ON THE AVENUES REVISITED: Chocolate covered frozen banana republic, or “understanding” Harvest Homecoming, our peculiar institution.


ON THE AVENUES REVISITED: Chocolate covered frozen banana republic, or “understanding” Harvest Homecoming, our peculiar institution.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

It’s always instructive to revisit earlier columns. Some things change, while others remain the same.

When I wrote these words three years ago (16 October 2014), my working world remained tied to what was known back then as Bank Street Brewhouse. My own declaration of independence was followed by a campaign for mayor, which I lost. John Gonder lost his bid for another at-large council term. 

Jeff Gahan’s cult of personality triumphed in 2015, and the Anchor Corps marches assuredly into a future of institutionalized inanity. Harvest Homecoming’s ongoing minor tweaks neither pose a threat to the entity’s iron grip on two weeks each October, nor betray the slightest interest in change.  

There we are. I think this piece has dated well, but you may see it differently. If so, let me know. These are your pages, too, and unlike Gahan, I’m happy to provide space for opposing points of view. 

Love him, hate him, or anywhere in between … but you simply cannot deny that John Gonder is a New Albanian civic rarity.

Gonder is a Democratic Party member and an elected official of a certain age who nonetheless is capable of breaking free and thinking independently. He is aware of the outside world, and comfortable in this apostasy.

Generally speaking, he surveys terrain situated outside his party’s perennially self-delineated Dixiecrat box. Less often than I’d like, he is an essayist, and invariably his thoughts are witty and articulate.

I’m told that John Gonder currently is on the “shit list” maintained by the ruling circle. This is an honor and a distinction, because when one insists on being a progressive thinker in this benighted locality, they surely don’t record your name with a pencil.

I’m delighted to read Gonder’s typically measured reasonableness about Harvest Homecoming, especially since at the moment, the bruised and battered downtown landscape is littered with decapitated straw men, while those politicians willing to speak for attribution mostly mimic the stenographer’s pure drivel as they muster the forces to repel this latest incursion of elitism threatening our most peculiar of institutions.

As previously noted, Harvest Homecoming is the “third rail” of New Albany politics, and as a reminder, this is a metaphor deriving from mass transit rail systems, in which the third rail is the conductor of electricity and as such, quite hazardous to the touch.

third rail

A dangerous area of discussion, a point at which the mere mention of a subject result is disaster. Commonly used in politics.

Somewhat uniquely among the purported local “leadership” cadre, John Gonder is willing to grasp the third rail and challenge the 800-lb gorilla, albeit it with a gentler touch than I’ve been able to muster.

A Moveable Feast

… Since Mr. (Jeff) Cummins welcomed ideas, and since the Tribune has elevated the festival topic to wider discussion, it seems the future of the festival and the continued health of the downtown revival could be best served by making the Harvest Homecoming a moveable feast, migrating from one part of downtown to another, as conditions change and dictate. New Albany’s downtown was benefitted by the stimulus of the Harvest Homecoming in the festival’s early years. I believe the festival still is a net plus for the city, but it could be a greater contributor to the city which welcomes its pitching of the tents each year at no small cost to the taxpayers.

Creative suggestions like Gonder’s fully mirror many others offered here and elsewhere, to the effect that the festival might alter its configuration of booths to acknowledge modernity, and avoid interfering with existing year-round businesses.

Alas, the councilman’s fundamental rationality – moreover, the combined rationality of every single one of us who endeavors to imagine contemporary ways of thinking and acting outside traditionally constraining municipal boxes — probably isn’t enough to compel the leaden weight of Harvest Homecoming to willingly concede even the first ounce of hereditary privilege, and this shouldn’t strike anyone as particularly unusual.

Having been given carte blanche for 46 years, Harvest Homecoming as an institution has not been compelled to justify its existence, or to prove its worth with facts, as opposed to feelings. It simply is, and must continue, and like any entrenched bureaucracy, it will not surrender voluntarily what it regards as “earned” territorial rights.

Consider the attitude of just one Harvest Homecoming functionary, the festival’s reigning “head honcho” (as dubbed not by me, but by the Gnaws and Trombone). When given the opportunity by the newspaper’s ever accommodating Chris Morris to address downtown business owners prior to his business model’s annual downtown takeover, Jeff Cummins promptly elucidated an intriguing Tao of the Homecoming Harvest.

I want to try and get downtown merchants to understand what the festival is all about.

I cannot stress this point often enough: It’s about downtown day-in, day-out downtown investors and stakeholders being compelled to “understand” Harvest Homecoming’s annual footprint, and not the other way around.

Later, during a Facebook discussion about Harvest Homecoming’s and the city’s ill treatment of Wick’s Pizza, Cummins barged into the room.

Do not speak about what you do not know as being fact. Speculation makes one a fool … The back and forth on social media, 3rd party conversations and assumptions accomplish nothing. Go direct to whom you have the issue and discuss it face to face … Don’t play games, it’s wasted unproductive time spent. Ask the question.

With Cummins on the “direct” line, so to speak, I prompted him to introduce himself to those who didn’t know him, and provided a link to the aforementioned newspaper article. Then, I asked him two questions.

Does Harvest Homecoming understand what WE’RE about? In the past, I’ve observed Harvest Homecoming officials telling people that they could not distribute handbills amid the booth area. Now, it seems to me that this is perfectly legal — freedom of expression, if you will. On what legal basis can the city “lease” free speech on public right-of-ways to a private entity?

The head honcho was ready with his answer.

Not going to debate on here. You have a large tendency to misconstrue what is said to suit your needs.

Which places me in a league with … Harvest Homecoming. So much for demanding that we ask questions, but unfortunately, it gets even worse.

Given that debating is unworthy of a head honcho’s time, Cummins remains eager to remind those 52-weeks-a-year downtown business stakeholders that the fault for booth day disruptions is theirs, not the festival’s. From Morris’s fluff piece:

Cummins … conceded that some businesses fare better than others, but added that some establishments do more to prepare for the thousands of visitors that come to New Albany by adjusting their product offerings for the event.

Businesses just like these, as reported on Fb:

The business I work for will have to close during those days and send four employees home with no pay.

We do 33-50% less business during the week of Harvest Homecoming. Great success.

I lose money every time HH comes to town. We move a lot of equipment and usually can pull up to my building to do so. Because of HH I’ll use the alley to get as close as I can. One of their officials came into my store and began screaming and cussing at my employee, “Who’s F***ing van is in alley, move it or it will be towed.” We had to throw him out. Now, he did this while customers were in the store. And of course when I proceeded to move my vehicle I was severely cussed at and threatened. This is only one negative incident. There are plenty more.

Well, who are you going to believe? Your own eyes, experience and balance sheet, or the head honcho?

Or, for that matter, the mayor.

The leadership of Harvest Homecoming has been “adaptive and accommodating” and tweak the festival by offering new events in recent years, Mayor Jeff Gahan said Monday.

But of course they have. Third rails tend to be that way, don’t they? And then there’s John Gonder, doggedly daring to channel the late Bobby Kennedy:

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

Or an even better one, far less often quoted:

Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.

Politically, John Gonder is completely outnumbered by the “C” and “D” students, by the adults who weren’t elected to student council as students and missed the prom, and consequently shall be punishing us forever more for these omissions, by the big fish who find the meandering currents of the small pond much to their liking, and by the grandees of Gonder’s own arthritic Democratic Party, in which he might well be the only Floyd County dues-paying member who could reside anonymously in Massachusetts without being regarded as a Ted Cruz-caliber interloper.

Billy Joel was right, and honesty is such a lonely word, indeed.

Harvest Homecoming isn’t about the parade, the booth placement, elephant ear vendors from Keokuk, roving carnies, Chinese-crafted trinkets, corn hole champs, pay-for-play monopolies or even the true believers among attendees, whom even I have little desire to offend; after all, I never said I wanted it to end, only to adapt.

Rather, it’s all about the power – this minor league, small potatoes, penny ante power, but power just the same.

That’s right: Harvest Homecoming graciously welcomes any and all ideas, so long as it is understood that nothing whatever can substantively change, and these ideas, once received, are daintily flicked into nearby wastepaper baskets once the petitioners have departed the vicinity.

I understand it perfectly, Jeff Cummins.

It’s rather like a one-party, one-festival state, isn’t it?

Recent columns:

September 28: ON THE AVENUES: Sniffles, gratitude and mental exhaustion. Apparently vacation is over.

September 21: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

September 14: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo?

September 7: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: We are dispirited in the post-factual beer world.