Manayunk seeks to build a ‘blue’ wall against race-day chaos

For many Manayunk and Roxborough residents, the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship has become a tale of two traditions: one famed, one infamous.

Since 1985, throngs of spectators from across the city and beyond have flocked to the two neighborhoods to take in an iconic section of the elite competition’s 14-mile course. A spot along the impossibly steep Lyceum Avenue – or the “Manayunk Wall” – is perhaps the most sought-after.

But a countless number of those spectators come to party as much as to cheer the racers. It’s a beer-soaked scene on normally quiet residential streets that a number of neighbors say has recently gotten out of hand and needs to be reined in.

“It’s become an unseemly situation,” says Don Simon, a long-time Roxborough resident who is a member of the Central Roxborough Civic Association.

To that end, Simon and more than a handful of community leaders formed an ad-hoc bike committee in October to work with police and city officials to put their collective foot on the brake.

The group includes members from the CRCA, the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association, the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association, the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, the Roxborough Development Corporation and the Manayunk Development Corporation.

The goal: curb some of the craziness and return the race to its family-friendly roots.

Increasing enforcement

For committee members, stricter police enforcement should be the major linchpin of the effort. Last year, only five summary citations were issued on race day, according to Simon.

Additional officers on the street, he adds, are not enough.

“It’s not going to help if they have another 60 police officers standing around on the corner with their hands in their pockets,” says Simon.

The city’s 5th Police District, which covers Manayunk and Roxborough, traditionally takes the lead during the Sunday event.

Lt. Sean Lynn says there will be more officers patrolling the streets this year and less tolerance for illegal and unruly behavior. Those offenses typically include carrying open containers of alcohol, public intoxication, underage drinking and fighting, among other things.

“We’re going to tighten the belt from years past,” says Lynn. “We really want to make it a more family-oriented event.”

Lynn says the Philadelphia Police Department does not release specific deployment numbers, but says there will be “significantly more” officers on the street.

There will also be more police barricades along Manayunk and Roxborough avenues, the sites of two major turns in the race where spectators have been known to spill into the course.

Flyers are being circulated and “robocalls” being made before the weekend to spread the word about prohibited behaviors, according to Lynn.

The bike committee had hoped early on to have a temporary court set up inside the 5th District’s headquarters so that offending onlookers could face a judge the same day they were cited. As of last week, that idea has been tabled, though there will be a nuisance court on June 3, Lynn says.

Residents are ‘drawing the line’

Optimism about the difference these steps can make varies among bike committee members and the larger community.

Garrett Elwood, a Manayunk-resident and former Board Member and Director of Economic Development at the MDC, is not confident that the race can take a turn for the better. 

Police, he says, are often outnumbered during the event and rarely try to contain the race’s citation-worthy behavior.

The result, says Elwood, is that many residents either don’t leave their homes or simply leave town to avoid the onslaught.

“So you get this residential neighborhood that’s in this stranglehold,” says Elwood.

He adds that nearly all of the retail shops along Main Street in Manayunk don’t open on race day.

Still, Elwood hopes he’s wrong. He has fond childhood memories of watching the bike race with his family and would like to see the race roll back in time.

If not, however, if this year’s race is a repeat of recent years, Elwood says he’s prepared to mount a campaign to get the race out of Manayunk and Roxborough.

“Let them do it in Center City where they would never tolerate even a fraction of what goes on in Manayunk and Roxborough,” says Elwood, who posted this idea on a neighborhood blog to staunch opposition.

Asked if he thinks the community would support such an effort, Elwood says, “There are enough people right now in the neighborhood that would be just happy to see it go and would not care.”

MNC President Kevin Smith, a member of the bike committee, doesn’t think Elwood is off the mark.

“People are sort of drawing the line,” says Smith. “If we don’t see progress this year, there probably will be an effort to stop the race next year.”

Smith adds that the partying on the day of the race is simply “a reflection of what’s going on every weekend [in Manayunk and Roxborough].”

Hoping for a ‘modest rollback’ in behavior

Re-routing the race out of Manayunk and Roxborough, however, doesn’t appear to be a realistic option right now.

David Chauner, president of Pro Cycling Tour LLC, the race’s organizer, says such a move would reflect poorly on all involved parties.

“It would send a bad, bad message to say, ‘Well, one community got too rowdy and so the race had to stop or stop going through there.'”

“I think if it got to that point we’d probably take [the race] to another city or take it somewhere else,” says Chauner, who also co-founded the event.

Chauner says he hasn’t heard any exceptionally strong grumblings about moving the race and is optimistic that its party atmosphere can be toned down.

MDC Executive Director Jane Lipton shares Chauner’s attitude. While she acknowledges the event needs some serious attention, Lipton thinks the community will ultimately turn things around.

Meetings with the 5th Police District and others, she says, have been positive.

The bike committee has also worked on making the race more family appropriate with Fourth District City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., State Rep. Pamela DeLissio and representatives from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections and Managing Director’s Office, among others.

“This problem did not happen in just one or two years. It’s been building for more than a decade. It’s not going to rewind in one year,” says Lipton.

Lipton says the bike race committee is looking for a “modest rollback” in behavior over the next two years. She says pinning the future of the event to one year is a lazy and uninspiring solution.

“It’s really easy from the comfort of your desk chair to get on the Web and say, ‘We shouldn’t have this anymore.’ It’s a lot harder to become part of a solution and get out there,” says Lipton.

Assessing the results 

Following the race, the bike committee will assess the event and judge whether the initiative led to enough change in the overall scene. 

Much of that decision, says committee chairman Simon, will come down to concrete statistics such as the number of citations, arrests and officers on duty.

Asked if he’s optimistic about this year’s race, Simon, whose house sits along the course, says he’s adopting a “wait and see” attitude for now.

“We know it can be done, we just need the commitment,” he says.

A press conference will be held Wednesday at the Manayunk Development Corporation’s offices on Main Street to announce some of the plans for this year’s race.

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