Oakland First Fridays: Bigger Not Better

Chip Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 2013

When it comes to Oakland’s First Friday and Art Murmur scene, Mayor Jean Quan is right about one thing: The downtown co-events are a boon to local restaurants and bars, promoting the idea that at least once a month it’s OK to come to downtown Oakland and hang out.

However, the history of large public festivals in Oakland tell a much different story, one that suggests the city often becomes a victim of its own success.

Can you say Carijama? How about Festival at the Lake?

Both were previously popular Oakland events that drew thousands but ended when the big crowds became unruly mobs.

Now the Art Murmur, and its outgrowth, the First Friday Street Festival, combine for one big monthly night gathering featuring arts, crafts, street performers and food booths in downtown Oakland that has grown in popularity and size—one event drew a record crowd of more than 20,000 people last fall.

The co-events have had some problems, but none as bad as what happened Friday after the street festival when a gunman opened fire and hit four people, killing one.

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Unfortunately, the mayor’s rose-colored glasses don’t shade the reality faced by the police chief when it comes to the street fair. “It’s definitely gotten bigger than we planned and now we have to find a way to handle it,” [Howard] Jordan said on Monday. He wants to limit the street fair to its original size—between 27th Street and West Grand Avenue, but its popularity has carried crowds down to 19th Street, four blocks beyond its original location.

Jordan’s motivations are different from the mayor’s: He is required to approach the situation as a law enforcement issue while for Quan, the events are political capital. A monthly street fair that draws thousands of people, promotes the city and remains safe is a feather in her cap for a re-election campaign.

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Oakland doesn’t do big public parties well, it never has. If Quan ignores the city’s history and the sound advice she’s receiving from Jordan, and allows political necessity and hubris to guide her, she is taking a reckless risk and just asking for trouble.

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