Last month, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza was transformed into a concert venue when South African house music DJ and producer Black Coffee played in front of a crowd of 5,000 people. It wasn’t the first time that a musical performance was held at the plaza, but it’s something that business leaders in Oakland are hoping to do a lot more. 

Oakland Central, the events arm of the Uptown Downtown Oakland Community Benefit Districts, the association behind the Black Coffee show, has been curating special events at the downtown plaza off and on since 2018. Last summer, the Oakland Symphony performed a free show called Summer Stage at Oakland City Hall. Also last year, musician and educator Kev Choice hosted an event series centered on the theme “Love Life,” where then-Mayor Libby Schaaf gave keys to the city to prominent Oakland figures.

Oakland Central is continuing that momentum with the Pablo’s Alley summer concert series at Frank Ogawa Plaza, now in its second year. The monthly series, which kicked off in May, will continue through October and feature a diverse array of musicians and DJs, from ‘80s tribute band The San Leandroids to the Africa-inspired rhythms of drummer and vocalist Tosin Aribisala.

The downtown plaza hasn’t been known as a concert venue so much as a public meeting place for political rallies and protests. In 2011, the plaza was at the center of the local Occupy Movement denouncing wealth inequality and police misconduct. During those protests, activists renamed the space “Oscar Grant Plaza” in honor of the 22-year-old Black man who was killed by a BART police officer at Fruitvale Station in 2009.

Over the years, the space has also been known as “City Hall Plaza,” “City Hall Park,” and “Memorial Plaza.” In 1998 it was officially named to honor Frank Hirao Ogawa, a civil rights activist who was the first Japanese American to serve on Oakland’s City Council.

Last summer, the Oakland Symphony performed a free show called “Summer Stage at Oakland City Hall.” Credit: Oakland Central

Steve Snider, executive director of the Uptown Downtown CBD, sees potential in using the plaza and other public spaces around downtown as outdoor entertainment venues with more consistent programming.

“Prior to the pandemic, we saw this type of arts and entertainment as an essential community and economic development tool,” Snider said. “As we emerge from the impacts of the pandemic, we are clear that the social economy is critical to Oakland’s recovery.”

Snider would like to see Frank H. Ogawa Plaza become Oakland’s version of Stern Grove in San Francisco. The Stern Grove Festival has been curating free summer concerts since 1932.

“Imagine if downtown Oakland had a 5,000-person concert every Saturday,” he said. “When you create that element of foot traffic, the economic impact is substantial. And it creates jobs and supports the ecosystem.”

Not far from Frank Ogawa, other new series have taken off

In 2016, Snider and his team launched Third Thursdays at Latham Square. The summer happy hour series, located at a smaller plaza on Broadway just a stone’s throw from Frank Ogawa Plaza, showcased local musicians and vendors. The idea was to give people who worked downtown and residents a way to kick off their social plans after work. This series lasted three years. There were 21 events, and over 70 different artists and DJs performed. 

In 2019, following the success of that series, the business association launched AMP Oakland (Arts, Music, Performance Oakland), a curated “busker program” that books local artists to perform in downtown Oakland’s public spaces. Oakland Central teamed up with Ivy Hill Entertainment, a talent-booking company founded by four musicians, to help fellow artists book gigs. 

Since emerging from the pandemic, the Oakland Central team has again been booking local artists to perform for the AMP series. The weekly lunchtime performances take place through Sept. 6.

An AMP lunchtime set at the plaza located at 25th and Webster Streets. Credit: Oakland Central

Snider said the value of the series isn’t only that it brings entertainment downtown; it also provides income to local creatives. “In 2019, we paid 300 [artists] to perform in those public spaces from May to October,” said Snider of the AMP series. 

Last year, the AMP series hosted 13 lunch concerts, 13 happy hour concerts, and 140 artists were paid to perform. 

“We’ve always been interested in the First Fridays model or what you’re seeing around the lake and providing opportunities for micro-business incubation through vending,” added Snider. 

When his team pitched the idea of hosting more events at Frank Ogawa Plaza to then-Mayor Schaaf, she allocated funding to support the group’s smaller-scaled events like “Love Life” and Oakland Central’s partnership with the Oakland Symphony.

The business association’s efforts to liven up downtown haven’t been without controversy. The pre-pandemic 13th Street Commons project shuttered traffic on 13th Street between Broadway and Franklin, turning the stretch into a no-traffic zone with seating. The project was criticized as a “public space that benefits private property owners, mostly big corporations,” due to the involvement of the Downtown Uptown CBD. When the pandemic started, this stretch stayed closed to traffic, and businesses along the street added parklets that remain in place today. 

Oakland Central currently receives little city funding, said Snider, with its events supported mainly by sponsorships and partnerships. Last year, he said Oakland Central’s larger sponsored events, such as Art & Soul and the Black Joy Parade, brought in over $95,000 in sponsorships. The sponsorship dollars are more important than ever: a $500,000 fund that was previously earmarked by the city for activities at Frank Ogawa Plaza is among Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget cuts

In the summer of 2021, the association unveiled Story Windows, an art exhibit on Broadway featuring the work of more than 20 local Black artists. The multimedia exhibit, which included photos, videos, and textiles, adorned bustling businesses and empty storefronts. 

“The exhibit was an example of, let’s have art on the window or an installation inside of a store,” he said, “And the next step is, let’s utilize the store and actually have commerce happening and support a small business.”

Credit: Oakland Central

In 2022, the team launched the Pablo’s Alley series with live music on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the plaza. The goal, Snider said, was to help the businesses around the area draw in more visitors. This year, Pablo’s Alley is taking place on the third Wednesday of every month from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

In addition to producing its own events, Oakland Central sponsors and partners with other cultural events happening in Oakland throughout the year, such as Oaklash, Bandaloop, the aforementioned Black Joy Parade, and Art & Soul Oakland festival.

The Redbull dance competition at Frank Ogawa Plaza is another sponsored larger event. Credit: Oakland Central

“In a dream world, we can continue to grow our cultural impact and economic development through marketing and events,” Snider said. “It’s what Oakland Central set up to do.”

On the day that DJ Black Coffee played at Frank Ogawa Plaza, the nearby Paramount and the Fox theaters also had sold-out shows. Snider estimates that over 11,000 people roamed around downtown Oakland that night. 

“The economic engine for the city is downtown Oakland,” he said. “And [Frank Ogawa Plaza] is the attractor and the place where you can house it.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.