks invading their town. But it's only for two days, and I think that if they came out and maybe participated a little bit, they might enjoy it."

Meyer Reiswerg, better known as the proprietor of Col. Bubbie's Strand Surplus Senter, agrees that some objections to Beach Party are racially motivated. "But I'm Jewish, and if 150,000 Hasidic Jews came down here and behaved the way these people behaved, I'd be just as opposed to it."

Many merchants say the only attention they pay to color is the red ink on their balance sheets.

Reiswerg's store is located in the downtown Strand District. That normally vibrant area is virtually deserted during Beach Party, because access is often blocked by the traffic jams elsewhere.

"Our season lasts from April to August, and they are taking away one of those 16 weekends we have. That's almost 10 percent of our business," says Reiswerg. "We make our money off tourists, and these people do not act like tourists. They bring their own food and liquor."

Darden agrees that Beach Party participants don't lavish their cash on the locals. "We don't go to Galveston to spend money," he says.

What appears to be beyond dispute is that Beach Party Weekend is a financial loss for the city, while Mardi Gras and spring break rain dollars down upon the island. Paula Ozymy, special events coordinator for the city, says Beach Party costs Galveston's taxpayers about $400,000 for port-a-johns, cleanup and approximately 700 additional police officers.

"I don't really buy that $400,000 figure," says City Councilman Joe Jaworski. "We spend that money, but the hotels are full, and sales tax revenues are up. We don't lose a whole lot of money." But Jaworski acknowledges that the event discourages the family-type tourism that Galveston businesses crave. The city has unsuccessfully attempted to recoup expenses in the past through vendor licensing and a $20 "cruising fee," a plan tried and rejected by state officials because it improperly denied access to public beaches.

This year the city will license no outside vendors, and parking will be banned on Seawall Boulevard. Those who want to go to the beach that weekend will have to park at one of three off-site lots in Galveston and take free city shuttle buses.

Ozymy says an effort is being made to shift Beach Party activities "eastward and beachward." The hope is to gradually move the event to East Beach, miles away from residential areas. Concerts will be held there on Saturday and Sunday, and promoters hope to attract thousands with live music, bikini contests, and basketball and domino tournaments. According to Allan Flores, who has concession rights on East Beach, the plan is "to turn the event into more of a festival." The cost for the all-day gathering will be $30 per vehicle.

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