First Fridays’ uncertain future hinges on collaboration

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Half an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, Daniel Dolan called for the participants to gather. They had trickled into the Stork Club and were now scattered around the bar, some with pints in hand, until Dolan finally herded them into the next room to get down to the business at hand: a mission statement.

“I think First Friday is probably the most tangible evidence of the cultural renaissance that’s happening in Oakland,” a local journalist said.

“My family moved here in the ’40s,” said a man in the back. “They used to tell me that West Oakland was kind of like First Fridays.”

“To me it’s a renaissance of Oakland,” a local property owner said. “My family has been here 100 years. When I look back at old pictures that is what people were doing—they were walking around, and it was vibrant.”

“It’s a testament to the power of art,” an artist said.

“First Friday is Oakland,” a local promoter said.

Amid the romantic declarations, Steve Snider, director of the Lake Merritt-Uptown and Downtown Oakland Community Benefit Districts, offered a sobering thought.  “It’s going to take a lot of work to organize,” he said. “It’s a challenge to figure out how to build a structure that’s going to be sustainable and serve everybody—you see it’s challenging just to come to one meeting, and start on time.”

Depending on whom you ask, this is the Oakland First Fridays Community Organization/Action Meeting, the Oakland First Fridays General Meeting, or the Oakland First Fridays Organizing Meeting. The name, like everything else the group contemplates, will be decided through a system that is supposed to give each participant a voice. “This is what democracy looks like,” said freelance photojournalist Eric Arnold, who works with the group’s communication team. “It’s almost like post-Occupy: We’re grassroots and DIY, but we’re talking to the city.”

Thousands of revelers delight in the cultural phenomenon that explodes onto Oakland’s streets on the first Friday of each month. What started as a small gallery crawl has expanded into a full-blown street party that celebrates creativity, entrepreneurship and general Oaklandness. Visitors now peruse galleries and buy from local artisans, but they can also move through swaths of city streets closed to traffic. They can stop at one of the food trucks stationed in the road, climb aboard the art bus parked across multiple lanes, or join a mid-street dance party presided over by a DJ. It’s bigger and louder and offers more than ever before—and someone has to think about how to organize it, and how to pay for it.

This is the dilemma of First Friday’s success. Who will pick up trash? Who will close the streets to traffic for pedestrian safety? Who will re-route the AC Transit buses that rely on Telegraph Avenue to convey passengers across town? And who will make sure those handmade samosas aren’t carrying food-borne pathogens? The event has reached a critical juncture, where the obligation to consider these things may determine the fate of the event.

The organic, anarchic nature of Oakland First Fridays has collided with the city’s mandate to keep its citizens safe. The former organizers have backed out, leaving an event that draws many thousands—nearly 20,000 on October 5, according to Snider— without a formal administrator. City officials recognize they have a duty to regulate it, but they say they’ll only do so until a community-led organization can take over most of the responsibility. It’s a demand some community organizers say is unrealistic.

So the Oakland First Fridays community group—the Stork Club contingent—is working to form that organization from the ground up. In the interim, an unprecedented collaboration between the city, three local property owner associations and the community group has formed to take up the job. “It’s the biggest organizing project that I could think of in Oakland history,” Snider said. “It’s kind of like we’re trying to put a box around an amoeba.   And we don’t want to do that, but there has to be some structure. We don’t have a choice as a community but to regulate certain things.”

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What event organizers have now dubbed Oakland First Friday began in 2006, when a collective of artists and gallery owners that called itself Oakland Art Murmur began coordinating gallery openings on the first Friday of every month. The group’s First Friday Art Walk, with its accompanying 23rd Street artisan fair, gained popularity, becoming a cultural phenomenon that eventually drew national press attention. With the flourishing of the Uptown district and the parallel success of the art walk, Oakland was hailed the West Coast Brooklyn and people began trumpeting the city’s cultural renaissance.

But by late last year, Oakland Art Murmur—by then a formalized association, with twenty member galleries—wanted to distance itself from the street gathering that now upstaged First Friday gallery events. The cost of managing the 23rd Street closure, which required insurance, security and cleanup efforts, had reached $17,000 a year, said Art Murmur director Danielle Fox, and the strain of organizing and financing the event was funneling resources away from the association’s mission to support art and cultural venues.

In June, Oakland Art Murmur sponsored its last 23rd Street closure, declaring that the gallery group would no longer manage the event’s organization. There was no planned street closure for July, but crowds blocked Telegraph Avenue anyway. The throng had been spilling out of 23rd Street onto Telegraph Avenue since May, said Dolan, a longtime First Friday vendor who sells paintings and other works of graphic art. “It kind of started because of May Day,” he said, referring to an Occupy Oakland action that brought thousands out to the streets. “That was the first month people started dancing in the streets. It happened for the next three months.”

By July, city officials had taken notice. “The city began to recognize that it was growing to a level that was pushing folks out into the street and making it difficult for traffic,” said Deputy City Administrator Arturo Sanchez.  The crowds were moving through the territory of three Community Benefit Districts, the property owner associations that provide an important source of district improvement funds. Sanchez had been working to develop a partnership with their directors, Steve Snider of Lake Merritt-Uptown and Downtown and Shari Godinez of Koreatown-Northgate, for some time. Now he began an outreach effort to bring vendors, artists and others into the organization process.

The outreach worked. When Dolan and fellow First Friday vendor James Copes learned that the event’s organization was in flux, they helped organize a meeting of First Friday entrepreneurs—vendors, artists and performers. Ahead of the meeting, they passed out flyers that read “Help shape the future of First Friday … We need to organize to make sure that our voice is heard throughout the transition. Either we will help make the rules or we will just be told what to do.” That first meeting, in early August, drew 80 people.

The First Friday event in August, just before Copes and Dolan’s meeting, was a turning point. City officials had declined to close Telegraph Avenue officially, Shari Godinez said, but still the street was jammed with bodies. “The AC transit bus would get stuck, cars would start to make U-turns because they couldn’t get through,” she said.

Initially, Sanchez says, he believed all the organization duties ought to be the community’s job, with help from the Community Benefit Districts. But after the August event, he realized the city would have to take an active role. City officials agreed to act as lead organizers for a two-month trial run at first, Fox said, and later agreed to stay in that role until December.

Now Sanchez finds himself acting as event coordinator for Oakland’s biggest cultural event, a role that’s clearly outside his job description. “I’m not an event planner,” he said emphatically. “I don’t plan on being involved in the long run.”  But for now, he requests the special event permit that allows for street closure, coordinates with AC Transit, and organizes a police officer presence around the perimeter of the fair and private security agents to work the event.

The Oakland First Fridays group, the crew that assembles weekly at the Stork Club to hash out a decision-making apparatus, was meant to take control of the event by December, but Sanchez told one food pod organizer that deadline might be extended. Either way, some involved say a transfer anytime soon is unrealistic. “Is it even reasonable that they expect a group of volunteers to do what a paid group of people can’t do?” asked one member of the community group, who doesn’t want his name used.

For now, Sanchez said his role is to facilitate that transfer. The community group is in charge of block-by-block programming and members meet with him regularly to discuss logistics and give and receive input. The district associations function as liaisons between the city and the community group and provide support by putting up barricades and paying for portable toilets and for additional security and cleanup efforts.

At least that’s the plan.

In practice, the collaboration is fraught with dilemmas. Logistically, no one seems sure about how to make the event sustainable. Sanchez wrote in an email that the city is paying about $23,000 for each event’s security—an estimated $12,000 for OPD and $11,000 for private security. Liability insurance costs the city $3,500 a month, Sanchez wrote, though officials are working to secure a lower price. The Koreatown-Northgate district association is paying roughly $1,700 a month for safety ambassadors and portable toilets, Godinez said, noting that the expense is not in the organization’s budget, and that it will be looking for sponsor money to help. The Lake Merritt-Uptown and Downtown associations are paying an estimated $1,500 to $2,000 for similar services, Snider said, and they contributed roughly $6,000 towards the creation of street closure maps and launching the Oakland First Fridays website. Snider and others have guessed at a total monthly cost of between $20,000 and $40,000. The expenses vary from month to month as organizational decisions change.

No one has a concrete funding plan. One community organizer is hoping for grants. Others have suggested vendor fees. Snider is holding out hope for an “angel donor”—a benevolent patron who might solve the problem with a single check. And there’s always the donation bucket, others point out.

Then there are the philosophical disagreements about the future of the event and the role of the various players in shaping its fate. Many members of the First Fridays group fear that powerful interests will co-opt it, bring in corporate sponsorship and let money dictate decisions.  “What’s at stake is being gobbled up,” says Copes. These tensions, and the enormity of the task at hand, were evident at the ambiguously-named Wednesday night meeting of the Oakland First Fridays group some weeks ago, when Dolan was helping facilitate. The group was reviewing a report from the Organizational, Procedure and Policy Committee, one of the group’s various subcommittees. As they examined the provisions of one proposal, meant to streamline decision-making, Dolan ventured, “I’m a bit confused about the difference between ‘simple majority’ and ‘consensus.’”

There was some murmuring around the room, from the folding table in the back and the curved, vinyl banquettes against the wall to the round bar tables that completed the circle. “I agree,” someone said.

“Are we in the discussion phase?” another man asked.

“We’re kind of doing both,” Dolan said.

“I’m for consensus for a smaller group,” someone suggested.

“What’s consensus?” Dolan asked.

After more murmuring, a man in the back held up a smartphone. “I’m just going to read from Wikipedia,” he said, and started reciting from the entry for consensus.

This is progress, the First Friday organizers say.  Two months ago, meetings were often rife with discord, and little was accomplished. “We had no sense of community,” says Richard Felix, a design firm owner whose mobile art projects are First Friday staples and who has been part of the group since the beginning. “Now we have a sense of community.”

The growth is hard-won, says Copes. He spends 15 to 20 hours a week on the work and says he missed all the presidential debates because of it. But in the end, he believes the decision-making body that emerges will have been worth all the work, he says. “It’s like an oyster in the sea: The sand, it irritates the oyster, and the oyster pushes it out,” he said, “but eventually some stays in there, and you end up with this beautiful pearl.”

Despite friction and distrust, the marriage between the community group, the city and the district associations is a remarkable feat of team-work, observers have pointed out. “On the one hand, it’s all kind of discombobulated and there are people with different agendas,” said Fox. “But on the other hand, it’s kind of working, in this miraculous Oakland way.”

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November’s First Friday brought out fewer people than last month’s event, but still, thousands swarmed the closed sections of Telegraph Avenue between 17th and 27th streets. As orange-vested security guards and OPD officers regulated the auto traffic at major intersections, people moved around rows of food trucks and clusters of peaked tents, stopping to peruse wares.

By nightfall the street was thick with bodies. The clamor of DJs, bands, tap dancers, roving musicians and a rolling karaoke cart charged the air; suburban-mom-types in fleece vests and casual-wear-clad businessmen ambled through the chaos with tall cans of Pabst in hand. In the middle of it all, Zac Carroll pulled freshly baked cookies from an oven in a beautiful wooden “outhouse” on wheels—part of a mobile venue he built for Burning Man. A troupe of Hare Krishnas danced in circles.  Vendors hawked everything from oil pastels to a stuffed stegosaurus. An “outdoor comedy club” that consisted of a microphone and a plastic crate drew a small crowd to one patch of sidewalk, while in a nearby intersection Kenny the Clown alternated making balloon animals and juggling flaming batons.

“This is the Mecca now,” Copes said around 10 p.m. as he packed up his T-shirt stall and police officers shooed what remained of the crowd from the street. “I continue to meet people from all over the world here,” he said. “This is the only event I’ve seen with this kind of soul. All this is volunteer-organized. I tell people, ‘You can’t give up. We have to help shape this. You can’t give up on the city.  You can’t give up on this event.’”

Some volunteers have fallen away, frustrated with the pace of progress. But Copes and others recognize the importance of the task. The motley company of Oakland First Fridays organizers, with its messy dive bar meetings and expanding list of subcommittees, is faced with an epic challenge. Without its efforts, First Friday may cease to exist. “We have to realize the fact that this could all go away,” said Arnold.

There is no playbook for this, those involved often point out. The First Friday of each month is an experiment in collaboration and a testing ground for new ideas. There are few constants in this process, but everyone agrees on one thing: First Friday is good for Oakland. “It’s in everybody’s interest to keep it going,” Arnold said.   “And that alone might keep it together.”

 

3 Comments

  1. All profits from popcorn sale at First Fridays will go towards First Fridays Fund, Labor Donated that day also, popcornnn.com is Oakland. Now it’s a carnival, popcorn with BBQ bacon…butter garlic, cheese, caramelized onions…

  2. This is quite revealing. I had no idea that the Art Murmur original organizers aren’t leading this anymore. However it does make sense, it seems that anyone and there mother can come and set up a vegan doughnut stand and show their art, lack of organization is very evident.

    What is most interesting is the organic growth and friction in the current leadership to get their act together. Please keep writing about this, it will be an interesting model for other cities to look at in terms of organic community process and crowd sourcing.

  3. fingerbinger

    What if all the hullabaloo went away and it got back to the basics: art galleries coordinating openings on the first Friday of each month? Would that be so bad? I vote no. Do we need stilt walkers, junky trinkets for sale on ratty blankets, etc. etc.? Do we really?

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