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‘We’re seeing huge numbers’: Downtown First Thursdays shows serious staying power in SF

A crowd gathers under a giant hanging disco ball.
Downtown San Francisco’s first Thursday events are designed to enliven downtown through arts and music and encourage local business in the area. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

On Thursday night, the bass bumped and crowds cheered along a usually quiet stretch of Second Street in SoMa. Drag queens posed for glamour shots, toddlers gawked at a dancing robot and people boogied under a gigantic shimmering disco ball. 

The evening marked San Francisco’s second Downtown First Thursdays (DFT) event, a new festival series meant to add a jolt of energy and delight to one of the city’s most visibly struggling neighborhoods. 

The event is one of several similar activations of late, but it’s an open question whether the novelty of partying in the shadow of office buildings will fade or if downtown can sustain a transformation into an actual social and entertainment hub. 

Judging by the long food and drink lines, several packed stages blasting live music, and the overall buzz from attendees and business owners alike, the festival’s momentum—at least in this case—is only building. 

A performer dances in front of a crowd.
Rasa Vitalia performs for a crowd gathered on Natoma Street during the second Downtown First Thursday event in San Francisco’s Financial District. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Spanning Second Street between Market and Howard, DFT offered dozens of food trucks, stalls from local artisans, free activities like screenprinting, henna and a kids’ mini-golf station, street performers, several stages with live music, outdoor bars and more. Brick-and-mortar businesses along the event’s corridor say the events have provided a much-needed traffic boost. 

“We saw a huge uptick: The first one was our largest day of sales post-Covid,” said Maria Ribaudo-Alicea, director of operations at Luke’s Lobster on Second Street. The shop stayed open hours later than usual for both last month’s and Thursday’s iterations 

“This week, we are up 163% from last Thursday,” she said on Friday morning. “We’re seeing huge numbers and that the community is clearly rallying.” 

Three women look at jewelry at an artisan's booth.
Tanya Tandon, left, Trisha Bonthu and Grace Oldham look at pieces of jewelry at a vendor’s booth. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Andrew Robinson, from the East Cut Community Benefit District, and Scott Rowitz, from the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District, both said the events have exceeded their expectations, and that the feedback from neighborhood businesses has been wildly enthusiastic. 

“We heard anecdotally from numerous businesses and bars on Second Street that it’s been the best sales they’ve had in years,” Rowitz said. Local hotels reported excitement from guests in May, leading to more active promotion of this month’s event. 

Meanwhile, businesses raved about the crowds, and the crowds raved about the number of activities and options, according to Robinson. “It’s been an unbelievable success so far,” he said. “There’s something for everyone.”

A woman helps a child play mini golf.
Lea C., left, helps her son Phoenix play a mini golf activity. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
This image shows a street concert with four musicians performing, surrounded by tall buildings. Several people are watching, including someone filming with a smartphone.
Grooblen performs on Jessie Street during the second Downtown First Thursday event on Thursday night. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

The diverse, all-ages crowd ranged from families with young children to folks grooving in raver gear and workers who had clearly just left the office, complete with backpacks and Patagonia vests. 

“I was always low-key jealous about Oakland’s First Fridays, so I love that we’re doing this,” attendee Raciel Andales said with a laugh. 

She and two friends wore hair clips adorned with tiny bean sprouts and rubber ducks and had brought extras to give away to others (including this reporter). “It’s about spreading the love,” Andales said. “And things like this bring the city back.” 

The trio said they planned to attend again in the future. 

The FOMO effect

With roaming performers and plenty of selfie-friendly backdrops, DFT has played up its photo ops to become an event to see and be seen. And the FOMO effect seems to be working. 

“After seeing all the Instagram posts last time, I knew I wanted to come,” said another reveler, Rheanna Montero, explaining how she discovered the event. “I wanted to see the disco ball and the drag queens—and it’s been just as good as it looked online.”

A man shows off his custom hat with legos on it.
Deon Abruzzo shows off a baseball cap with Lego art on the bill. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

DFT is spearheaded by the nonprofit Civic Joy Fund and for-profit production studio Into The Streets, in collaboration with a slew of cultural orgs including Noise Pop, Another Planet Entertainment, SF Oasis and more. The yearlong program will cost about $1 million over 12 monthly events and is primarily funded by Bob and Randi Fisher, of Gap Inc.’s founding family, as well as Levi’s as a corporate sponsor. 

“The recovery of our city doesn’t have to be some scary, sad thing,” said Manny Yekutiel, cofounder of the Civic Joy Fund. “We believe that it comes through our streets, through traditions, gatherings, loving each other, and celebration.”

He and Katy Birnbaum, founder of Into the Streets and the event’s “fairy godmother,” both say they expect the event to just keep getting bigger and better. 

“It’s already becoming a tradition,” Birnbaum said. “We want to make this a part of a city-wide ritual.”

The first event officially clicked through about 12,000 people, though Yekutiel estimates the real number was closer to 15,000. 

A big crowd on a street.
Manny Yekutiel estimates that over 15,000 attended the first First Thursdays event, and that the second one was even bigger. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“I think we’ll hit 20,000 again, or maybe more,” he added while eying the masses on Thursday night. While his unscientific claim may be a bit bullish, a little optimism might be just what downtown needs as an antidote to a constant Doom Loop drumbeat and downtown’s vacant shopping mall, empty offices and abandoned storefronts

Believing in the beauty and magic of the city and committing to celebrate it is key, Yekutiel said. 

“I want people to know that they have a role to play—and all you have to do is show up!” he said. “At Downtown First Thursdays, at our museums, at our parks. Don’t use fucking GrubHub—go to a restaurant! We can do this together, so let’s do it.” 

🗓️ First Thursdays from May 2, 2024, through April 4, 2025. Next event on July 4

⏰ 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

🔗 Free registration

Jillian D’Onfro can be reached at