Thursday, 03 March 2022 11:51

Caroline Street After Dark

Caroline Street at night. Photo by John Seymour. Caroline Street at night. Photo by John Seymour.

A Decades-long Dilemma for City Officials, Residents, and Tourism Advocates

Bar. 

Bar. 

Restaurant & Bar.

Pizza joint. 

Car lot. 

Bar. Tavern. Bar, bar, bar. 

There are at least 16 venues that boast a variety of libations in the imbibing emporium that sprawls across the westernmost part of Caroline Street and its adjacent pedestrian thoroughfares.

Nestled in a concentrated terrain of downtown Saratoga Springs, it has showcased a party-like atmosphere for several decades. For nearly as long it has drawn the ire of some city leaders and the public alike, each making calls to tamp down the festivities. 

Highlighted by a spate of arrests and charges related to violent acts over the past few months, there is an increased focus on activities on Caroline Street after dark. Whether detrimental activities are actually on the rise or are a perceived reality as a result of a vibrant social age is one point of debate. Some information may soon be forthcoming with the pending release of the city’s Department of Public Safety annual report. And while it will not provide a block-by-block examination of police-related activity during the 2021 calendar year, it is anticipated to contain the number of calls for service and arrests to provide data that may serve as a comparison to previous years of reported activity.    

Are things more active in terms of arrests today than has been the case in the past? 

“It’s a good question,” says Public Safety Commissioner Jim Montagnino. “We’re just putting the finishing touches on our annual report, so I don’t know the answer. I suspect if there is an uptick it’s a relatively minor one, but it’s been getting more attention, and because it’s been getting more attention the perception is that there’s more happening.”    

Over a five-year period between 2016-2020, the city had averaged approximately 30,500 calls for service, 1,290 arrests, and 28.33 incidents involving uses of force per year, according to the city of Saratoga Springs Police Department 2020 year-end report, which was released February 2021. 

That Was Then

After a 20-year run, the brakes were pumped on the annual Caroline Street Block Party after the year-2000 gathering saw an expected crowd of 5,000 grow to approximately three times that size. A number of customers at Gaffney’s required treatment at Saratoga Hospital after a bottle-throwing incident. Some partiers were witnessed climbing construction scaffolding downtown. Others simply had passed out, according to published reports. 

Despite organizers’ claims that only a small number of people caused the majority of the problems, city officials stepped in to caution that changes needed to be made. 

“We want to change the focus a little bit,” then-Gaffney’s Restaurant owner and member of the Caroline Street Association John Baker told The Saratogian at the time, announcing the annual gathering would be moving to a jazz and blues festival format.  “This will attract a different kind of crowd. We want to take it away from a rock-and-roll focus,” said Baker. 

More recently, there have been periodic attempts to change the city bar closing times to earlier in the evening. 

A decade ago, then-Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen had designs to change the last call in the city from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m. in the aftermath of a Caroline Street brawl that involved hundreds of people and resulted in several arrests and injuries to a handful of city police officers. Similarly citing public safety concerns last summer, then-Commissioner Robin Dalton attempted to move a measure that would change the closing time from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. 

“I am personally worried about the safety of my police officers every night when they go out, especially between those hours and the safety of the people coming to enjoy our nightlife,” Dalton told the council last August. The City Council adopted a resolution to do so, but the measure also requires the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors as well as the State Liquor Authority to be on board. 

“I wouldn’t change anything about downtown Caroline Street as far as hours,” says Zack Lynch, a photojournalist, and local resident for 45 years. “Closing bars earlier is not going to help. It’s not as if shaving an hour off is going to help anything. People will still be there. They’ll just be getting out earlier and causing the same problems.”

Since September, Lynch has spent a considerable amount of time in the late-night and early-morning hours downtown capturing street images along Caroline Street. 

“Downtown Saratoga as far as I can tell is the same as it has ever been Sunday to Thursday. Friday is a typical busy night, but on Saturday that intersection of Caroline Street and Putnam late at night is just chaos. It’s something different than it’s ever been,” says Lynch.   

Bypassing his traditional photo equipment, Lynch has been using phone cams and dashboard cams to capture the street footage. What began as a project initiated as a recovery exercise following a car accident in which he was seriously injured manifested into a decision to use art to help a social issue, he says.     

“I’ve been down there for 24 weekends. I’ve seen three stabbing victims, six assault victims. I’ve seen eight people on the ground, some bleeding, unconscious. I’ve seen over 20 ambulances. I counted them,” Lynch says.  “As Saratogians we know that there’s a Track Season, and then there’s an Off Season – when there‘s not the chaos, the overload of business, the tourists; when we all get to relax and go back to normal. When they leave we get our town back. Now on Saturday nights in Saratoga we lose our town again.” 

The footage he shares pinpoints an increase of activity at the crossroads of Caroline and Putnam streets at about 3 a.m., when crowds spill onto the street at closing time, filling much of the thoroughfare with revelers overseen by a handful of police officers. Much of the problem, he says, begins: “When they close the doors to say the night’s over.” 

“The police are light-handed and even-tempered. I can’t find one shred of bad cops and I’ve watched them make so many arrests. I’m watching them too,” Lynch says. “And the owners of the places who I know are stand-up people there for the long haul and there for the community. The chaos is pretty much located to one day a week. It’s just one thing, but it makes it all look bad.”   

Seeking Reasons, Exploring Solutions

“We’re certainly working with a goal in mind to have more officers present,” says Public Safety Commissioner Jim Montagnino. “We’re looking into trying to maximize the number of officers who are physically present.” 

Montagnino has heard the commentary from some in the local community pointing to out-of-town visitors as the cause of Saturday late-night problems.   

“We are Saratoga. We’ve got the reputation of being a party place where folks from out-of-town come to visit. It doesn’t surprise me that we have large groups of people who come from out of town and so the people getting involved in incidents as victims or as perpetrators – there’s a good possibility they’re going to be from out of town,” he says. “My recollection (however) is that there were also a few serious incidents in recent years where the perpetrators and the victims were locals.”   

Montagnino, who became Public Safety Commissioner on Jan. 1, has received some public push-back regarding recent comments he made that were published in The Gazette regarding late-night disturbances on Caroline Street. “What I’m told is that there are some unsavory characters who enjoy the gangster rap, and late on a Saturday night tempers sometimes flare,” the commissioner said in the article, which was published in February. 

This week, Montagnino apologized for making those comments. 

“I’ve heard what people have said. I’m 66 years old and I think I’m mature enough to know when I’ve made a mistake, and this is certainly one of those times,” Montagnino said during the March 1 City Council meeting. “I apologize if I insulted or offended anyone. That was not my intent.” 

He subsequently went on to explain what had initiated his commentary by reciting the lyrics of “Shake That,” a 2005 song by Eminem and Nate Dogg. “I’m not excusing what I said, I just want to give a little background,” the commissioner continued. “’If you don’t have a weapon just pick up a rock’ – that’s a lyric in the song… my belief, and I might be wrong, is under certain circumstances (identified as drinking alcohol and lacking sound judgement) people might act when encouraged by violent language.” Commentary uttered from the space in the room where the public was seated suggested he probably should have quit while he was ahead.    

The city’s Department of Public Safety is slated to release its annual report on March 14. 

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