THE BLOCK IS HOT: Midtown Fridays turns a parking lot into a weekly block party
Since May 21, the Midtown Fridays Block Party has brought fresh life into the parking lot located at 1111 Soquel Ave., between the Fire Department and the Diversity Center. Sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz, Midtown Fridays are a way to highlight an area that is often overlooked with a weekly event featuring local businesses, music, and community.
What comes to mind when you think of an oasis? A palm tree-lined, freshwater spring in the middle of the Sahara? Havasu Falls at the Grand Canyon? Liam and Noel Gallagher singing “Wonderwall?” All of these would be correct of course, but when it comes to Santa Cruz a different kind of oasis pops up every Friday at 5 pm.
Since May 21, the Midtown Fridays Block Party has brought fresh life into the parking lot located at 1111 Soquel Ave., between the Fire Department and Triangle Speakers, an offshoot of the Diversity Center. Sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz Economic Development Department, Midtown Fridays are a way for the city to highlight an area that is often overlooked. With Soquel Avenue acting as the main artery for traffic, unless you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy to drive through without giving many of the vibrant stores and eateries a second thought.
Planted palm trees, stringed light, carpets of astroturf, and picnic benches adorn the lot transforming it into a full-on block party complete with craft goods, food trucks, and live music. Every week hundreds of people come out to kick up their heels to the sounds of acts like the Dylan Rose Band, Ancestree or the John Michael Band.
Delicious smells fill the air as guests chomp down on decadent vegan hot dogs or arepas while browsing handmade jewelry and art from local vendors. It’s a local celebration of life highlighting some of the best things that makes Santa Cruz so unique and so, well, Santa Cruz.
Rebecca Unitt, the Economic Development Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, believes the event is a way for the city and local businesses to create a model to draw attention to their area while utilizing any and all available spaces.
“The parking lot there has always been underutilized,” she says “We’ve been looking at more ways to really engage the businesses in that area to use that space.”
The “we” Unitt refers to is the Midtown Business Association (MBA), a group of different owners at the various businesses that parade up and down Soquel Avenue. Formed in 2019, the MBA has worked closely with Unitt and the Economic Development Department on how to best use the lot that had otherwise been neglected.
“We really pushed for the city to think about what could happen there,” explains Sonia McMoran, MBA member and owner of Home/Work, a curated goods store in the historic Cayuga Vault building.
“Midtown Fridays started pretty organically through the MBA meetings. It’s such a great open space that was begging for something to happen there.”
With a location and idea in hand, David McCormic, Development Manager for the City designed and led installation of the placemaking elements leading to the final piece, programming the events. To lead that effort, Economic Development turned to the one person they knew had the experience and eye for a great block party, Matthew Swinnerton of Event Santa Cruz.
“What really excites us about Matthew is he has a real passion for local businesses and the community,” she says. “He has a unique ability to find all the cool stuff that’s happening with all the creative, small businesses you might not have heard of.”
No stranger to working with the City of Santa Cruz, Event Santa Cruz has thrown summer block parties and events highlighting local businesses sponsored by Economic Development since 2015. So it was only natural to once again call in Swinnerton to plan Midtown’s resurgence.
There’s always been a cool vibe to Midtown. But not a lot of people know about it. So when you come to Midtown Fridays you can find out all the cool stuff here.
— Matthew Swinnerton, Event Santa Cruz
Of course, no block party is complete without great music. For just the right soundtrack to the summer days, Swinnerton turned to Neal Pearlberg, local journalist and host of Off The Lip podcast and radio programs on KSCO 1080 AM and KBCZ 89.3 FM.
Since 2013 Pearlberg has been a Santa Cruz household name with his love for surfing and ear for local music. During the 2020 lockdowns, he gave people hope and light during dark times when he live streamed over 150 different music acts via social media including bands like Alex Lucero, the Joint Chiefs and The Expendables.
Pearlberg says Swinnerton reached out to him early on about booking local music for the Midtown parties but at the time it wasn’t necessarily on his radar.
“I just didn’t pay much attention,” he admits. “But as soon as the first one started, I had so many bands contact me to play at that location.”
Local acts like the Dylan Rose Band, Ancestree, the John Michael Band, and more have all graced the Midtown Fridays stage, delighting eager Santa Cruzans and hosts alike.
“Since people haven’t been able to go out, they’ve been so happy they’re giddy,” Swinnerton says of the weekly event. “These have been my favorite block parties I’ve ever done.”
Pearlberg agrees, saying there has been an outpouring of support from the community and local businesses.
“It’s a great spot and people love it. Matthew and the city did a great job.”
But what do the businesses think? Afterall, they were the catalyst for the weekly events in the first place.
“I think it’s great,” exclaims Summer Duppen, MBA member and owner of Tomboy clothing store. “I love the live music and food trucks bringing all that energy into the neighborhood.”
She says during the first event she saw her sales double at the vintage shop and has since decided to stay open late on Fridays to accommodate the extra business.
At Home/Work, McMoran has added an extra person behind the counter on Friday evenings to help with the foot traffic. However, she says the extra business goes beyond just the one day block party.
“People are coming in the following Monday or Tuesday saying ‘I went to Midtown Friday and didn’t get a chance to walk across the street but saw your business and wanted to come back,’” she explains. “It’s a great promotion.”
For now, the Midtown Friday events are scheduled to end in October but the city and Event Santa Cruz hope to continue the party beyond this year if possible.
“We’d love to see it continue as long as we can support it,” Unitt says. “It’s been really refreshing to see so many people embrace this weekly event.”