Saratoga County

Thousands flock to Saratoga Springs for annual First Night

Saratoga is the August place to be, but local restaurateurs, bartenders and residents know all too w
Holly Beltran performs in the window of Lifestyles of Saratoga during First Night Saratoga Wednesday, December 31, 2014.
Holly Beltran performs in the window of Lifestyles of Saratoga during First Night Saratoga Wednesday, December 31, 2014.

Saratoga is the August place to be, but local restaurateurs, bartenders and residents know all too well that it’s also the New Year’s Eve place to be.

First Night Saratoga is the largest New Year’s Eve celebration in upstate New York, attracting upward of 10,000 people to city streets and venues for music, dance, comedy and other performances on the last day of each year. Many of them stick it out until midnight to ring in the New Year with fireworks in Congress Park.

Jeffrey Allen can think of no better way to kick off such a grand celebration than with a 5K road race. Now in its 17th year, the First Night Saratoga 5K has grown in popularity from its early days, he said, attracting runners and walkers and those looking to start the New Year off in a fun, healthy way.

“It’s really become the kickoff to the whole night,” said Allen, the race director. “It’s the only race in town at night, and even when it’s cold, they still come. People like it a lot. People run as families, also. Where they may be running competitively at other times of the year, they’ll try to run for fun here.”

Due to the race’s popularity, organizers upped the maximum number of participants to 1,500 five years ago. For 14 years in a row, the race has sold out.

As runners wound their way around the Skidmore College campus, down Greenfield Avenue and North Broadway and back, lighting up the streets in festive running gear and holiday lights as they went, families and friends gathered inside the Skidmore College Athletic Complex to warm up on the below-freezing Wednesday night.

Eric Lahr munched on pizza with his daughter, Mikayla, as he waited for his wife to finish the course. It was their first time at First Night, and the 5K is what brought them out from their home in Kinderhook.

“Sometimes we just go to a friend’s house, and other times we go out to Albany,” said Lahr. “I came out tonight to support my wife, who wanted to run the race.”

While some people had barely made it to their second slice of pizza, Aidan Tooker was crossing the finish line. The 16-year-old Saratoga High School student was the first to finish, and it took him longer to feel the blood rush back into his face than to catch his breath. He’s done the First Night 5K three times with his cross-country team and considers it a “great representation” of his hometown.

“It’s a bit chilly today,” he said, “but we train in this weather, so I’m pretty used to it. The adrenaline always kind of gets me through it and just the excitement of the race. It’s always fun to be out. Even though it’s cold, it’s fun.”

The group was planning to head downtown afterward and catch fireworks at the end of the night.

Revelers took to Broadway and side streets downtown early in the night. First Night kicked off at 6 p.m. and included more than 70 acts at 30 venues around town. More than 8,500 buttons, which allowed entrance to the night’s events, were distributed by Tuesday afternoon, and volunteers could be seen around town helping people find a destination. The celebration is put on annually by Saratoga Arts. This year’s theme was “Art After Dark” — an homage to the many local and regional artists who would perform throughout the night.

Monica Morrison of Clifton Park was excited to see Niskayuna native Bryan Thomas at the City Center with her husband and 14-year-old daughter. The self-proclaimed soul rock singer-songwriter was slated to play two sets Wednesday night and would be sharing the stage with Sirsy, a popular local band, and JV & the Cutters, a band led by Troy blues musician Joe Abbey.

“My husband grew up in this area, so he knows Saratoga really well and thought it might be something to check out,” Morrison said of the family’s first New Year’s Eve in Saratoga a few years ago. “Then we came back repeatedly because there’s always been something [her daughter has] enjoyed and the events keep getting better and better.”

They skipped the outing last year and spent New Year’s Eve nearly asleep in bed.

“My daughter comes crawling in and is like, ‘What are we going to do? It’s almost midnight, we’ve got to do something.’ So we said, OK, we’ve got to go back next year.”

The evening wasn’t all fun and games. Several dozen people gathered outside City Hall around 6:30 p.m. to stage a “die-in,” where individuals lie on the ground as though dead to raise awareness for a cause. In this case, the group propped signs against their sprawled bodies to raise awareness about alleged police brutality, institutional racism and the deaths of two men in the last year during or after encounters with local police.

Last summer, Malta resident Darryl Mount Jr. fell from a wobbly, two-story scaffolding during a foot chase with Saratoga Springs police after they say they saw him assault his girlfriend. The 22-year-old died in May after struggling through months of recovery.

In September, 43-year-old Daniel Satre of Ballston Spa died after being struck with a Taser four times during an encounter with Ballston Spa police, Saratoga County sheriff’s deputies and state police.

Skidmore College student Carolyn Shapiro and Saratoga Springs resident Jonah Moberg organized the die-in to raise awareness about the two men, but also to support national awareness campaigns about police brutality that have been ongoing since the death of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri made international news.

Moberg, 19, shared stories of his own encounters with Saratoga Springs police and alleged that he’s witnessed enough dishonesty and disrespect from the department that he thinks more needs to be done to hold them accountable.

“I’m not saying that every officer is a bad cop,” he said. “There are many officers on the force who are good people doing a good job, but there’s enough bad behavior that I think it’s important to draw attention to it. And on a national level, it’s important that we have organizing happening everywhere so there is no place where issues of police brutality and racial inequality can be ignored.

“There is a lot of privilege in Saratoga. It’s a very safe place. Crime rates are low. Most of the people here are white. But there have been issues of brutality and even murder that just haven’t gotten as much attention as they should have.”

The die-in drew stares and a crowd of onlookers, just as sidewalks were starting to fill up for a night of revelry.

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