Organizers keep Greek fest low-key

Posted: July 13, 2007

The 33d annual Philadelphia Greek Picnic slipped into town almost unnoticed this week.

The nine-day event - an annual gathering of current and former college students who are part of black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities - culminates tomorrow with a barbecue contest, cookout, and concerts in Fairmount Park's Belmont Grove.

Last night, several hundred Greeks got a jump on the festivities at University City High School, where the Pan-Hellenic Council presented its third annual Stop the Violence Urban Dance Competition.

A fund-raiser for scholarships, the event featured five teams hoofing it in a variety of styles, including hip-hop, jazz, modern, salsa and breakdancing. Each team was required to thread an antiviolence theme through the choreography. The winners of the competition will go on to dance at other national events, said the competition's organizer, Jamaal Brown.

Organizers said picnic events in recent years have been kept low-key on purpose.

In the 1990s, the event began attracting as many as 200,000 people.

A large number of the attendees, however, were non-Greeks, and many of them ended up on South Street, where they created disturbances and near-riots. Local merchants complained that to them the Greek Picnic meant disruptions and lost business.

"It didn't go away," said Danita M. Wisher, the president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council of Philadelphia.

"We got a bad reputation because of the throngs of people and wildings on South Street," Wisher said. "That created a lot of bad press for us."

Similar bad press led to the cancellation in 1999 of Atlanta's Freaknik, an analogous festival for primarily African American college students.

"We didn't want to go that route," Wisher said.

So organizers scaled back marketing so it would attract fewer outsiders, she said.

"We're trying to bring it back to what it was 33 years ago," she said. "We're trying to keep it safe and positive. We let people know by word of mouth, though we welcome anyone to join us as long as they're willing to be well behaved."

In recent years, the event has drawn about 3,000 to 6,000 people, organizers said.

Police said yesterday that additional patrol officers would be assigned this weekend to South Street and Fairmount Park to work traffic details and manage crowds.

Police will close two roads in the park from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow: Belmont Mansion Drive between Belmont Avenue and Montgomery Drive; and Chamounix Drive between Belmont Mansion Drive and Ford Road.

For more information about the picnic, go to www.phillygreek.com.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or samwood@phillynews.com.

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