There was a substantial police presence in downtown South Orange on Saturday night, as teenagers continued to gather in front of businesses including Starbucks and Bonte and in Spiotta Park. They've reportedly been coming to South Orange in increasing numbers on weekend nights this summer, leading residents to complain about overcrowding on downtown sidewalks and rowdy behavior.
At least five uniformed police officers were on patrol, and Police Chief James Chelel was present as squad cars cruised around Sloan Street and adjacent roads, and a police SUV remained parked in front of Eden Gourmet.
Downtown South Orange has seemingly become a nightlife destination for local teenagers looking to gather on the weekends, especially during the summer. "If you look ugly, you can't be here," said 15-year-old Joy Johnson, of East Orange, who was wearing a fluffy pink skirt and black ankle boots. Though some are Columbia High School students, the majority seem to hail from nearby towns, including Newark, East Orange and Bloomfield. "If you go to any school in Essex County, you basically know everybody," said Steven Jeanbaptist, 17, of East Orange, who added that he recognizes people from playing sports during the school year. It was only his second time in South Orange on a weekend, and he and his friends got a ride from his grandmother.
While word-of-mouth has seemingly been powerful in building up South Orange's reputation, social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have also played a role. Khalil Banner, 15, of Newark, said that Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth was once a big hang-out spot, but he started reading posts by fellow MySpace users describing the scene in South Orange. "It'll say on a Sunday, 'The Vill was popping last night,'" said Banner, who rode the bus to South Orange with friends.
Some of the teenagers reported enjoying the feeling of open space and safety, and the attractiveness of downtown South Orange. "No drugs, no violence, no problems," said Jeanbaptist. However, they've noticed that more people have been coming recently—though this Saturday was said to have had a lower turnout than last week—and a greater police presence. One group of friends said they were told to leave at 9:30 p.m. last week, and it's common to be directed to move after standing in front of Dunkin' Donuts for 45 minutes.
According to Angie Randel, 15, of East Orange, the teenagers are typically directed by police to clear out once the businesses close. "At 11 o'clock, it's curfew," she said.
Downtown business employees have mixed reactions to the teenagers, who converge on South Orange over the weekend. While they've certainly noticed the crowds on the sidewalks and the occasional police intervention to disperse them, and even heard about assaults that have recently taken place in the vicinity, some say there's no adverse effect on business. "They migrate in and out of the store two or three times a night," said Village Trattoria manager Caroline Cuccolo.
There's also the sentiment that groups of teenagers, who hover in a location without making a purchase, are scaring off paying customers. The owner of Cold Stone Creamery has set up a plastic barrier to separate the section of the Sloan Street walkway in front of his store, where there are tables for customers, from the rest of the concrete bench that extends down the block where pedestrians can sit.
"I would say it has a negative effect [on business] if people come from the movies and see a crowd of kids sitting in front of the restaurant," said Matt Messmer, a waiter at Village Diner, who recalls teenage overcrowding being something of an issue at the beginning of last summer, but nothing compared to this year. About a month ago, he says he told some teens, who were seated at an outdoor table without ordering anything, to leave, and one of them threw the table at him.
Some of the teenagers expressed annoyance at the larger crowds that have started to build and the bad behavior of some of their peers, since what they enjoy about South Orange is its peacefulness. "Over here is just a place to relax and let your mind be free," said Nick Daley, 15, of Maplewood.