Bike racks and chain-link fences almost kept Hopscotch from happening.
In early 2010, nine months before the inaugural festival brought Public Enemy and Panda Bear to its headlining outdoor stage, no one knew how to use Fayetteville Street as a ticketed music venue. When the city reopened that road to traffic in 2006, it added a slight berth at the end opposite the state capitol, intending to use it as a central events space. The city had also designed a hidden infrastructure of electrical outlets and multimedia access points, allowing for easy, adaptable use.
In the years prior to Hopscotch, street fairs and holiday concerts had indeed started supplying new vitality to what had been a withering pedestrian mall. But the next logical move—selling tickets, sealing it off, starting a ticket gate—remained a mystery.
In fact, while Hopscotch co-founder Greg Lowenhagen and I sat in a conference room in the offices of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, we were told it couldn't be done, that the move was too risky for Raleigh. The challenge was to cordon off the area known as City Plaza with temporary walls, much like any amphitheater or rock club might do in order to control entrance and egress. The obvious choice, it seemed, was a combination of medium-height fences and lower metal racks, which would outline the streets and a backstage area.
"But what if something bad happened?" wondered the police and fire officials on hand. "How could people get out without it becoming a trampling stampede?" Their answer, simply and dishearteningly, was that it was impossible. If Hopscotch or any organization wanted to use Raleigh's public square, safety concerns meant it couldn't be a private, ticketed event.
David Diaz now laughs at his memories of that rather tense meeting. By that point, Diaz had worked as the president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance for less than three years. Part of his charge was to attract and encourage new events downtown, to utilize the space that the city had spent so much time and money building. And here he was with an opportunity that someone else had developed and handed to him. He simply had to get behind it. But he worried he wouldn't be able to do the job.
"It was understood that, even though the street was built, it wasn't going to get activated on its own. But the staff and the city were not accustomed to seeing new things. It was pretty straightforward until then—a parade, First Night, Artsplosure, long-term events," remembers Diaz, who still holds the same post. "But we quickly saw the potential of Hopscotch, and we felt like we had to go to bat for it and cut through the bureaucracy."
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The masterstroke came several days later, when, staring at an architectural drawing of the space, Lowenhagen realized that the fence already existed. A set of buildings—two hotels, two banks, Progress Energy and the then-empty space allocated for Charter Square—formed a barrier higher and thicker than any fence could. Control the alleyways between them and the ends of Fayetteville Street, and the venue had built itself. It was the brilliant strategy that, in essence, created Hopscotch as you see it now while adding the next level of possibility to City Plaza itself. The move spotlighted the city's flexibility in the presence of a good idea.
Though I no longer work for or with Hopscotch, I think about this scenario often these days. (The INDY sold Hopscotch after the 2012 festival, and I resigned after the 2013 event.) At the moment, Raleigh faces a preponderance of problems related to its monumental downtown growth during the last decade: noise levels on the very street Hopscotch shuts down each year and questions about how best to foster affordable housing and diverse communities nearby; the fate of a 300 acre-plus plot of beautiful land and the future of retail in a district with high rents and limited space; left-hand turns and parking deck rates on weekends.
All of these challenges for Raleigh's present and future reflect the need to confront new issues that, until recently, very few people actually expected the city to have. And as they've all seemed to mount so quickly, the search for solutions has, much like that day in the DRA conference room, sometimes grown contentious. Fighting so much institutional inertia, of course, is bound to create friction—and, hopefully, some ingenious answers.
To wit, when Diaz first took his job, there were at most a few dozen events downtown throughout the year. His office worked to help build the roster. Now there is more interest from events than there is calendar room for them—so many that the city's own Special Events Office, created just last year, oversees their approval, not Diaz's own DRA. Diaz can advocate without arbitrating and, more important, turn his attention and energy to other woes, like bolstering retail in the same zone that once lacked sufficient spectacles.
Only six years ago, the idea of a major concert downtown hinged almost entirely on something called "Bud Light Presents Raleigh Downtown Live," a free series presented in Moore Square by the city and the local management company Deep South. A mix of alternative rock survivors, one-hit wonders and upcoming local acts played daylong shows in the park throughout the summer for five years. At that moment, those meager and gratis offerings were enough to recruit people from outside of downtown for an evening.
But really, these events helped set the bait for what was to come, like the Red Hat Amphitheater, which opened the summer after the final Raleigh Downtown Live, and Hopscotch, which sealed off Fayetteville Street three months later. And now, of course, the options have started to seem overwhelming. Red Hat brings several dozen shows downtown each summer. The International Bluegrass Music Association lures a few hundred acts and a few hundred thousand people into the city center each autumn. And at last, a sustainable network of rock clubs and bars pulls in talent most every night of the week. Just more than five years ago, Kings didn't even have a home in downtown Raleigh.
Back in that conference room in 2010, the current scenario would have sounded like science fiction, a speculative future that seemed too ambitious to be actualized. But six years into Hopscotch, the memory is a reminder of what can happen when a town wants to evolve—and when it isn't satisfactory to call an audacious idea impossible because the solution isn't obvious.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Game on"