First Fridays at a crossroads: Will it ever be the same after tragedy? And should it?

Shooting at 18th and Main in downtown Kansas City

Capt. Tim Hernandez, a Kansas City police spokesman, said a woman was shot and killed after 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 in the area of 18th and Main streets in the Crossroads.
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Capt. Tim Hernandez, a Kansas City police spokesman, said a woman was shot and killed after 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 in the area of 18th and Main streets in the Crossroads.

It’s time again for First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District, but the tragedy of five weeks ago hangs over the monthly celebration.

After the fatal shooting death of 25-year-old Erin Langhofer at the last gathering Aug. 2, questions about security and the future of the event have surfaced in the Crossroads community. Concerns have been expressed about the event’s congestion of food trucks, cars and people — the costs to put it on and the costly cleanup that follows.

Organizers implemented some changes last year, including creating blocks that would be designated festival areas, and made additional moves last week. At least temporarily, food trucks, art vendors and street performers won’t be allowed in the core area. And some are wondering if fear will keep people away.

The event started two decades ago as a free gallery walk in a small part of the district. Now, a diverse crowd of thousands — different ages, different races, singles, couples, families — winds down their week by taking in local art and street performers, getting a bite at food trucks or restaurants, buying a bauble from a local vendor, or just people-watching.

Some want First Fridays to return to its roots. But it may not be the district’s decision on what First Fridays will become.

“First Fridays is not about buying art anymore,” said Crossroads restaurant owner Stretch, whose legal name is Jeff Rumaner. “If the galleries weren’t open, there would still be a First Fridays. There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s energy. It should not be contained within the walls.”

‘Practice situational awareness’

Along with no food trucks or vendors, there will be no street closures Friday because the Crossroads Community Association lost its general liability insurance and was unable to obtain new coverage in time, organizers have said. The event will focus on businesses located within the district.

The core festival area is roughly bounded by 17th and 19th streets north to south and Cherry to Wyandotte streets east to west. The event also includes stretches of Baltimore Avenue. Food trucks and vendors can still park nearby.

Kansas City police spokesman Sgt. Jacob Becchina said the Crossroads association hires at least six off-duty officers that will provide security for the event. In addition, one or more businesses may hire their own off-duty police officers. Police tactical response teams also are available to respond to emergencies.

Officers from the police department’s Central Patrol Division, which includes downtown and the Crossroads Arts District, are assigned to patrol the area beginning Friday afternoon, throughout the evening and overnight.

“There will be a presence of KCPD at the First Fridays event, as there always is,” Becchina said.

He added, “As in any event where a crowd is gathered, we encourage people to practice situational awareness to their surroundings.”

Adam Hamilton, senior pastor for the Church of the Resurrection, acknowledged that fear could be a factor on whether large crowds will return to the monthly venue.

In response, Hamilton said the church’s downtown campus is “pushing back fear, sharing light” and hosting a family fun night Friday that will feature bounce houses, kids games, crafts and hot dogs.

The festivities at 1601 Grand Avenue will honor Kansas City homicide victims, including Resurrection member Langhofer.

Last month, Langhofer was struck by a stray bullet around 10 p.m. while waiting at a food truck near 18th and Main streets. Langhofer, who was an innocent bystander, was attending First Friday with her boyfriend when a fight broke out and shots were fired.

Erin Langhofer was shot and killed at a First Friday event in the Crossroads in Kansas City. Her family described her as an advocate for domestic violence survivors.

Langhofer graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in social work in 2016, and had worked at Rose Brooks, a domestic violence center. Her father is Tom Langhofer, a pastor of recovery ministries at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.

The night of the shooting, off-duty police officers working nearby arrested 18-year-old Deon’te Copkney, who Jackson County prosecutors later charged with second-degree murder. Copkney told police he didn’t intend to hurt anyone.

Small beginnings, gallery crowd

First Fridays started so small.

Back in 1999, some of the more established Crossroads galleries wanted to help out some of their smaller counterparts by including them in a mailing. Then, since many had shows on the first Friday of the month, they decided to make it a standard event.

The “pretentious and unaffected” gallery crawl was centered around what was dubbed “Gallery Row” in the 2000 block of Baltimore. A bandstand set up nearby, a few couples would dance in the street but there was little traffic so no one seemed to mind. Animated movies were projected on the side of a building in an effort to bring the fine arts crowd together with the film crowd.

But it quickly mushroomed. By 2003 it was officially called First Friday and was drawing 1,500 attendees. Today crowd estimates are 15,000 to 20,000 per event.

The district made some recent changes.

Girded with a festival license, they corralled some food trucks in blocked off streets. They curated vendors, selecting ones that actually made their products. They paid for amenities such as porta potties, emergency services and extra security.

Street closure signs alone cost the district more than $1,700 per event with an additional $1,100 plus for liability insurance, said Jeff Owens, vice president of the Crossroads Community Association and chair of First Fridays. Then there are clean up costs.

More than a dozen people volunteer each month but costs still rose to between $8,000 and $10,000 an event.

Return to its arts roots?

The Crossroads community is debating what shape First Fridays should take moving forward. It is a touchy subject, and many refused to speak to The Star on the record.

Marie Bertholet Smith, who opened MLB Designs & Boutique in the Crossroads a decade ago, wants First Fridays to go back to its arts roots.

“Not this scene that it has become,” she said. “I think it is two separate things: the galleries and the restaurants, and the other is the street vendors and food trucks. Collectors don’t want to come down when it is total mayhem.”

Bill Haw Jr. of Haw Contemporary gallery isn’t nostalgic for the early days since he only opened in the Crossroads in April 2018.

“By the time I was here it was already this giant thing that wasn’t focused on art or art galleries,” he said. “It is really more like a giant street party with a lot of people walking in looking for a bathroom or free beer. So it is kind of disrespectful to art and artists.”

Sherry Leedy, owner of Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, which opened in the Crossroads in 1985, also preferred the time when art was the main focus.

“But I also like that it is a free event,” Leedy said. “There is no other place where people can get together free of charge and just have a community.”

Some suggested the event could be tempered: fewer hours and fewer food trucks.

Malisa Monyakula, who opened Lulu’s Thai Noodle Shop in the Crossroads in 2000, said “the food trucks are kind of a slap in the face to the businesses that are down here.”

“They don’t have any investment in the community,” she said. “They are just here to take advantage and make money one night a month. Then we have the trash, vomit, beer cans, to clean up the next day.”

But others in the restaurant business said they see an uptick during the event.

“The closing of parts of 18th Street made the area more walkable. We have a two-hour wait. I have to turn away people,” said Joshua Hackler, general manager of Mission Taco Joint in the East Crossroads. “I love supporting local artists. But I think there is a shift away from the galleries to the restaurants and drinking culture — the bars and the breweries.”

Stretch will donate a percentage of sales from his Crossroads restaurants — Grinders, Grinders West and Chances Social — to charity to honor Langhofer. And on Friday, he will let 15 street vendors set up tables behind Grinders.

‘It can happen anywhere’

But safety is the top concern heading into Friday. And authorities and festival organizers in other parts of the country weighed in on what happened in Kansas City.

“It is human nature that any time you see a shooting incident or an ugly homicide, people are saying they never thought it would happen here,” said Jim Kolar, chief marshal for Telluride, Colorado. “But human behavior transcends jurisdictional boundaries and it doesn’t matter where you are.”

The town has hosted the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the past 46 years and is a destination event for thousands of music lovers.

“If someone has a mind to do something, it can happen anywhere,” Kolar said.

Michael Eagan, a family friend of the Langhofer family, read a statement on behalf of the family at the news conference at Kansas City Police headquarter Saturday. Erin Langhofer was hit by a stray bullet Friday night.

Austin, Texas, conducts a First Thursdays event,which promotes restaurants and other businesses along South Congress Avenue.

And the twice-a-year Pecan Street Festival attracts thousands of visitors and is similar to First Fridays in Kansas City. The two-day festival held in May and September features arts, music and other activities.

Lynn Raridon, board president of the nonprofit group that organizes the festival, said they have been lucky that a major incident has not occurred in the past 40 years.

“Maybe that is because it happens twice a year,” Raridon said.

The Pecan Street Festival is “family friendly” and occurs during daylight hours, ending each night by 9 p.m.

Raridon said Kansas City must find a way to rebrand First Friday. Organizers may consider reducing it to a quarterly event that is easier to manage.

“You guys will have a real challenge on your hands letting people know that it is safe to come back down here,” she said.

Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles-based international crowd safety consulting service, said the Aug. 2 shooting in Kansas City could have been prevented with proper planning.

“So many event organizers think that the issue has to happen to them before they do anything,” Wertheimer said.

Organizers have to take into account Kansas City’s homicide and violent crime rate, which is often ranked among the highest in the country, he said.

“This is not a surprise to anybody there could be a shooting or a violent act,” Wertheimer said.

Policies and procedures need to already be in place if violence breaks out, he said. The security and crowd management plans should be available to the media and the public to review.

“Until you have the basis of what they tried to do, it is hard to assess whether they took reasonable actions or no reasonable actions,” Wertheimer said.

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Joyce Smith has covered restaurant and retail news for The Star since 1989 under the brand Cityscape. She appreciates news tips.
Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.