OAKLAND -- Up until last week, the first Friday of every month presented Oakland with a problem it always wanted to have.
Instead of struggling to attract visitors to a city known for violent crime, Oakland officials found themselves wrestling with how best to accommodate the thousands of people flocking to the Bay Area's biggest monthly street festival.
The event, called First Fridays, was written up in The New York Times and became the centerpiece of a burgeoning arts and entertainment district that helped put Oakland on the map as a center for food and culture.
But a deadly gunbattle at the end of this month's First Friday celebration has city and community leaders fearful that Oakland's biggest success
"Oakland had been wanting the spotlight for years and finally had it," said Marshall Lamm, who heads a group of art galleries that started the festival. "You'd hate for this to be the reason people stop coming. Hopefully, this doesn't screw it up forever."
City leaders say the event will continue next month, and that discussions are just beginning on possible security measures.
At Tuesday's council meeting, Councilman Larry Reid questioned whether the festival should continue at all given the police resources it requires. Councilwoman Desley Brooks said the city should consider scaling it back.
Several business owners in the surrounding arts and entertainment district
"It's an incredible event that's a testament to how awesome the city is," said Adam Hatch of the Hatch Gallery. "But it's like the Hulk, the bigger it gets, the dumber it gets. And it's just been growing out of control."
The festival began seven years ago as an art gallery crawl, known as the Art Murmur. It kept growing, at first swallowing up one block for revelers. As it expanded, the art galleries that started it gave up control to a new nonprofit group that has turned it into a full-fledged street festival with performers, food trucks and outdoor drinking.
The city encouraged its expansion last October by agreeing to close Telegraph Avenue, from 19th to 27th streets and providing 30 police officers to help patrol it. The city assigned neighborhood policing officers to last week's festivals so other beats remained fully staffed.
Oakland spends about $15,000 helping put on the event. City officials can't quantify how much money the festival brings into city coffers, but they say the buzz has helped spur the growth of bars and restaurants that have opened nearby.
"It is safe to say that having foot traffic that lands in front of the doors of a lot of business is a boon," said Samee Roberts, Oakland's director of marketing.
John Mardikian, who owns a restaurant and beer garden on Telegraph Avenue says that the event accounts for up to one-quarter of his monthly sales.
"Without First Friday, I would be really struggling just to break even," he said.
But several restaurant owners say the event has become a mixed blessing. Rick Mitchell, who owns Luka's Taproom, says he gets about 15 percent more business on First Fridays, but also has to deal with rowdier crowds that enter his restaurant already drunk.
"It's a different crowd," he said. "Before it was primarily about the galleries and trying to sell art. Now the new draw is that its an outdoor party and you can bring your own beer."
More than 10,000 people were estimated to have attended last Friday's festival.
The gunbattle occurred about 10:50 p.m. when a confrontation erupted in the parking lot of a beauty supply store on Telegraph between 20th and 21st streets. Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old Oakland student, was killed, and three others were wounded, including two passers-by.
Phil Tagami, a developer whose projects helped spur the revitalization of the arts district, said its success was dependent on people feeling safe. "Are we concerned? Sure," he said. "When a young man gets shot and killed, you have to stop and assess what needs to be done."
The city faces a challenge securing the event which is free and has no perimeter where police can check for weapons. "We cannot control at this point who shows up and who doesn't, and how large the crowd is," City Administrator Deanna Santana told council members Tuesday.
Oakland has a mixed history when it comes to big public events. While it still successfully holds numerous street fairs and the annual Art and Soul festival, violence has led to the demise of Festival by the Lake and Carijama, a Caribbean festival.
Olis Simmons, who runs a program for Oakland youth, said that to avoid repeating the past, the city should hire youth ambassadors who could break up disputes at First Fridays.
Hatch, who received hundreds of text messages after Friday's shooting, said his response will be to close his gallery at the next event as a protest against the city's endemic violence. He's hoping other gallery owners will follow suit.
"I don't want this tragedy to be swept under the rug anymore," he said. "Art should be in the background. (Screw) art. People are getting killed."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.