The Public Space
November 13, 2013
zombies ate my weekend
by Ken Mayer
We visited Denver recently to eat, drink and shop. As luck would have it, we stumbled into the annual Zombie Crawl.
The 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver has long been closed to traffic with the exception of shuttle buses, and it all works remarkably well. But on this day, shuttle operation ceased for about eight hours beginning at 1:30 in the afternoon.
Apparently there was some concern that one of the undead could have been injured, should a shuttle run over what was left of a foot. Or perhaps a reanimated corpse might get thrown under the bus by a well-meaning Zombie hunter.
The stoppage was necessitated because the street, comprising only eight or 10 blocks, had become infested with Zombies. About 16,000 Zombies. Many of whom were that newfangled fast walking variety.
Denver has not become the new world capital of Voodoo. This silliness was all in good fun.
In addition to the costumes, there were a host of other activities, including a clever scavenger hunt that utilized mobile devices to find locations and document progress. Participants worked in teams scanning QR codes and dictating latitude and longitude coordinates into their phones to find the next stop. Shop keepers got in the spirit as well, dressing as Zombies and thanking customers with a cheerful “Have a scary day!”
Meanwhile back in Omaha, a respectable 3,000 zombies freaked on their undead heritage in Benson the same weekend.
This got me to thinking about the use of public space. It’s not enough to merely have public spaces. Despite platitudes like “Build it and they will come,” it takes a conscious effort to get those spaces used.
We have built up a modest amount of programming for our public spaces in Omaha, but I fear they may be getting a little old and tired. I think it’s time for some innovation and creativity. Maybe we should take a page out of Benson’s playbook and mix it up a little.
Several things can calcify events of this nature. Because they are often free, they will reliably attract a crowd regardless of what’s going on. This tends to lull organizers into a false sense of success.
Since they are usually sponsored, the event can end up plastered with logos. While it’s great that many corporations will fund the events, sometimes I wonder about their motives. Is this really a public service or merely co-op advertising?
Often the events tend to be passive. We mostly sit and listen or watch the kids do something. Denver’s event was impressive because everybody was involved, whether making costumes and acting out roles or working with each other to finish the scavenger hunt.
While many like the tradition of going to an event year after year, for a lot of us it just gets tiresome, and we simply stop going. If this goes on long enough, attendance eventually dwindles.
I think it’s time to shake up our public space programming. Benson’s made a good start, but there are a lot more opportunities.
Maybe these things don’t always have to be free. A small charge for an event can bring out a whole different group of people. People like me, for instance, who love the entertainment but don’t want to listen to other people’s picnics. Paying for admission also helps prevent the devaluation of what our talented local artists do.
How about an event or two just for us grownups. I’m not anti-family, but once in a while we need to leave the kids at home. How about a New Year’s Eve celebration of the arts as many cities already do?
By the way, let’s not overlook the benefits to local commerce. Do we really need to beg the merchants in the Old Market to drag themselves and their employees out on Thanksgiving? Why not turn the lights on Friday or Saturday when they can all staff up and serve the crowds?
Omahans have been criticized for not knowing how to have fun, and we are getting better at enjoying ourselves. But in order to truly shake that bad rap, we are going to have to be more creative.
OK, who wants a fried brain sandwich and a Voodoo pale ale?
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.