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Becoming Roosevelt Row: First Friday's evolution in Downtown Phoenix

First Friday has gone from the art-focused 'wild west' in 1994 to a profitable staple of Roosevelt Row

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A customer searches through the racks at a First Friday vendor on Friday, April 7, 2023 in Phoenix.

It all started in the early 90's, with a drunken conversation and scribbled musings on a bar napkin. 

"If Scottsdale can do it, why can’t we?" Local Phoenix artist Pete Petrisko said to fellow artist John Herman. They had been drinking all night at a dilapidated old Victorian on Van Buren, and, as usual, the subject had turned to local art. 

Petrisko was referring to Scottsdale's monthly art walks, where galleries displayed local art.

At the time, downtown Phoenix consisted of abandoned houses, empty lots, a tiny smattering of galleries and an even smaller number of bars. It wasn't exactly a cultural destination.

"Things were so limited downtown in terms of the arts that the big event was Art Detour, which was a yearly event," said Steve Weiss, an ASU alumnus and photographer.

The event has grown increasingly popular over its decades of existence, bringing in both local and non-local artists."It felt like it was a display … of our artistic community. To me it was entertainment and being a spectator," ith each responsible for calling the galleries on their portion of the flyer. 

The artists organized a meeting of with downtown gallery owners and artists at the Radix Gallery to pitch the idea, and thus "Phoenix Arts Afterhours" was born. 

The monthly event began in September 1992 as a "Second Wednesday" until the event was taken over by Artlink two years later and finally became First Fridays in 1994. 

"The idea was to come downtown to go and see artwork, drink wine with other artists and meet people. I would say those first trips to Modified and later to Paper Heart connected me with a ton of people that I know to this day and really a good circle of the artists downtown," Weiss said.

Of early First Fridays, Weiss said, "It was the wild west back then." People walked around, often with red solo cups in hand, walking past abandoned lots where others were selling booze, on their way to a gallery. 

"All of it was an uncontrolled situation, but it seemed to work," Weiss said.

Attempting to reign in what was going on, the city began a movement to shut down First Fridays. It almost stopped First Fridays all together. 

But, according to Weiss, the city seemed to realize its error. Artists and organizers of First Friday were invited to a meeting with then-Mayor Phil Gordon and then city manager Frank Fairbanks. 

During the meeting, they both apologized and promised to do better. By the next First Friday, there was temporary parking on Grand Avenue, flashing lights and signs for the event. 

"I think at that point when the city really became more aware of it, that it was bringing people downtown, I think that might have been the beginning of the change," Weiss said. 

There were changes to the arts, culture and business zoning overlay, which allowed for the legalization of vending outside of the gallery space. It also gave opportunity for businesses to open without being required to provide parking. This increased opportunity for business owners and sent First Fridays into a more commercial direction, according to Weiss.

According to Petrisko, the existence of ASU's Downtown campus and the light rail jumpstarted growth in the Roosevelt Arts District. Rents started to rise and the artists who had shaped the scene couldn't afford to live in the area anymore. 

"Once you don't have the foundation of artists in critical mass numbers living there, it's going to change the dynamic of the art scene," Petrisko said.

The event has grown increasingly popular over its decades of existence, bringing in both local and non-local artists. "It felt like it was a display … of our artistic community. To me it was entertainment and being a spectator," Josue Kinter, musician and First Friday attendee, said. 

"I moved here because of First Fridays," artist Sebastian Sotomayor said. In 2018, he began running Nine '74 Studios, where he curated the gallery's artwork until the pandemic forced closure.

The trajectory of First Friday was halted, closing for a yearlong hiatus. It returned slowly, block by block, but many feel it hasn't been the same since.

"Things have changed quite a bit. I think the energy has drifted a bit," Sotomayor said. 

Kinter also noticed that the focus shifted from local artists selling their artwork to street vendors peddling product.

"It started feeling kind of like the fair, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a very different vibe," he said. 

Since reopening post-pandemic, First Friday on Roosevelt has shifted in scope, integrating activities or booths designed with ASU students and new demographics in mind. 

ASU alumna Monica Spencer has attended First Fridays for years, and has seen firsthand the evolution of the event. 

"When I started going Roosevelt Row and the downtown area wasn't as highly developed as it is now. The entire event had a free spirited atmosphere that was centered on artists, artisans and small galleries," she said. "Last year, I went to First Friday for the first time in nearly a decade and it was so vastly different. The crowds were massive and it seemed there was a greater emphasis on bar hopping."

Petrisko doesn't view it as the art-focused event that it used to be. 

"It still serves the purpose in that it can introduce people to the local arts and music scene," Petrisko said. "I think de-emphasizing First Friday and more niche programming in different areas outside of the downtown core would be a good thing."

Despite the changes that have happened to the event over the years, First Friday still stands as a place for Phoenix artists and community members to come together with a shared love of art in all forms. 

"When I had my gallery, I loved opening the doors for First Friday because it created such an energy." Sotomayor said. "I just want to keep going, to make it a community effort to show as much art as possible." 

Edited by Sadie Buggle, Reagan Priest and Caera Learmonth.

Reach the reporter at and follow @BartunekKaren on Twitter. 

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