Children and adults enjoy the chalk zone at a recent Sundays on Telegraph event. Photo: Ted Friedman

By Camille Baptista

After low turnouts at the first three Sundays on Telegraph events, organizers hope that better weather and increased awareness will draw bigger crowds in the coming weeks.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Janet Klein, who serves as coordinator and liaison between the Telegraph Business Improvement District and the office of Mayor Tom Bates.

Sundays on Telegraph, or SoTelegraph, is a new weekly street fair that closes off two blocks of Telegraph Avenue, from Durant Avenue to Haste Street. The original plan was that from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Sunday from June 9 through September 27, music, activities and weekend strollers would be free to take over the neighborhood. It is an attempt by the City of Berkeley to revamp the area as a cultural destination — one of many ideas that have been proposed over the years — particularly during the time of year when most UC Berkeley students have left town.

But the program did not have a particularly inspired start.

Members of the UC Berkeley marching band liven up the atmosphere on Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Ted Friedman

Nick Lowe of Bill’s Footwear said the first Sunday was “really slow,” and managers at nearby businesses, including Fat Slice Pizza and Gordo Taqueria, agreed that they didn’t notice a significant difference in the number of customers they served on the past few Sundays compared to other days of the week.

Of the three Sunday events so far, two have seen cloudy or even rainy weather, which may have been partly responsible for the minimal visitor turnout. However, things picked up on the most recent Sunday, when — despite the clouds and occasional drizzle — lively performances by about 20 members of the UC Berkeley marching band attracted crowds.

Klein, along with many business owners, is optimistic about the fairs’ potential to develop and gain popularity as word gets out. Mayor Bates explained that the initial advertising budget proved to be insufficient, and the organizers have since decided to put more money behind it. The city and the Telegraph Business Improvement District each fund half of the fairs’ overall budget.

“We’re finding that we need to bring more activities that people are going to know about in advance,” Bates said, adding that they are working to increase their advertising presence on social media outlets.

The city has a number of acts lined up for the coming weeks, including members of the Berkeley Jazzschool, a Hawaiian band and hula dancer, a West African music group, a harp player, a dance troupe, and a rock-and-roll band composed of 10-year-olds. This weekend will feature chess tournaments, and they will also continue to reserve a sidewalk chalk area, which has been popular among both kids and adults.

“The thing that most excites me about the fair is it’s meant to grow,” said Al Geyer of Annapurna, a specialty gift shop that has operated on Telegraph for 44 years. Geyer has been involved with the fairs’ organization.

“We’re trying to create something out of nothing,” he explained. “It’s coming along.”

Alex Popov, who owns Pappy’s Grill and Sports Bar, said he, too, sees SoTelegraph’s potential, but he added that it needs more promotion and better signage. By the looks of the barricades that blocked off the street, he said, one couldn’t tell if Telegraph was having a street fair or undergoing road work.

“I think it’ll definitely catch on, it’s just a matter of getting the word out,” Popov said.

Community members helped paint a temporary mural last Sunday between Channing Way and Haste Street. Photo: Al Geyer

One street vendor, who preferred not to be named, said that the street fairs present a difficult situation for vendors. Because the street is blocked off to cars, pedestrians roam both the sidewalks and the middle of the street, and vendors have to tend to customers on both sides of their booths.

“It’s like fishing with two nets on either side of the boat,” said the vendor, who sells handmade rings and has been working on Telegraph for 35 years.

Along with many of its neighbor businesses, Pappy’s did not organize a promotional sale or set up food outdoors during the past two Sundays on Telegraph events. However, Popov said they plan to set up tables outside the next time around, taking the common approach among neighboring businesses, which seem to be waiting to see how things go.

On SoTelegraph’s initial Sunday, the team at Annapurna set up a giant white plywood structure against the storefront and invited fair attendees to help create a community mural. Paint in five different colors was provided, and over 150 people added their artistic touches to the wall, including Bates. Organizers are planning to repeat the mural event soon, and set up the next “canvas” along the fences that surround the vacant lot at the corner of Telegraph and Haste.

Geyer has other ideas in store for upcoming Sundays. At the July 14 event, he plans to set up what he calls a “silent disco,” in which people dance in the street to music only they can hear through headphones. He also hopes the committee will be able to hire jugglers and organize hacky sack contests.

“We’re experimenting and we’re trying to make improvements,” Bates said, adding that the organizers are open to hearing ideas from community members. “If somebody has a good idea or somebody wants to try something, we’re up for it.”

Klein, who has coordinated the annual Telegraph Avenue holiday street fair for over 10 years, explained that SoTelegraph focuses on bringing attention to the businesses and vendors located on the street itself, whereas the holiday fair is always packed with booths and entertainment because the city invites outside vendors and artists to come.

“We’re trying to build up the base community,” she said. She added that part of the holiday fair’s success also comes from its development over 30 years.

Asked at a City Council meeting in early June about the success so far of SoTelegraph, Mayor Bates said he would consider the first six weeks a trial period and that if it hadn’t taken off by then, they might cancel it.

More recently, both he and Klein said the current hope is to keep it going into September.

Wooing larger stores may be key to Telegraph’s success (05.24.13)
Tackling Telegraph Avenue: Is this time different? (03.01.13)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get it mojo back? (04.18.12)

Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She studies creative writing and human rights at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.

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