Oak Street Po-Boy Festival: The Monetization of a previously-“free” street festival, honoring the po-boy

I just came back from the 2019 Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. Up until about two years ago, the festival had no entrance fee of any kind. All people had to do was buy a po-boy and something to drink, from one of the many food and drink stands set up along Oak Street. The po-boys run about $7 to $10, and the drinks may cost a little less.

Two years ago, the fest’s organizers decided to charge $5 for a “regular access” wristband (blue this year) and $20 for a “fast pass” wristband (yellow). In theory, the fest is still “free,” as long as you’re not planning to eat and drink what’s sold, and you want to just stroll down Oak Street, meet your family and friends, and listen to the live music.

If, however, you want to buy one of the po-boys and a drink, you have to buy one of the wristbands first. The proceeds from the wristbands go to the Son of A Saint Foundation, which has programs for fatherless boys. This is a worthy cause. Many of the kids the foundation helps have lost their fathers, due to death, incarceration, or abandonment in one form or another, and the foundation’s leaders help fill that void, and provide guidance to these kids, so that they grow into stable, productive young men, and carry on the mission of the Son of A Saint organization.

However, the result of requiring a $5-$20 wristband, before buying a po-boy and a drink is the “thinning” out of the festival crowds, of those who don’t have the cash for one (or more) of these wristbands, and those who also lack a credit card or debit card for one of the Fidelity Bank ATMs on the street, and can’t get cash for a wristband and/or a po-boy and drink.

This, then, is what going to the po-boy festival costs:

$5-$20 for a wristband

$7-$10 for a po-boy

$6-$8 for a drink (usually a beer or other alcoholic beverage. Probably less for a soft drink or bottled water).

This turns the festival from a free celebration of the po-boy and its heritage, into a limited-access festival. Yes, you can walk in free of charge, but you can’t buy any food or drink, without buying a wristband first.  This change is probably not what the late history professor Michael Mizell-Nelson had in mind, when he and his friends created the po-boy festival. They wanted all of us to remember the po-boy’s roots in the 1929 streetcar workers’ strike. Then, according to the story, two brothers saw the strikers, realized they were probably hungry, and made the “poor boys” some sandwiches out of French bread and roast beef.

With the revenues from the wristbands going to Son of A Saint, the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival is probably not going to return to a no-fee festival anytime soon, as long as it has this arrangement with the Son of A Saint organization, which gets this additional stream of revenue and the publicity for its programs.

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