Oakland First Fridays revitalizes city arts, small businesses bouncing back from pandemic
OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — In Oakland, a cultural touchstone is back for the summer, and many local entrepreneurs say they hope to preserve it as a tradition when many traditions in “The Town” are in jeopardy.
Oakland’s First Fridays, a monthly celebration of arts, culture, food and community taking place on the first Friday of each month, has become a key way new and longtime residents and business owners can connect — at a time when the city, like so many across the country, is recovering from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
First Fridays has been a decades-long incubator for Oakland artists and small businesses, driving economic growth in the area’s Koreatown and downtown that helped the city place as the only North American destination in National Geographic’s “Places to Visit 2019.”
The event, which once typically drew up to 30,000 people on Telegraph Avenue from West Grand Avenue to 27th Street, was on pause for 18 months until September 2021, during which time many businesses remained closed.
During the last seven years, the city underwrote costs for the police and fire department and special events and sound permits. Efforts to bring it back earlier stalled due to costs for the Oakland Police Department’s security fees, until organizers negotiated a reduction and Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan helped secure a Doordash sponsorship.
The local KONO Community Benefit District — located in the area First Fridays operates in — relies on about $600,000 in contributions from the district’s business and property owners, according to the organization’s website.
Now nearly one year later, the monthly street festival is more alive than ever.
Thousands visit The Town from across the Bay Area, seeking locally made crafts, clothing, jewelry and food. It has become a touchstone for local designers and up and coming shops, finding new ways to sell and be seen while rethinking business with or without a brick and mortar storefront. The event website reported that in June, the First Fridays event for Junetenth sold out of vendor spots.
Strolling down Telegraph Avenue on a typical First Friday evening, the music starts early and the air fills quickly with smoke from ample barbecues and trucks. Visitors have their pick of local dishes from West African, Peruvian and Mediterranean food to vegan ice cream and classic soul dishes.
After buying a meal or two, most visitors linger at a drum circle or an impromptu dance-off, or find themselves at one of more than 20 local vendors’ booths. Some are hyper-local, while others come from out of town to sell their merchandise.
Vee Smith of Benicia started her business, Sun Goddess, as a mobile boutique in the winter. For several months, she has been selling clothing and accessories that she designs and makes by hand, as well as items from countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
“I got tired of being in the house, and the business I had before, Covid-19 severely impacted,” Smith said. “I wanted to figure out a way I could do what I loved, outside.”
Tshara Ball also brought her beauty products business, LB House of Beauty, from Hayward, after growing up in Oakland. For her, First Fridays is a longtime tradition — especially for local, Black-owned businesses.
“I want to spread my business everywhere, I’m from Oakland born and raised,” she said.
“We are all Black, and we are all doing it together.”
Others have a brick and mortar store front, but come to the event to show their products and get to know their community.