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Nightlife is part of Saratoga's draw, but has downside

Saratoga Springs’ bars and nightclubs are part of the draw for the summer destination. But, the nightlife can raise some issues.

Condensed into just a few blocks, more than 15 bars and clubs host thousands of afterhours visitors in the city of Saratoga Springs during the summer. Street musicians earn some cash playing for bar hoppers at the heart of the city’s nightclub scene — Caroline Street.

Dance music from clubs mixes with the punk rock of the street’s historic dive bars, where folks in leather jackets and button-downs share a cigarette. Several city police officers stand watch from an adjacent intersection. The summer horse racing season is here along with crowds that can triple Saratoga’s year-round population.

Norwood, Massachusetts resident Sam Anderson is spending his weekend playing the ponies at Saratoga Race Course and celebrating his winnings downtown.

“I got hot at the track, hit a couple races… next thing you know I’m on Caroline Street! Sometimes one thing leads to another and you end up here, two nights in a row,” said Anderson.

After more than two years of the pandemic, Saratoga streets are buzzing once again. But cab driver Aziz Ahmad remembers busier evenings in years before COVID.

“This summer is kind of a little slow this year. I don't know what's going on the people doesn't come out—a lot of people—because the economy is kind of a little rough, you know, that's why the people have not come out,” said Aziz. “So used to be we're really busy from Sunday to Friday, but nowadays it’s kind of slowed a little bit.”

While inflation and high gas prices might be keeping some visitors away, according to Ahmad, there’s another reason patrons may be going elsewhere.

One club, in particular, has seen more violence than any other establishment downtown in recent years: Gaffney’s Restaurant and Bar. Between January 2021 and March of 2022, city police recorded 65 case reports associated with Gaffney’s.

Fights and altercations continued into the spring, and a May stabbing was the final straw for officials. The bar had its liquor license revoked soon after.

Isaac Appel, a chef at neighboring cocktail bar Hamlet and Ghost, doesn’t think it’s less crowded than usual, but guesses the buzz around Gaffney’s has people concerned.

"I think one of the reasons people probably think it's been less busy is no crazy s**t has happened this summer,” Appel said. “Like, last summer so much s**t was happening like someone got stabbed you know. I feel like there was a problem every night and I think that you know, Gaffney’s has been closed for the majority of the summer and there haven't been any problems. I also work across the street and so like it's a lot louder leaving or like even being in our restaurant. It's definitely louder and Gaffney’s is crazy.”

Gaffney’s reopened in July after reaching an agreement with the New York State Liquor Authority and City of Saratoga Springs. The deal included a $70,000 fine and several mandates intended to address safety issues.

“It includes such things as a limitation to recorded music, no live music, no DJs," said James Montagnino, Saratoga Springs’ Democratic Commissioner of Public Safety. "Earlier closing time—they'll be closing the doors at 1:30am and patrons out by about 2:30, 2:45 I believe. Also, security is better trained, all patrons are being wanded at a single point of entry. So, security is now in the fore where it hadn't been in the past with Gaffney’s. So, so far, it's been a couple of weekends now that we've had success with that. And it looks good going forward.”

Gaffney’s spokesperson Joe Bonilla said the reopened bar wants to be the “destination of the summer,” adding:

“Our serving and security staff have enjoyed returning to doing what they do best in creating a fun and safe atmosphere," Bonilla said. "We look forward to working with the State Liquor Authority on eventually bringing back great bands and award-winning singer-songwriters back to the heart of Caroline Street.”

Despite the increase in security, some remain skeptical.

“Because they got shut down because there was like a shooting outside or a stabbing or something," said Madison Fredette, who added that she and her friends were avoiding the place, preferring other spots. "So why the f**k would anybody want to go there? You don't even have a DJ, you don't have anything. You have nothing?"

“So you go to Night Owl or you go to The Tavern or you go to Soundbar or you could get some pizza?" said Fredette. "You could really go wherever anywhere besides Gaffney’s.”

While the spotlight is trained on Gaffney’s, other downtown bars have also stepped up security.

Most bars and clubs along Caroline Street have rolled out ID scanners to eliminate underage drinking, and larger clubs like Night Owl and City Tavern hired additional bouncers and are checking bags.

One step some bars continue to oppose, however, is closing earlier. Last year, the Saratoga Springs City Council appealed to the State Liquor Authority to move up closing times from 4 to 2 a.m. Montagnino, in his first term on this council, also believes that may be the key to preventing further violence.

“Certainly, the bar owners themselves would rather be open later than close earlier, and Caroline Street itself has an interesting geography to it,” he said. “It's on an incline. And gravity seems to have an impact. If you if you spend any time on Caroline Street, on a weekend night, you'll see that the bar hoppers move downhill. So, the further downhill you go, the later the bars would like to stay open, because that's when their business gets busier.” 

In fact, there have been a handful of attempts to move up closing hours in the past. One push more than a decade ago came after a 50-person brawl resulted in arrests and numerous injuries. That fight required more than 30 cops to break up.

Others think closing times won’t make a difference. Randal DesChamps, a well-known local activist and advocate for the city’s unhoused population, believes that most of the problems on Caroline Street can be blamed on Gaffney’s.  

“I'll give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but I think that a lot of things need to change compared to whatever old ownership is involved,” DesChamps said. “Because you know, there's certain things in a sane society you don't do. And the street pretty much got along long. Most of the club owners and the employees are very strict. There's very little garbage going on at the other clubs. And it's obvious if you have one entity doing most of the problem, then that's what you got to squash first.” 

Along with the track, visitors also pour into the heart of the Spa City after concerts at SPAC, on their way to-and-from the Adirondacks, and from nearby communities where there isn’t as lively a bar scene.  

“You know, people always say about the Grateful Dead and Dead and Co., that, ‘Oh, they bring all the pot to town.’ Well, I have to say they probably come here to smoke ours," DesChamps said. "But in reality, people that are promoting certain things are going to bring that crowd. So if you want that kind of troubles, keep inviting that crowd.” 

DesChamps, who has experienced homelessness himself, says the unhoused are often the victims of crimes perpetrated by drunk bar patrons in the early morning hours.

Some Caroline Street regulars believe violence often originates from Gaffney’s dancefloors due to the crowd the club brings in. The bar attracts a diverse clientele from surrounding communities to a city that’s mostly white.

This perspective was reflected in a controversial statement made by Commissioner Montagnino earlier this year. He said “unsavory crowds” were attracted by a DJ playing “gangster rap” at Gaffney’s. The commissioner apologized for those remarks, but the sentiment left an impression on some.

Lillian Triana-Strautmanis is a recent graduate from SUNY Plattsburgh and frequents Gaffney’s. She pushed back on the notion of a “wrong crowd.”

“Well, I heard about Gaffney’s is going on because I follow my favorite DJ in the 518, DJTGIF. And he unfortunately made a post on Instagram talking about what happened at Gaffney’s and how basically the community is blaming it on him because he attracts ‘Black audiences.’ And of course, that stereotype and that racism and that microaggression against Black people is making, you know… Saratoga’s a conservative community, so I feel like it's just an attack on Black people,” Triana-Strautmanis said. “And I just don't think it's right, because it's not true.” 

Not everyone is pessimistic about the city’s nightlife. Alex Straus grew up in Saratoga Springs co-owns Night Owl, just around the corner from Caroline Street. He’s been happy with turnout this summer.

“Perhaps with a few less weekday visitors, but I imagine that us being, you know, teetering on a recession right now, and still seeing numbers that are up from 2019, in terms of hotels, you know, and sales tax numbers, you know, those numbers are up from 2019, which means we're selling more, we're doing more, more people are coming," Straus said. "You know, I feel really good about it. You know, I think I think we're really heading in a good direction. I feel like, you know, it's been a good, you know, jovial, celebratory feeling, which is our, you know, our great entertainment district here in Saratoga.” 

As the busiest summer since the pandemic continues, it appears locals and tourists have been itching to get back to Caroline Street, ready to mingle together — as city leaders hope the rest of the season carries on without any major incidents.

WAMC News Intern Aaron Shellow-Lavine is a senior at Skidmore College studying American Studies and Black Studies.

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