Friday, July 25, 1997
Parents hold key
to safer jazz festival

The Cincinnati Enquirer

For years they've heard the glowing stories.

Their parents went to the jazz festival with aunts and uncles and next-door neighbors. As soon as they grew up, older brothers and sisters went, too.

Everybody came back raving about what a good time they had downtown, both at the stadium and later in crowded downtown streets full of impromptu post-concert parties. Even though the name changed, from the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival to the Coors Light Festival, young people knew it was the same good time.

This year the talk has been about gunfire and crazy kids, about three senseless shootings, about one man who died.

The 35-year-old summer festival had become a rite of passage for young black Cincinnatians, a night to dress up, check out everyone else and have a good time. Now that passage and the images of a summer weekend devoted to music are threatened by violence and guns.

Monique Ross of Mount Healthy celebrated her 18th birthday at the festival. She went down to Fountain Square ''to hang out.'' It was her first festival.

''I've heard about it all my life,'' Monique says. ''People, cars, dancing in the street. I've always wanted to go.''

''It's the only thing going on in Cincinnati during the summer,'' says 20-year-old Jenae Johnson of College Hill. The fourth-year mechanical engineering student at North Carolina A&T went to the stadium concerts on Friday and Saturday nights. She only visited the square ''for a few fast seconds. Too crazy.''

But ''when you get old enough,'' she adds, ''you just have to go to it.''

Young crowd on square

Old enough is a relative term. This year the young adults were joined by kids, children 12 or 13, hanging out till 3 a.m. on Fountain Square.

Malik Hocker has been to four festivals. The 6-foot, 5-inch 250-pound University of Cincinnati sophomore from Forest Park never saw a crowd this young.

''These kids - some as little as 10 - came down to stay up all night and talk to the girls. You do that when you're a grown man. Not when you're a kid.''

Mike Housen is 20. The first-year student at Cincinnati State has visited the square ''for the last four festivals. It's a big party. You wear new clothes, meet people from out of town, talk to girls, maybe get a few phone numbers.''

Gunfire was not on the program.

''I heard two shots around midnight,'' he says. ''People were frightened at first. But there were so many firecrackers going off, we ignored the noise.''

At the sound of gunfire, Monique and two friends started running. Seeing ''one person all hurt and bloody'' ended their evening of fun.

Monique found a phone, called her mother and headed for their pick-up spot at Eighth and Walnut. Streets were jammed with cars going nowhere fast.

Two blocks away, Jenae Johnson sat in her car ''with the windows rolled down, the music turned up and us singing.''

From where she sat, Jenae didn't see any violence - ''just people getting out of their cars and dancing.''

Monique saw ''guys getting jumped and robbed. People hopping onto cars. One female pulled from her car and beaten up. I'm never going back.''

The threat of trouble kept Malik Hocker on Fountain Square. ''The rest of downtown is too dangerous.''

Still, he insists he had a ''nice time.'' He met ''people from all over, California, Florida, Chicago, Detroit. They said they liked Cincinnati. Made me feel good.''

He'll be back next year, but he hopes things will be better. ''I don't want to be one of the people who gets shot.''

Teach your children

The city is trying to curb the violence. A task force has been formed. Reports will be written. Recommendations made.

In the end, Jenae Johnson doesn't expect it to amount to much.

''Any time you get that many people hanging out on Fountain Square, you're going to have somebody causing trouble.''

Malik Hocker wants the police to enforce the curfew laws. ''Just get rid of those kids.''

As far as I'm concerned, home is where the answer is. Adults who enjoyed previous festival parties need to do their part. Keep your young children home. Keep your older children in line. That way all the young people who've heard the stories can have as nice a time as you did.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.