Saratoga Springs

Caroline Street sees relatively sparse nightlife crowd on track’s opening weekend

Scenes of patrons outside bars on Caroline Street downtown on a late summer night, days after Saratoga Race Course opens in Saratoga Springs on Friday.

Scenes of patrons outside bars on Caroline Street downtown on a late summer night, days after Saratoga Race Course opens in Saratoga Springs on Friday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS–At 1:32 a.m. on Saturday, shouting erupted on Caroline Street as a 25-year-old man dropped to the sidewalk.

The man was David Villafane of Saratoga Springs. He wore shiny black shoes, blue dress pants and a stylish button down patterned with birds and flowers. He was on the ground because he was doing pushups to raise awareness for health and mental health. Onlookers were happily counting Villafane’s 47 pushups completed outside Gaffney’s.

The fact that Villafane’s small advocacy effort caused one of the biggest commotions of the night underscores what so many people said on Friday between 10:15 p.m. and 2:15 a.m.: after a tumultuous year of concerns about violence in the bar scene on Caroline Street, things are appearing to cool down as Saratoga Springs enters its busy summer season.

“When things were rolling the way they were, the crowds were triple this – and frightening,” said Zack Lynch, an active community member, who has lived in Saratoga Springs since 1977. “I think the general problem has been rectified. It is just a small portion of a crowd who isn’t respectful, who doesn’t care about what everybody else cares about, and it’s just a tiny fraction. Those kinds of crowds need a place to go, and it’s obvious when you get to a door who is going to let them in. Now, no one is letting it in.”

Villafane said his pushups on the street were meant to spread a positive message.

“I am doing mental health and physical health awareness: 25 pushups for 25 days,” Villafane said, still breathing heavily from the exercise. “There are a lot of people that are not mentally stable right now, so I was just trying to show the awareness on Facebook. They can hop on the challenge. It doesn’t matter how many you can do as long as you’re trying.”

While there was one violent incident earlier in the night involving a struggle at an apartment next to Gaffney’s that resulted in broken plexiglass, cuts to two men’s arms and hands, and an arrest of a possible intruder – details were spotty on the scene – the altercation at the apartment was isolated from the true bar scene and did not alter the overall positive mood of the night.

Following the violence that has occurred on Caroline Street in recent months, including a shooting last June and several stabbings since October that ultimately prompted the New York State Liquor Authority to temporarily shut down Gaffney’s in May, The Daily Gazette wanted to survey the scene on Caroline Street during the opening weekend at the Saratoga Race Course.

On Friday night, the vibe was lively and upbeat, with a good mix of ages walking from bar to bar. Still, everyone from bouncers to locals to bartenders said the crowd on Caroline Street was lighter Friday than it has been during the track’s opening weekend in prior years. For instance, the line on Putnam Street outside Gaffney’s never even stretched to Caroline Street.

James Mitchell, who has been working security at The Misfit for a decade and a half, described the scene Friday night as “calm” and “slow.”

At about 11:30, Rory Wilson said the line is normally out the door at D’Andrea’s Pizza, which has been open for nearly 15 years.

“There are not as many people as there have been in the past for opening weekend. I’m going by the flow,” Wilson said. “Usually, we have a line out the door. I am a little surprised at what’s going on.”

Of course, no one could pinpoint the reason. Perhaps COVID 19 – accounting for more than 2,400 hospitalizations in the state on July 13 – is keeping some people away from bars. The cost of gasoline – at $4.50 per gallon – may be limiting some people’s travel. Although, bouncers outside bars Friday night said they were seeing a typical number of out-of-state licenses, and the track’s opening day attendance numbers were solid at 28,466 and 24,344 paid attendance on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The venue has a total seating capacity of nearly 33,000.

It’s also possible people are wary of Caroline Street after the tumultuous recent months, but bouncers like Mitchell said that explanation seems less likely than the pandemic and the economy.

Whatever the reason for the perceived lighter crowds on Caroline Street Friday, most people out were having fun.

Megan St. Clair, a teacher from downstate, was visiting her sister, Kayla, who lives in Mechanicville.

“It’s a good time,” St. Clair said, emerging from Spa City Tap & Barrel, where a band played to a crowded bar. “I’m out to dance, so wherever there is good music, that’s where I’m going.”

Ian Luhmann, Austin Lackner, Jack Russo and Maydia Sorgie haven’t been together often since graduating from Schuylerville Central Schools in 2017. So they were enjoying a night out with friends.

“It’s a nice vibe. I would say it’s fun, it’s relaxed. There is no stress of worrying about somebody shooting or stabbing you,” said Lackner, who works at 9 Maple Ave, a bar and lounge just off Caroline Street. “Last summer was overblown. I don’t think it had to do anything with Gaffney’s’ music or anything like that. Literally, I’m out here eating pizza in the middle of the street. Nobody’s coming up to me. It’s fine.”

Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino took heat earlier this year when he linked violence at Gaffney’s to the “gangster rap” the bar has been known to play.

Following its SLA closure, Gaffney’s was allowed to reopen in June after agreeing to pay a $70,000 civil penalty, a 2 a.m. closing time, electronic wand scanning of all patrons entering after 9:30 p.m., and an ID scan for all patrons with information stored for 90 days, among other limits. The prerecorded music thumping in Gaffney’s Friday was more festive than aggressive, and crowds on dance floors were relatively sparse. One dance floor was empty at midnight.

Safety measures added this summer to help protect Caroline Street more broadly include increased police presence with officers who are better prepared to de-escalate situations, according to Saratoga Springs Police Department spokesperson Lt. Robert Jillson.

Establishments have also employed their own strategies, from changing the type of music played to closing earlier. For instance, The Misfit transitioned from a dance club to a lounge to change the vibe, Mitchell said. And Wilson said his pizza shop now closes at 3 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.

When the crack of the broken plexiglass and shouting from the fight at the apartment broke out at 12:54 a.m. Saturday, several groups stopped to watch as police officers ran from a post at the intersection of Maple and Caroline. Overall, there were a handful of cops who staked out the Caroline Street area all night, including one cop on horseback.

Lynch, the longtime community member, witnessed the fight. He helped drag one man involved in the fight from behind the broken window and restrain him for about a minute while police sprinted to the scene. Within minutes, the chaos dissipated, and across the way, the music of the live band playing at Tap & Barrel spilled onto the street.

As the clock neared 2 a.m. on Saturday, people flowed out of the bars, some walking more confidently than others. Women carrying pizza boxes strolled down the street munching on slices. A group of four men in their 40s filed into two taxis and told each other they’d see each other tomorrow at the track.

Roger Quelis stood arms crossed on the sidewalk, observing it all. The 24-year-old cook, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and has lived in the Albany area for the last decade, has a small star tattoo under his right eye to signify the shining light that lives on for all the people he’s lost already in his life, including loved ones he’s lost to self harm. So Quelis has seen tragedy in his young life. But on this night, he was happy to be on Caroline Street.

“It’s crazy, pretty hectic. But I like it,” Quelis said. “Everybody is out here to have a good time. If you’re not, you’re wasting your time.

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: -News-, At The Track, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs

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