Why Did Otakon's Attendance Shrink?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asks:

Anime Expo attendance was up 12% this year, to 90,500, and it's not the only one. Poking around the sites of other big North American cons that post attendance numbers, Anime Central was up 5% to 31,113, and Anime Boston was up 7% to 26,475. That's why I was surprised that Mike Toole tweeted that Otakon saw a big drop this year, from 34K to 28K. That's about a 20% decline. Is there something specific to Otakon that would account for them shrinking when cons as a whole seem to be growing?

Yes, there is. This is one of those awful times where reality interrupts our escapist entertainment and affects a beloved institution.

There's a lot of nice stuff in the city of Baltimore, and one of those things is the Inner Harbor area, which includes the Baltimore Convention Center, where Otakon has taken place for years and years. However, the city also has major problems with violent crime that go back many years. A study of crime statistics released earlier this year ranked the city as the #8 most dangerous city in America. Many people who have visited Otakon and dared to wander around the streets at night have at least one story of finding themselves in a neighborhood where they wondered if they were safe.

But that was just part of visiting Otakon, and has been for years. That Baltimore is dangerous wouldn't come as a shock to anybody. (I mean, has anybody seen The Wire?) But the Inner Harbor was seen as something of a safe haven: a nice, heavily policed area with lots of tourist attractions, shops and restaurants. All that changed in April of this year, however, when the April 12 death of Freddie Gray under police custody resulted in widespread protests against police brutality that went on for weeks. These protests turned violent, and turned into riots. These were not minor riots, either: at least twenty police officers injured, at least 250 people arrested, 285 to 350 business damaged, 150 vehicle fires, 60 structure fires, 27 stores looted. Police and Army National Guard troops were dispatched by the thousands. The mayor declared a state of emergency. Things were really, really bad.

Of all of the major incidents of civil unrest that have taken place in the last year, the riots in Baltimore were probably the worst in terms of property damage, and up there with Ferguson in terms of sheer tragedy. Violence spilled into the Inner Harbor area, and I definitely recognized some of the nearby convenience stores in news footage, being looted and destroyed. The unrest affected other events at the convention center, and kept business closed -- even forcing the nearby Baltimore Orioles to cancel several games. I don't want to go into all of the ugly details of what happened -- it's beyond the scope of this column. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive rundown of events.

Since the riots, crime in the city has gone through the roof. With local government in disarray, locals at odds with the police force, and the federal government stepping in to assist, violence has rocketed out of control. July actually broke a 43-year record for the most homicides. There have been 189 killings this year so far within city limits, according to local press -- putting it at a historic 30 slayings per 100,000 residents. This number puts Baltimore at the #2 most deadly city in America, just past Detroit and second only to St. Louis.

Now, after reading that, would YOU want to let your teenaged kids traipse around downtown Baltimore in big clumsy costumes? Keep in mind, anime conventions are largely havens for young people, and the perception that the area is unsafe almost certainly kept a huge number of the attendees -- which come from all across the East coast -- home, or at least attending smaller cons closer to home.

For the Otakon attendees that did come, however, the end result might have been a silver lining in an otherwise terrible few months for the city. I haven't heard stories of any major incidents involving crime (EDIT: although I have been informed that some attendees did notice a puddle of what looked like blood on the sidewalk in alarming proximity to the convention center and Hilton), and the lower attendance really helped to ease congestion in the badly-designed, badly overcrowded convention center, which has but one hallway on the top floor that traverses the entire length of the convention center, and features a recently built skywalk to a hotel that's constrained by a tiny stairway.

Baltimore is going through a rough patch, and nobody knows what's going to happen in regards to safety or crime rates. Regardless, Otakon only has one more year of being affected by this until the convention moves to Washington DC (which isn't exactly a low-crime city, but at least it's not suffering in the same way Baltimore is). Hopefully the crime rate gets under control and stops making headlines soon, and next year the convention can return to growth. But with crowding as bad as it was, maybe it's best to hold off on growing until 2017.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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