News: Oktoberfest Uber Alles

Strudel fans don't cruise, and other lessons from Cincinnati festivals

A drunk driver at Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati last year injured 23 people, including three police officers, but the city doesn't plan to close more downtown streets during this weekend's event — not like the city did during Ujima Cincibration, the African-American heritage festival held on July 28-30.

Oktoberfest draws an estimated 500,000 people downtown, more than three times the estimated attendance for Ujima. But the traffic restrictions imposed during this year's Ujima — with streets closed from Central Parkway to the riverfront — were much more severe.

The German celebration of beer, music, dancing and beer doesn't pose the same traffic hazards as Ujima, according to Lt. Ron Higgins in the Cincinnati Police Division's event-planning unit.

"Nobody comes down to Oktoberfest to cruise," Higgins says. "They come down to have a good time within the event, and then they leave."

Ujima festivalgoers, however, clog the streets, obstructing access by emergency vehicles, according to Higgins.

"The streets just started gridlocking, and we couldn't control the streets," he says. "In a nutshell, it doesn't occur during Oktoberfest."

During Oktoberfest, police will close Fifth Street between Race and Broadway.

That's actually one block longer than the planned closing for Ujima.

The shutdown of the rest of downtown during Ujima occurred near 11 p.m. each night.

"We work as hard as we can to keep the streets open as long as we can," Higgins says.

Roads aren't the only facilities that were closed for Ujima but are expected to remain open for Oktoberfest. The same applies to downtown restaurants.

Members of Cincinnati Black United Front are picketing Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, Maisonette and other restaurants that closed during Ujima. Restaurant owners argue they closed because Ujima and the Jazz Festival, held the same weekend, produce periods of slow business.

But the closings were racially motivated, according to Cincinnati Black United Front.

"We are embarrassed and ashamed of our city's showy display of invidious discrimination, and we demand that things change," says Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church who organized the restaurant pickets.

A statement by Black United Front said the restaurant closings during Ujima are part of a pattern of police shootings, racial profiling of drivers and other perceived discrimination.

"The closing of the restaurants during the Jazz Festival is just an indicator of the disregard for black people that permeates the city of Cincinnati," the statement says.

Jeff Ruby, owner of the steakhouse of the same name, says picketers are unfairly targeting him. The steakhouse closed during Ujima for business reasons, he says.

"I'm not a racist," Ruby says. "I'm an economist. I want to show the black community I'm with them. I understand their suspicions, and I understand there's racism. They just got the wrong guy."

Next year the steakhouse will be open during Ujima, Ruby says. Black United Front exaggerates the size of the Ujima crowd, he says, but his restaurant will open in order to prove it doesn't discriminate.

"There ain't no 150,000 people downtown," he says. "That's bullshit. Those people got other things to do."

The pickets have actually helped business, according to Ruby.

"From a personal standpoint, it hurts, because they're wrong," he says. "But from an economic standpoint, the picketing has helped our business. This past Saturday night was the best Saturday night we've ever had there."

Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, Plaza 600, Nicholson's and other restaurants that closed during Ujima will be open for Oktoberfest.

"The Germans would be picketing me," Ruby says. "I'm definitely going to be open."

Among demands issued by Black United Front are a written apology from restaurant owners and changes in city planning for festivals. Demands include "that the city of Cincinnati adopt a policy requiring the Cincinnati Police Division to handle street closings for African-American events and festivals in the same way they handle street closings for non-African-American festivals and events."

Members of the group say they will seek economic sanctions against Cincinnati, including a boycott by black performers, unless their demands are met. ©

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