It’s back: San Pedro First Thursday, with a renewed artistic vibe, returns

San Pedro’s popular First Thursday ArtWalk in the downtown district has been redesigned and is set to return next month.

The popular monthly event, which went dark last year amid the coronavirus, will relaunch from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 5.

First Thursday, nearly a quarter-century old, was one of many similar open-house styled festivals used elsewhere to bring residents back into the quaint shopping areas they largely abandoned during the giant mall era.

“Other cities were making the same kind of plans to get people to come back into the urban core,” said Linda Grimes, managing director of the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District.

In San Pedro, the year-round event is now also seen as building excitement for the nearby waterfront and fast-changing downtown landscape as more artists have moved in to revamped studio and gallery spaces. San Pedro’s newly minted Little Italy also will weave into the festivities going forward.

After the event shuttered with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the San Pedro Arts and Cultural District surveyed area artists and business owners, seeking ideas on how to freshen up the 24-year-old ArtWalk, which has seen its share of ups and downs through the years.

Not surprisingly, one of the top issues centered on the food trucks that more recently have populated the event.

Like parking in downtown San Pedro, “everybody has an opinion” about food trucks at First Thursday, Grimes said.

The trucks began trickling into First Thursday a decade ago and helped draw new visitors to the sometimes languishing monthly events in the tucked-away port town, at the far southern tip of the city of Los Angeles.

People loved the food trucks. Or they hated them.

Some restaurants viewed them as competition.

But they also drew throngs of new people who followed their favorite gourmet trucks wherever they went, growing the First Thursday street appeal and attracting some folks who had never been to the port.

Since the food trucks are now a First Thursday staple, discussions about a revamp to bring more focus back to the artists, restaurants and shops revolved around moving the trucks off the main blocks of Sixth and Seventh streets and onto the perimeter, on Mesa Street near Fifth and Eight streets.

Outdoor entertainment draws a crowd during a pre-pandemic First Thursday in downtown San Pedro. (Courtesy Photo by Dianne Gowder)

While individual businesses can still invite a food truck to park in front of their establishments, the plan is to try the new position for curated food trucks for at least a few months, said Amy Eriksen, director of the Angels Gate Cultural Center, who led many of the Zoom redesign conversations.

“We can always change it and go back to the way it used to be,” she said.

Art walk tours of art galleries and studios in downtown have always been a component of First Thursdays, but the arts had lost some of their centrality to the event over the years.

“The art walk (in discussions) always came up, but I was always told this (First Thursday) is an organic event,” Eriksen said. “In stakeholder meetings, people said they didn’t want it to be a carnival or circus atmosphere, they wanted it to really be an art walk.”

First Thursday, she said, generally does not attract an art-buying crowd, something that the revamped event also is striving to address with more marketing in art publications.

“People like looking at the art and they like the wine and cheese you have out, but then they keep on walking,” Eriksen said of the typical First Thursday gallery browsers.

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But, she said, both the festive vibe and a serious art focus are achievable.

“I think you can have both,” she said.

The addition of more outdoor restaurant dining platforms, which came as a result of the pandemic shutdown over the past 17 months, will also lend to a new and festive atmosphere, Eriksen said, while providing more food options.

Among other highlights for opening night:

Several galleries will be open, including Michael Stearns Studio, MS Gallery and Gallery Azul;
The ArtWalk guided tour will leave Sirens Java & Tea, 402 W. Seventh St., at 6 p.m.; and
Live music featuring the U.S. 99 Band will perform at 6 p.m. at Sixth and Mesa streets.

Following L.A. County’s most recent protocols, face masks will be required for all indoor settings.

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