Sakura Matsuri: An Event With Surprisingly Wide Appeal

Cherry Blossoms have a place of honor in the heart of most park goers. The symbolism of the friendship between Japan and America adds a powerful layer of meaning to the appeal of the pink blossoms heralding Spring. A few weeks ago, my family visited the Brooklyn Botanical garden on the day of the Sakura Matsuri celebration. The Botanical Garden's staff did well picking the date, as the blooms were in full glory. 

The gardens were mobbed. Not just busy, but thronged with people, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. The line to purchase tickets was probably 45 minutes long, and stretched far on the adjacent sidewalks. 

The nature of the crowd is the true topic of this post. Today's park manager wishes to offer an experience that is appealing to all. This seems simple enough, but it is not easy, for the likes and dislikes of the communities in our cities are increasingly fragmented. Offering a beautiful, naturalistic landscape we know is not enough to engage the public in the modern city. Programs have become a major part; one could say the major part; of the work of public space managers, and programs attract specific audiences. Modern dance will not have the same draw as knitting, just as classical music performances will have limited overlap with hip-hop. Yet those of us who manage parks wish for them to be a haven for everybody: young and old, rich and poor, and so forth. We do so because parks are the common democratic space and the place to bridge differences between communities.  Parks are a key ingredient of the glue that binds us together, and we wish to do our part in keeping it strong.

 You don't see this crowd every day...

You don't see this crowd every day...

Yet if we can expose our public to various activities, arts and programs, we mostly rely on the public's pre-existing tastes and dispositions. Which is why I want to highlight the work for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on the occasion of the Sakura Matsuri. The event is of course a celebration of the plants and of their symbolism, but over the years also became that of both high-brow and more popular Japanese culture. Today at the event one can enjoy Manga and comic books, themed theater, cosplay fashion shows, comedy, themed kids events, discover the intricacies of the tea ceremony, sword fighting, bonsai trimming classes and more. While it seemed each activity had its own "tribe" and set of fans, there was both interest and bewilderment as seniors discovered teens in manga hero costumes or college students marvelled at the work of infinitely patient photo artists. Everywhere people were engaged in conversation with strangers, and finding things to talk about in the rich surroundings.  Even the commercial part of the event was fun and very well done, with specialty pop up retailers, in the ever present 10' by 10' white tents. Local artists were there, presenting flower paintings and drawings, as well as community comic book artists, overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. Although I confess my favorite were sushi themed pillows. 

 If an emoticon could hug you it would look just like this...

If an emoticon could hug you it would look just like this...

The result of these efforts: the crowd on that day was as diverse as any you will encounter. All ethnicities were there, and all ages. Sure it was elbow to elbow, but once in the gardens you feel the excitement of being part of an event that attracted everybody in the Borough of Brooklyn.

What lessons can we draw from this success? Can any event reach everyone? Probably not. But by adding element to element, and reacting to things they discovered in the crowd and embracing them over the years(costumes for sure), all within a common theme, and broadening the definition of what is the cherry blossom festival, the organizers created a phenomenon. This approach can certainly be replicated for other activities.