The Rise and Fall of a Party in the Park

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From 2000 to 2010, the MIH Heatwave barbecue in Prospect Park was a major social event for young black professionals in New York City. It catered to a crowd that felt out of place at other gatherings, and its popularity spread thanks to social networks.

Photo by: MIH

From 2000 to 2010, the MIH Heatwave barbecue in Prospect Park was a major social event for young black professionals in New York City. It catered to a crowd that felt out of place at other gatherings, and its popularity spread thanks to social networks.

In May of 2009, Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard, making remarks at the one of the school’s commencement exercises, said, “Since the day you arrived on campus for orientation, we have challenged you to be interesting and contributing members of this community. You have met this challenge.” One of those members was Jonevan Hornsby. He had been interesting long before Columbia or Dean Hubbard ever asked him to be.

A California native, Hornsby was a co-founder of a marketing and promotions group called MIH Ventures, LLC. In 2000 the group began planning events throughout New York City and, most notably, created what became one the most popular events among young, professional and college-educated networks of young blacks living in and around the city, the MIH Heatwave BBQ. What bystanders saw as an ordinary, albeit humongous (estimates say up to 5,000 people attended in 2009) party was to devotees more than just a barbecue, but a grassroots marvel worthy of Prospect Park’s Long Meadow, for eight years its resplendent backdrop.

“Eventually, [Heatwave] got to the point where you knew it was going to be the highlight of your summer,” Brooklyn native Gardy Guerrier, a fashion expert and columnist, says. “People would actually get mad at MIH for not releasing the date early enough to schedule their vacations around. And I swear they have emails from people, and texts from me, like, ‘Yo, I wanna travel this summer. Now, please, tell me when Heatwave is.'”

Dubbed Heatwave 9.0, the 2009 event was special for those close to Hornsby, who celebrated his new Columbia degree. “We were really happy for him,” said one associate. “For a while, it was a perfect setting.”

But with the passing of Labor Day, the sun set on a Brooklyn summer that saw no such party for the second year in a row. Mishaps after Heatwave 9.0 and the subsequent 2010 event–inflated and misinterpreted in the media—marred both Heatwave and the reputation of MIH. The fallout, real and imagined, appears to have soured the Prospect Park Alliance and much of the surrounding community against the event. Rising costs and increasingly complex logistics also hamstrung efforts by Hornsby and his colleagues to get the event back on track in 2011 and this year.

More than two years removed from when it was last held, the mere mention of the event itself still stirs strong emotions among Heatwave’s most fiercely loyal attendees, harshest critics and seemingly everyone in between. While the disappearance of a one-day, one-park party is not a civic tragedy, the story behind that absence—with its intersecting themes of ambition, race, class, rumor, publicity and money—frames questions about the proper use of public space, the appropriate parameters for spontaneous activity and the extent of social cohesion in a changing city.

Making it happen

“If there was one party on campus, everybody was there,” MIH co-founder Shane Bennett, now 38 and a resident of Ditmas Park, remembers of his college days at Georgetown. When asked about the parties he and his roommates threw, he lets out a reflective chuckle before saying they were legendary. “Everyone kind of galvanized around parties and events. We were known for our basketball team, our sports, so on and so forth but as minority students, we were a small community. And after a certain point in our college career, partying became very important.” That point, Bennett says, was his third year, the same year he met Hornsby, a freshman.

After Bennett and his roommates graduated in 1997, Hornsby says he and his friends picked up where the former left off as black Georgetown’s party-planning socialites until Hornsby graduated in 1999. Well-liked and well-known, their social activity continued as alumni; from 2000 to 2003, Bennett and Hornsby organized a weekend of events designed to attract Georgetown’s black alumni back to campus for homecoming. The centerpiece of that weekend each year was a popular tailgate where they sold t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Making It Happen.” Hornsby says the shirt wasn’t just a revenue-drawing gimmick, but a symbol of their collective ambition. “It was basically about the minority community coming back and creating something amongst ourselves … [saying] we are actively doing things in order to be successful and to be productive citizens wherever we may be. That’s what spilled over into the creation of the barbecue.”

Ever the entrepreneur, Hornsby was eager to find ways to become successful in business in New York. After Bennett graduated he’d promoted parties in Dover, Delaware, and once Hornsby finished school they teamed up to form MIH Ventures, LLC. Their rationale was relatively simple: The parties and events they typically attended with friends–many of them investment bankers, law students or in media–were attended by people they had little in common with. These events aimed either for a glitzy celebrity feel or a street-tough clientele, or both. MIH aimed for a different feel, and a different crowd.

Beginning in 2000, MIH partnered with other promotions groups to attract patrons to everything from happy hours to fashion shows, dance parties to ski trips. “We were building what we wanted,” Bennett said. “We threw parties where we felt comfortable and where we could go and be ourselves. I think that energy and that vibe is what attracted a lot of people.”

The first Heatwave BBQ–which Hornsby and Bennett says was held to show their appreciation for people who came to their events–took place on July 15, 2001. Twenty-five people – just enough to require a park permit, although the organizers did not apply for one–showed up. Someone brought potato salad. “They were just, like, ‘Let’s go to the park and have a barbecue,'” Guerrier says, emphasizing the simplicity of the thought. “Then they said, ‘Well that was a good idea, let’s do it again.’ It just got better and better. There’s this subconscious belief that when crowds of black people get together that something has to go wrong. They proved that wrong year after year.”

Demure about the growth of the barbecue over the years, MIH founders frame it as mostly unexpected while touting its intimacy and family-friendly atmosphere. “The first five years, we had an average, standard kind of a growth,” Bennett says, adding he estimates attendance went from about 25 in its first year to about 200. By the sixth year, Bennett says, approximately 600 people showed up. “We were like, ‘Whoa, this is a lot more than we expected,’ but I think everyone still came with the same mindset of coming out and having a good time. But we really had no idea how many people were going to show up.”

Friends and associates cast doubt on the idea that the barbecue’s growth was purely spontaneous. Many even wondered if MIH was ever committed to the idea of throwing an intimate barbecue, citing the fact that in later years the trio would take great pride in noting that an event that started with 25 people swelled into the thousands. “Last year we had over 1,000 people bless us with their presence and as we continue to grow, so does the size of the event,” read an excerpt from the invite MIH sent out just days before Heatwave 9.0. “This year we expect nothing but more beautiful faces, food, and fun.”

It’s not clear how many email addresses MIH could reach with one blast, but several sources say it actively worked with other promotions groups to reach as many people as possible.

MIH says it spent its own money each year–about $5,000 in the event’s most popular years—to provide free music, food and drinks. (Some attendees brought alcohol, but it was never served by the group.) The benefits likely justified the cost; as the scale and profile of barbecue intensified, so did MIH’s cache as a nightlife promotions group.

“That’s the only barbecue I ever left feeling perfectly fine with the fact I didn’t eat a single piece of barbecue,” Ronethea Williams, now a Harlem resident who lived in Brooklyn from 2008 to 2010, says of the event, which she attended after graduating from Texas A&M in 2006. “It was the black New York reunion. Every black person I’d ever met when I moved here was at that barbecue. I would see people there that I’d forgotten I even wanted to see. Regardless if you lived in Harlem, Brooklyn or the Bronx, you packed your blanket and a jug of juice and hauled it to Prospect Park.”

But unbeknown to the trio was the fact that sometime after either the 2005 or 2006 event, the party was on the on the radar of the people who run Prospect Park. “We noticed for a few years in a row that there would be this party in July or August that was bigger than it was supposed to be and was leaving a lot of litter, but we never had a permit for it,” Tupper Thomas, the former Prospect Park Alliance president, says. “So we didn’t quite know who it was. And then one year this unbelievably big party occurred.”

‘A moment we all failed’

Hornsby, Bennett and Keenan Davis, the third member of the MIH leadership team, all contend they didn’t foresee how popular the event was becoming, but there were clues.

Bennett says one year they were in line for balloons at the Party City in Atlantic Center when he heard someone he didn’t know making a phone call. The message was clear: Come to this huge barbecue in Prospect Park and bring your friends. “Literally, I’m standing there with the balloons so people [walking toward the party] know exactly where to go, and on line there’s someone right in front of me talking about my barbecue,” Bennett says.

Just days before the 2009 event, Hornsby happened to run into Nkrumah Pierre, a young associate at M&T Bank at 350 Park Avenue, where Hornsby was a summer associate in the bank’s commercial real estate division. “He told me he was a co-founder of this company called MIH Ventures and that they were having a barbecue on Sunday,” Pierre recalls, still amused by his apparent modesty. “He’s, like, ‘Come as my guest, I’ll take care of you.’ I didn’t know what to say, so I just told him that I hadn’t missed his barbecue in four years.”

The party’s popularity spread in part because attendees took pride in bringing newcomers. Guerrier himself says he brought friends from D.C., Houston, New Orleans, Miami, L.A. and Montreal to Heatwave 9.0. One year, Guerrier and friends at the barbecue began what became playfully known as the Blanket Mansion, where dozens would gather for good conversation, drinks and playful banter. Theirs was just one of many “traditions” attendees adopted to commemorate and celebrate the day. Sororities and fraternities set up tents. Alumni groups made it their summer gathering. “You took great pride in inviting friends to see it for the first time because it was so beautiful,” Guerrier says.

Others would go to extraordinary lengths to attend. Two days before the 2009 party, DJ Jon Byers says, he drove to Washington, D.C. to play a party, flew south to the national convention of his fraternity to play another, then hopped on a plane back to D.C. on the morning of July 19, tossed his things in his car and floored it to Brooklyn—all to do one set. For free. “I owed them a lot,” Byers, a social worker who moonlights as DJ Jon Quick at parties and at WBLS, said of MIH. His first steady gig, a weekly appearance at Flow (which is now the club Greenhouse), was an MIH party. It was exposure from MIH that he credits with opportunity with the popular New York station. “I’m from Charleston, West Virginia. This is New York. If it wasn’t for them giving me a chance I wouldn’t be at WBLS.”

These factors help to explain why approximately 4,000 people showed up to the park on July 19, 2009 to attend Heatwave 9.0. Twitter and other networking tools also played a role. “We did not foresee the strength of social media at the time,” Bennett says. “Twitter was blowing up and everyone was putting out the message. People were coming in droves. People were literally making u-turns from wherever they were going to come there.”

But all those people meant a lot of trash. Witnesses say volunteers worked throughout the day picking up garbage and that several announcements were made reminding people to act responsibly. But many did not. Those who attended offer varying reasons for the lack of cleanup. Talk of after-parties gained momentum as it got too dark to hang out in the park, triggering a steady exodus. Others say that the NYPD presence increased steadily as night fell and that police eventually made the DJ shut off or turn down the music, which effectively ended the party.

Guerrier recalls that as the sun set, he grabbed only the items he and his friends brought. “On the way out, I saw a hibachi grill on the side of the road. I saw another bag of garbage that I could have picked up,” he says. “I had a free hand, and it was my responsibility being part of the community to pick up that other garbage for the greater good. I just picked up my stuff and I wasn’t part of the community or part of the solution. That was a moment we all failed.”

Several witnesses who entered the park near Grand Army Plaza claimed they walked through another group having a party on Long Meadow. Some wonder if that party added to the trash problem and Heatwave’s blame for it. “People were confused because it was nice-sized party,” longtime Heatwave attendee Deron Jones says. “They might have had 300 people by themselves, and they had trash, too. People want to blame MIH for what happened and they have an argument. But they weren’t the only party on the lawn that day.”

By dawn the next morning, trash was strewn all over Long Meadow, despite what MIH says was a last-ditch, nighttime effort to clean up with only the headlights of a Bennett’s car and a U-Haul truck they rented to give them light. MIH was simply too shorthanded. “There were some dedicated people who stayed out there with us,” Hornsby says. “But to have the amount of people that were out there during the day, then to not have more people help us clean-up, was a little bit disheartening.”

Bennett says they cleaned until 3 a.m. and, when they ran out of supplies, opted to put the trash in piles. “The task was to get up the next morning, and continue to clean up when we can actually get some supplies.”

When MIH returned to the scene at some point the following day, “the clean-up had already been done,” Bennett says. But one witness who saw the park that morning and afternoon said it was “horrendous.” Prospect Park staff and volunteers had addressed the mess.

Among the most outraged were members of Fellowship for the Interests of Dogs & their Owners (FIDO), many of whom rose early to witness the devastation. “FIDO was outraged at the mess because our dogs were having a feast eating rotten garbage and their health was endangered by eating chicken bones that will mess up their insides,” FIDO president Tony Chiappelloni wrote in an email to Brooklyn Bureau. “I cannot speak for the Prospect Park Alliance, but I know they were outraged by the results of this event.”

Bad press, and a blunder is racialized

By 8 a.m. the next morning, Thomas’ email inbox at the Prospect Park Alliance was already full of complaints. A media deluge ensued. Later that day, a story on the website of the Brooklyn Paper, which had run a series of stories on trash in the park, was headlined, “Holy crap! Prospect Park was even worse THIS weekend!” On July 21, the news site Gothamist published a story containing the headline, “Prospect Park Trashed By Annual BBQ” in which MIH was said to have left hundreds of pounds of trash. “City aims to clean BBQ trash, targets litterbugs in Prospect Park,” said the July 22 edition of the Daily News.

“This is why we can’t have nice things,” wrote one Gothamist commenter. “It’s pretty absurd that people can’t take it upon themselves to throw out their own garbage. Fuckin’ savages.” Others suggested that MIH pay fines and that Hornsby do jail time. “So long as littering is only publishable [sic] by fines, the idea of dumping a ton of crap in front of the organizer’s place of work sounds like the right short-term retribution to me,” said another commenter on the Brooklyn Paper piece. It got uglier. “Fabulous or not fabulous, the whole thing stanks of the ghetto. I guess one can put lipstick on a pig …” read a statement, only to be outdone by the next. “Yeah, real educated professionals. Right. All the stereotypes were left behind, except there were no watermelon rinds in the pictures.”

At the Prospect Park Alliance, Thomas grew increasingly concerned with the poor level of public discourse, particularly the comments online. “The public displays were getting pretty awful and unpleasant and I didn’t want that to keep going on,” she says. “It became racial, and there were just awful conversations amongst everybody concerned. The poor organizers sort of went underground and you couldn’t reach them because they were getting significant hate mail from people.”

The racially charged argument between MIH’s supporters and critics went on for days, but it was when a few commenters posted Hornsby’s personal number and address that “all hell broke loose,” according to one associate of MIH.

“We all pretty much led quiet lives,” after the event, Bennett says. “With our addresses out there you didn’t know what fanatics were out there who might go over the edge. I’m not going to say we feared for our lives or anything, but it did feel a little bit uncomfortable with someone exposing so much personal information out there.”

Hornsby wanted to set the record straight on what he felt was unfair treatment. Both Bennett and Hornsby say the most hurtful part of the fallout was when the tone of the criticism became racial. “One of the perceptions was that, ‘These unruly, undesirable people of Brooklyn ruined our park,'” Hornsby says. “I’m a homeowner in Prospect Heights and I’ve been here since 1999. [We thought], ‘Well, this is not just your park, this is our park as well.’ We understood the beauty of the park and that’s why we wanted to restore it to its natural beauty before we left that evening. It was never our intention to leave a whole bunch of trash then run away and hide.”

MIH broke its three-day silence on July 23 via a statement on its website. “Attendance at the event was much greater than anticipated, overwhelming our clean-up efforts,” it read. “Our efforts to restore the park to its original condition extended late into the evening, but after exhausting our supplies, we decided to continue the clean-up the next day. When we returned with the necessary supplies and manpower, the park had been cleaned. We deeply regret, however, that volunteers and park staff ultimately shouldered the responsibility of cleaning up after our event.”

Thomas set about contacting MIH, eventually having what she described as lengthy conversations with the founders. “My impression was that they were really nice people who wanted to do the right thing,” she says. “But they got louder with bigger pieces of sound equipment and it just became too popular.”

Indeed, Heatwave captured the attention of an extremely large swath of young blacks from all over the tri-state area. Interviews conducted with several who attended knew it by a different name, did not know who made up MIH or what the group did; to those it was simply known as the Brooklyn Barbecue or the Prospect Park Barbecue–others asked a reporter for this year’s date. Many wonder if the somewhat ambiguous nature of the event contributed to people’s lack of cooperation with the clean-up.

“It had gotten out,” Guerrier says, commenting on the event’s popularity. “It wasn’t just for us anymore. Everyone knew about it, everyone came. And no guidelines were set about how you were supposed to act. People from the ‘hood were, like, ‘Yo, I’m out, where’s the afterparty?’ The problem in 2008 was we didn’t call them on it. No one said, ‘Hey, it is your responsibility to clean up after yourself.’ We assumed everyone would live up to that standard.”

Alliance staff says it does not keep permit records, but its spokesman says MIH had indeed applied for a permit for 80 guests in 2009, and 500 guests in 2010. MIH says it was aware that it needed to apply for permits once its events got more popular, but failed to fill out the right forms. It’s not clear why MIH applied for so few guests.

One last party

Thomas helped MIH coordinate a clean-up day as compensation for their mistakes at Heatwave 9.0. Later that fall, a team of about a dozen of MIH’s close friends and supporters walked through the park with an official to different sites where they picked up leaves, shrubbery and litter. Several groups who had criticized the barbecue went on the record disagreeing that the clean-up day was adequate atonement, and some doubted that it happened at all.

“We took quite a bit of heat from other parts of the community because we said we weren’t going to throw these people out,” said Thomas. “They brought a batch of people in to do volunteer work and clean up the park, so that was their compensation for having left the park a mess. And so I just sort took the heat for it. [I understood] that it was an important event for our community so wanted to commit to the idea that we were going to do it and do it the right way.”

Heatwave 10.0 was held on Sunday, July 18, 2010 with a permit granted by the Park Alliance. The event was moved to the Nethermead area of the park. Some attendees felt slighted that the event was not held closer to its traditional spot near the more affluent and picturesque Grand Army Plaza area, but Thomas, whose decision it was move the event to the Nethermead lawn, asserts the Nethermead, which hosted The Great GoogaMooga Festival earlier this year, is more amenable to large crowds.

The 2010 event was mostly successful with attendance estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 people, and the Brooklyn Paper reported that clean-up was sufficient. But the event was marred by a shooting that happened near the park that night. According to the paper, an unknown gunman fired into a crowd and shot a man in front of 135 Ocean Ave., just outside the park. Attempts to obtain an incident report on the shooting went unanswered by the NYPD. In media reports, police never associated the July 18 shooting with MIH, and the organizers were never questioned by police. While it quoted an official who stressed there was no known connection between the shooting and the party, the Brooklyn Paper reported the event under the headline, “Shots fired after ‘Heatwave’ party!”

“It was not an amicable atmosphere,” said an anonymous source quoted in the story. “Guys were getting out of fancy cars with bodyguards—the money on display was crazy.” Another unnamed source said it seemed like things were building up to the incident for “quite some time.”

Asked why the sources were granted anonymity–and if police had been contacted to determine if the shooting and the barbecue were in fact connected–then Brooklyn Paper editor Gersh Kuntzman, now an editor at the Daily News, said in an email to Brooklyn Bureau: “The story speaks for itself. Media outlets grant anonymity for a variety of reasons under controlled circumstances. I can assure you that everything in the story was properly vetted, lest we would not have printed it.”

But for some who attended the event, the accusations seemed far-fetched. “My first reaction was, who has a car?” Ronethea Williams joked. “But mostly, that sounds like a completely different event.” Dozens of attendees interviewed separately say they have no recollection of flashy cars or frivolous displays of money, much less anyone being accompanied at the party by bodyguards. Many only heard about the shooting the next day from the media reports.

However, many who attended the 2010 barbecue say the event attracted a new, rowdier element. Indeed, “them versus us” distinctions colored the perceptions of many of Heatwave’s opponents as well as many of its supporters. While some online commenters painted all Heatwave black attendees with a bigoted brush, the black professionals who were the event’s core audience felt little connection with these younger, less affluent partygoers.

At any rate, after the 2010 shooting, attendees figured it would be difficult to put on another event. And they were right.

Some event supporters suspect that the reports in 2009 and 2010 that gave the barbecue a sinister reputation were intended to sabotage the event. “After that, the park became really strict,” Sophia Domeville, a close MIH associate says. “All of the complaints from the locals showed the power of community. I don’t know that there was a plan to take the barbecue off the map, or if there was just some really bad timing and pure coincidence. But it’s sad when all it takes one or two negative [events] to change the mind of others.”

‘Not worth rehashing’

When it turned to planning a 2011 barbecue, MIH says it became quickly apparent that it was not going to get the cooperation from the Park Alliance it had gotten in 2010. In years past, MIH had rejected the notion of bringing in major sponsors, choosing instead to foot the costs on their own. But for the 2011 event, MIH planned to bring on such a sponsor (which the organizers would not name) to help shoulder the costs of renting port-a-potties, fencing and other equipment mandated for the 2011 event by the Park Alliance—which Thomas had departed earlier that year. They were also required to post an insurance bond. All told, the organizers say, the event would have cost $10,000 to pull off.

Stunned by the pricetag, MIH says it was eventually told by the Park Alliance that it should consider moving the party to Floyd Bennett Field, a federally-managed park on Jamaica Bay which sits at the outermost southeast edge of Brooklyn–a proposal they never truly considered. Current Alliance spokesman Paul Nelson confirmed the proposal: “MIH was told they needed to include additional health and safety measures in order to receive a permit and that Prospect Park may not be the best venue given how popular their event had become.”

Nelson declined to get into specifics. A request to interview current Prospect Park administrator Emily Lloyd, who assumed her post in February of 2011, was declined. The 78th Precinct, which signs off on permit applications, did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Explained Nelson, “Since they have not applied for a permit in the last few years, this is a story that was amply covered and not worth rehashing.”

Friends and associates of the MIH organizers say the combination of the pressure to move the barbecue, the increasingly stringent guidelines and their own career and family demands made it too difficult to plan an event last year or in 2012.

Ironically, Bob Ipcar of FIDO believes Heatwave helped usher in a more serious and practical approach to the weekend trash issue.

“A lot has changed,” since Heatwave, Ipcar says. “The Alliance finally got serious about the mounds of garbage left by weekend picnickers. Overtime cleanup crews appeared on the scene late weekend evenings. Two yard garbage containers were purchased (two donated by FIDO) and positioned where picnickers could actually see them. Signage went up pertaining to the disposal of barbecue coals.”

Though, according to a source, it hasn’t thrown an event in about a year, MIH says it still plans on doing events in the future. Even with the absence of the Heatwave event for two consecutive years, MIH founders are protective of its legacy, remaining hopeful it can come back “in some shape, way, or form,” Hornsby says.

“We realized that we failed,” Bennett says, refusing to place blame on other factors. “It hurt me that something as simple as [failing to get the crowd] to clean up after themselves put such a negative stigma on something that we had built for so long.”

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