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Flood City Fun!
September 5, 2010 - Jim Price
Every summer has its succession of carnivals, festivals and fairs in this part of the world; and as a live music-a-holic, I try to attend as many of these events as I can each year. But for me, the highlight – and because of its timing, climax – of the summer festival season always happens in the Cambria City section of Johnstown during Labor Day weekend.
It started in 1990 when the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) brought the National Folk Festival to the city’s ethnic Cambria City neighborhood for a three-year run. After that run, JAHA continued the event each Labor Day weekend as Johnstown Folkfest. Both the association and various churches in Cambria City presented a variety of musical and other cultural entertainment, plus a wide menu of food and refreshments. During Folkfest’s run in Cambria City, most of a ten-block stretch of the neighborhood’s Chestnut Street was an unbroken chain of festival stages, food vendors, individual church festivities, and even some residential backyards serving as stages for local musicians, yard sales and other activities. That magical 13-year stretch from 1990 to 2003 established a special atmosphere each Labor Day weekend, with abundant music, food, fun, community and camaraderie.
Citing space and other logistical concerns, JAHA moved Folkfest out of Cambria City starting in 2004, and relocated the event to Festival Park near downtown Johnstown. Johnstown Folkfest continued as a music-intensive event for several years, before changing its name and evolving into its current form, the Flood City Music Festival, which now happens earlier in the summer and features a slate of national and marquee regional musical performers.
After Folkfest left, various church and community leaders decided to continue their own festival tradition in Cambria City, and the Cambria City Ethnic Festival was born. Thousands of Johnstown residents and other visitors converge on Cambria City for a variety of delicious food, local bands and performers; and this event has become a sort of homecoming weekend for Johnstown and the Cambria City community.
Cambria City Ethnic Festival is spaced throughout the neighborhood, with activities featured at several hubs along the way; including Holy Cross Lutheran Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Resurrection Parish; Ace’s Lounge, the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center; and the Venue Of Merging Arts (VOMA), the former St. George’s Church resurrected into an art center.
While I attend this event each year for the live music and food, I’ve realized with each subsequent year that I also gravitate toward the sense of community spirit and togetherness that permeates this Festival. This is a friendly and cheerful event; people let their hair down and have fun. It can be the large audiences (of mostly seniors) instantly filling the dance floor at Ace’s Lounge to get their polka on with Rosie & the Jammers and other polka bands, or huge crowds congregating around the tent at Resurrection Parish to enjoy cold cans of Guinness and the Michael O’Brian Band or Full Kilt, the street party atmosphere in front of St. Mary’s Church pavilion as local party-rock favorites Yum perform their happy-go-lucky rock mix, the huge Saturday night dance floor party at Ace’s as another local favorite, Ribbon Grass, generates dance-friendly grooves, and more. Smiles are abundant, people are friendly and come together for a weekend of camaraderie and community pride.
And I would be remiss not to mention the food…I set a goal for myself every year to run the “St. Mary’s Church culinary trifecta” of halushki, halupki and pirohi – all delicious and together priced at under $5! The food variety at this Festival continues to be wide, spanning Eastern European, German, Irish, Italian and American favorites. It’s nearly impossible to leave this event without a full stomach!
As I write this, I’m preparing to head back over the mountain for Sunday's third and final day of Cambria City Ethnic Festival. If you didn’t make it to this year’s event, I recommend that you make a mental note to spend next year’s Labor Day weekend in Cambria City, and discover one of the best highlights of every summer!
Johnstown party-rock favorites Yum, hosting a street party Saturday night outside of St. Mary's Church pavilion.