The sidewalks were so crowded people had to hold hands to stay together. Cars jammed the streets, some drivers stopping to dispense liquor from coolers in the trunk. Fistfights broke out. Dozens were arrested.

A monthly arts walk designed to draw people to downtown Augusta had done just that. Maybe a little too well.

Now, Augusta leaders are trying to limit a street party they never imagined would become so popular. The First Friday art festival succeeded where countless earlier efforts to revive Augusta's sagging downtown had failed. And yet the festival has prompted a citywide debate as people here search for a way to make downtown vibrant -- but in a small, God-fearing sort of way.

Augusta officials first envisioned the festival as a way to show people there's more downtown than the boarded-up store fronts and lonely wig shops that line Broad Street. Several galleries stayed open late once a month, serving wine and snacks to the public.

The events at first drew highbrow art fans. They were soon joined by young people looking to check out the new galleries and the handful of bars that popped up along the strip. And then hundreds of young people came out looking for a party.

The street party really started picking up last summer as word spread that Augusta has no law banning open containers of alcohol. A rule that seemed convenient for wine-tasting art patrons who wanted to skip from gallery to gallery also came in handy for masses of youngsters drawn to an open-air party.

Crowds grew. Parking got worse. Some young people abandoned the art shows altogether in favor of cruising up and down Broad Street.

At October's First Friday, 19 people were arrested as several fights broke out. Bar owner Coco Rubio watched the masses from inside the bar he owns along the strip.

"Absolute madness," Rubio said. "The art gallery owners called them the flea market crowd. It was a whole other crowd coming out -- younger, predominantly black, lots of open drunkenness. People were like, 'This is turning into Freaknik. We've gotta stop this."'

Augusta is little accustomed to huge parties that don't coincide with the Masters golf tournament. And when the crowds came, city leaders took steps to cap the partying.

Outdoor music and most sidewalk vendors were banned for November's First Friday. Three or four police officers stood on every corner. The party stalled. Crowds shrank from several thousand the month before to several dozen.

Shonovia Tillman, 22, voiced her displeasure with the town while she waited for November's event to get going. "Last month, it was fun. You saw things, woo! Things you would not think you'd see in Augusta. It was like Mardi Gras, like a big street party for everybody."

For 20-year-old Zack Calhoun, the more subdued First Friday festival was hardly worth the drive from Beech Island, S.C., where he lives.

"It should be controlled, I guess, but it's not much fun when every eight feet there's a cop car. You feel like you're doing something wrong," he said. "So they had some crowds last time, okay. Is that like the end of the world or something?"

Everyone agreed Augusta hasn't had an easy time putting a shine on its core. For years, business leaders looked with envy at midsize southern cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C., that managed to revitalize their downtowns.

City officials tried many times to create a downtown attraction, something like Chattanooga's famed aquarium, to bring people back. A levee separating downtown Augusta from the Savannah River was breached, and a manicured waterside path created. It wasn't enough.

A developer built a riverside mall with aspirations of highbrow retailers and fancy condos. The mall soon closed, replaced with a science museum that draws more school field trips than anything else.

And last year, a sprawling botanical garden with statues of famous golfers opened downtown. Although the main draw, a golf hall of fame, isn't open yet, the eight-acre Augusta Golf & Gardens isn't drawing locals or visitors the way planners had hoped.

"Our whole downtown area was basically dead," said Chris Naylor, executive director of Augusta's Downtown Development Authority. "It's getting much more vibrant now, but it's a slow process."

One of the art gallery owners, Lou Ann Zimmerman, said First Friday will not succeed in showing off downtown if it turns into a raucous street party. She supported police efforts to tone down the festival.

"We're thrilled with the changes downtown. I think everyone is," said Zimmerman, who owns Gallery 1006. "We just have to make sure [First Friday] doesn't turn into a free-for-all. It needs to be a family cultural event."

Another older First Friday attendee, Charlie Warren, said he was glad to see the crowds thin out.

"People enjoy it more when there are limits," he said. "This is the way it ought to be."

But for Tillman, Augusta's wet-blanket approach to First Friday is exactly what she feared would happen. Tillman and her friends drive to Atlanta at least three times a month to party, and she said she was hoping a cool event like First Friday would save her a weekend drive.

"We can't hardly do anything here," she complained, waving to indicate the dozen or so police officers waiting by their cars. "We can't even have a drink without having the police after us. They're trying to shut it all down."

A crowd filled Broad Street in Augusta, Ga., for the First Friday event. At an earlier gathering 19 people were arrested.