OAKLAND -- First Fridays were an unabashed bonanza for bars, restaurants and Oakland pride until a teenager was fatally shot at the most recent event.
With the monthly festival scheduled to return this week, excitement is tinged with anxiety as doubts remain over whether organizers can handle another massive crowd.
"I crossed my fingers that it might rain and everyone could catch their breath and figure out how to handle this in a better way," said John Mardikian, whose Telegraph Avenue restaurant and beer garden counts on the festivals for about one-quarter of total sales.
Adding to concerns, an offshoot of Occupy Oakland has called for an anti-police march through downtown Oakland from 7 to 10 p.m. that night.
No one is calling for the end of First Fridays. The festivals have drawn as many as 20,000 revelers to Oakland's bustling Uptown arts and entertainment district and brought national attention to the city's emergence as a cultural and culinary destination.
But several business operators say the city and the volunteer group that organizes the festival need more security guards and seasoned managers to handle crowds that have swelled beyond expectations.
Last week, Fox Theater General Manager Ruth Carlton told council members she was concerned her patrons "walk out into a bit of chaos" on festival nights and urged the city to adopt a professional security plan.
On Tuesday, Rick Mitchell, owner of Luka's
The group's first step, Mitchell said, is to explore moving the festival to Saturday afternoons when fewer security guards would be needed to keep the peace.
City leaders acknowledge First Fridays are a work in progress, but after holding five meetings this month with business and community leaders, they are moving ahead with a smaller, shorter and more subdued festival Friday night.
Open bottle laws will be strictly enforced and street closures will be nearly cut in half. The event also will end an hour earlier, at 9 p.m., with the second of two moments of silence commemorating the victims of Oakland killings last year.
"I don't think it will be a somber event, but it should be sobering," said Eric Arnold of the volunteer group that began organizing the festivals last year.
Whereas recent festivals had up to two music stages per block, this month's festival will have two stages total, both devoted to music and poetry extolling nonviolence.
"We want this not as a symbol of fear, but as a symbol of the community coming together," Mayor Jean Quan said.
One thing that isn't changing is the security contingent. The city again expects to spend about $15,000 on the event, much of which will pay for 32 security guards. The city also will assign about 30 police officers to the event. The police contingent won't have an impact on regular patrols, according to Deputy Chief Anthony Toribio.
With street closures scaled back to the five blocks between West Grand Avenue and 27th Street along Telegraph, city officials expect security will keep better tabs on the event and successfully clear the streets when it's over.
But several merchants fear that if attendance remains strong there won't be enough security to prevent the crowd from spilling out beyond the street closures.
"You can't get by with 32 security guards," Mitchell said. A private nightclub, holding a similar event, he said, would be required to have a minimum of 200 guards under city rules.
Oakland's daytime Art and Soul festival draws similar crowds with slightly fewer security guards and police, although it also requires admission and is fenced off to the public.
Quan said the city didn't consider establishing similar security measures for First Fridays. "That's just not what First Fridays have been," she said.
Murmur to festival
First Fridays began seven years ago as an art gallery crawl, known as the Art Murmur.
As bulging crowds morphed the event into a makeshift street party, the galleries washed their hands of it in the fall and a volunteer group, Oakland First Fridays, took over and turned it into a full-fledged festival.
The city encouraged the event's transformation by closing Telegraph Avenue from 19th to 27th streets and picking up the tab for security and insurance.
The festivals were a hit until earlier this month, when a confrontation led to gunfire in a Telegraph Avenue parking lot nearly an hour after the festival's official end time. Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old Oakland student, was killed and three others were wounded, including two passers-by.
Pressure is on
Both city officials and merchants agree that if the event is to survive long term the volunteer group organizing it needs to expand and mature.
The group operates on consensus and has frustrated outsiders by not forming a clear hierarchy for making decisions.
"The city is really actively holding that organization's hand," Mardikian said.
Quan compared the organizing group to a teenager just about "ready to go off on its own."
The mayor said that the stakeholder meetings organized this month by her office have helped form the nucleus of an outfit capable of running the festivals.
Mitchell, who attended the first meeting, said the opposite is true. By holding the meetings mostly in the evening, the city made it difficult for event operators to attend.
"The mayor can't let whatever volunteers show up to meetings run the show," Mitchell said. "She has to choose a strong working group. She has to choose the best people -- the people with experience running events -- to be on that group because that group will have a lot of work to do."
Arnold said the volunteer organization already has a local business among its members and would welcome more. He also said the group isn't so driven by consensus that it can't be productive. "This isn't Occupy Oakland," he said. "We consider the city a partner and a stakeholder."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.