Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Kipona: A Review

With Kipona 2014 located on City Island, the Native American pow wow took its rightful place as a centerpiece of the Labor Day weekend celebration.

There were canoe races, a pow wow, fireworks. There were vendors, food, music.

The things that make up Kipona were at Kipona again this year, though people most wanted to talk about something apart from the chili cook-off, the martial arts demonstration and the basketball tourney. The number-one topic of discussion: the relocation of most activities from Riverfront Park to City Island.

I spent much of last weekend at Kipona, helping to man the information table for 3rd in The Burg. When I wasn’t chatting up Harrisburg’s monthly arts event, I listened to people opine (at length) on how they thought things were going. For the most part, attendees and participants seemed positive about the annual Labor Day weekend festival. That said–they were not shy in sharing with me possible areas for improvement.

I agreed with much of what I heard. In my opinion, the city got many of the big things right. Most activities went off well, and attendance was solid. The relocation to City Island was (sorry, Kipona traditionalists) a very pleasant surprise. Before last weekend, I regarded under-utilized, under-visited City Island as a huge surface parking lot, a baseball stadium and a random smattering of other stuff that seemed only loosely connected. Now I know the potential that City Island has.

I’ll admit to not much liking Kipona’s old format. Yes, there are uniquely Kipona activities, but, over the years, it came to closely resemble Harrisburg’s other summer festivals along the river. By the time Labor Day rolled around, did you really want to trudge up that narrow, asphalt path one more time, hemmed in on all sides by booths, battling sweaty crowds and having largely the same experience that you did over the Memorial and Independence Day weekends?

I found City Island to be tailor-made for hosting Kipona. It had close-by, ample (free!) parking, a variety of landscapes, open spaces, refreshing breezes, easy access to the river and beautiful views of the city. The loop around the island seemed to be a perfect length and format, and the permanent structures–from the stadiums and restrooms to businesses and pavilions–anchored the festival and provided necessary amenities. Larger-scale events, such as the fascinating and funky Festival of India parade, were easily accommodated.

City Island also allowed more natural groupings, so that children’s activities, for instance, were all together, arranged comfortably, and there was ample spacing between festival booths and themes. In addition, the excellent and interesting Native American pow wow fittingly became a centerpiece of the celebration, not the hidden, out-of-the-way event-in-exile it was before. And kudos to Capital Region Water, which hosted a variety of educational and creative activities. Who knew that learning about water and waste could be so much fun?

It’s understandable that downtown bars and restaurants would prefer Kipona to remain in the park, closer to them. However, based solely on the festival-going experience, City Island is a better place–much better.

Now that I’ve gotten all the accolades out of my system, let me turn to some of the shortfalls. I don’t mean to gratuitously criticize the organizers, who were working within very tight budget and organizational restrictions. However, even several administration officials told me that, while certain things went well, others did not. Here are, in my mind, the areas that most need to be improved.

Arts Walk. For two days, I was trapped inside the stifling Carousel Pavilion with my fellow arts hostages. There were a couple of photographers, two wood craftsmen, an author, another arts group–about a dozen people total–stranded inside a cavernous space that can hold many hundreds. On Sunday, Appalachian Brewing Co. gave away free beer samples, but even that brought in only a trickle of takers, as thousands walked past just outside, seemingly oblivious that people were within the forbidding building. A stage was set up there, and a lineup of talented musicians played to an audience of two or one or zero. Strangely, that stage was maybe 50 feet from the main music stage just outside the pavilion, which led to a cacophony of competing sounds, complaints from the musicians and the shutting of several pavilion doors, adding to the stifling heat. In my opinion, the Arts Walk, with little art, few patrons and nothing much to walk to, was the weakest part of Kipona.

Traffic. Cars, trucks and vans motored around City Island all weekend long, weaving in and out of crowds of people. For the duration of Kipona, Riverside Drive should have been pedestrian-only, the only exceptions for festival staff on golf carts and for emergency workers. Lax enforcement, however, led to something of a vehicle vs. walker free-for-all and created a very dangerous situation on the island.

Signage. Signage was almost non-existent, and the poorly designed Kipona program–if you could find it at all–did not identify several major venues, had no schedule of performers and didn’t say where most acts would be. More people seemed to wander into the Carousel Pavilion to ask us for directions, or if we knew what the music schedule was, than actually wanted to see art.

Fireworks schedule. Fireworks are a highlight of Harrisburg’s festivals, with people often organizing their evenings around going to the waterfront to watch them. The Kipona schedule said the fireworks would go off at 9:30 p.m, but they actually started about 45 minutes earlier. Rain or no rain, you just can’t do that.

Riverfront Park. The split festival between Riverfront Park and City Island did not work. People complained about walking across the bridge, park vendors complained about weak customer traffic, and City Island had empty spots that could have used more vendors to create a critical mass. The city needs to choose a single location and stick with it.

This year, Kipona turned 98 years old, so you would think Harrisburg would have it down by now. Kipona 2014 showed that this is not the case, and, in fact, all of Harrisburg’s summertime festivals have been in flux for years now. At least one good thing, though, seemed to come from this turmoil–the rediscovery of the wonderful resource that is City Island. It’s my hope that, now found, this beautiful, accessible and festival-friendly place will stay found.


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