West Oak Lane Night Market packs in the crowds on Ogontz Ave.

West Oak Lane’s first ever Night Market drew huge crowds on Ogontz Avenue Thursday night as the commercial corridor transformed into a celebration of food and music. What began with a slow, sultry start reached full swing midway through the evening. The popular food fair was hosted by the Food Trust, in partnership with the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC).

“It’s an extraordinary turnout – beyond our wildest imagination,” said state Rep. Dwight Evans.

On stage at the event, Evans was publicly credited with bringing Night Market to the neighborhood by Food Trust’s Project Manager, Diana Iskolsky Minkus. Thursday’s festival ties in with OARC’s “Keeping Communities Alive” initiative, which will also host a scaled-down indoor version of the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival at the Keswick Theater in Glenside on Saturday.

According to Minkus, more than 12,000 people turned out for the Thursday night event. 

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A delayed boost in turnout 

With early evening temperatures in the low 80s, the vast majority of folks waited until the sun went down to venture to Ogontz Avenue. Traffic to the Northwest neighborhood may also have been a factor of low early turnout. Ryanne Jennings, Food Trust’s volunteer coordinator, said several of the more than 100 event volunteers were delayed in the rush hour commute.

As the festival began, Shevanie Townsend of West Oak Lane was hanging out on her front steps – the best seats in the house – listening to the the Kimmel Center’s Youth Jazz Ensemble, with a frosty cocktail in hand. “I’m really enjoying it,” she remarked.

Things began to pick up over the next hour, with food truck and vendor lines growing by the minute. Down at the south end of the festival, a crowd of enthralled children took in the Kyo Daiko Japanese Drumming group. Equally entertaining was the Philadelphia School for the Circus Arts, who delighted the audience with their aerial acrobatics and comedic jugglers. Shaun Joseph of Germantown stood on the sidelines with his daughter, Sydney and son, Alexei. His kids loved the juggling acts, Joseph said, but after watching a thrilling fire baton routine, the only thing on young Sydney’s mind was ice cream.

Little Baby’s Ice Cream and Los Taquitos de Puebla soon had some of the evening’s longest lines. OARC’s Chief Operating officer, John Ungar, shared that he stood in line for 20 minutes to get a lobster roll at Surf and Turf, which premiered its food truck in West Oak Lane. The wait was worth it and to be expected, he said.

From the vendor tents and trucks 

Chef Al Paris of West Oak Lane’s own Relish said the restaurant’s vending tent had a constant line throughout the night. “It was unbelievable, like swarming bees,” he exclaimed. Chicken and waffles was the favorite dish among festival-goers. Paris said he sold to plenty of familiar faces, but even more to folks who had never tasted Relish’s menu. The event was a great way to introduce both Relish and Paris’ other West Oak Lane eatery, Green Soul, to thousands, he said.

Jimmie Reed of Mt. Airy’s Little Jimmie’s Bakery Cafe said he was overwhelmed by the number of food sales.

“They have shown a lot of love in West Oak Lane [for the bakery],” he said. Reed, is no stranger to Night Market, having participated in the past in both Mt. Airy’s and Washington Ave.’s events. He came to Ogontz Avenue prepared with double the amount of baked goods as he had sold last year in Mt. Airy. By 8:45 p.m., he was sold out. “It’s been phenomenal!” he gushed.

But for a few vendors, this Night Market did not bring the same success as they’ve seen at others in the past. Kensington-based Local215’s Eric Zoldessy said while their food truck did okay in West Oak Lane, they usually do better at the food fair. “It was still a good night anywhere else, but not a Night Market night,” Zoldessy noted. 

“There’s a crazy diverse crowd here. I like that,” said Laura Hadden, who recently moved to Philly’s Grays Ferry section from Miami.

Hadden’s friend, Peggy Fulda, who lives in Mt. Airy, said dining on soul food was one of the things she enjoyed most about the West Oak Lane Night Market. For Hadden it was the cheese curds from The Cow and the Curd food truck. The two friends had previously been to Night Market in Chinatown, but agreed that the fair’s organization was better handled in West Oak Lane. Hadden said the arrangement of vendors along Ogontz Avenue’s wide corridor made it easier to navigate the event and get to the grub.

Music and dancing 

Up and down the avenue, it was non-stop music, from the concert performances on the main stage by Wooster St. to the DJ at the festival’s Walnut Lane mid-section, to the jangly tunes of dueling ice cream trucks parked just past the barricades on Middleton Street.

It was infectious.

Impromptu line dancing broke out in the middle of the street. A woman danced while standing in line for a barbecue slider. The dough maker at Nomad Pizza absent-mindedly drummed his floured hands in time with the music. Local teens gathered en force in a show of frenzied hip hop moves while C-Young performed his cover of Chris Brown’s “Beautiful People”.

As Halfro wrapped up the evening’s last concert, West Oak Lane resident, Tanya Brown still managed to score some pulled pork parfaits from Green Soul’s tent to bring back home for herself and her husband. Her reaction to the festival, simple and to the point: “I’m loving it!”

Cooking up an alliance

Night Market was such a neighborhood success that state Rep. Stephen Kinsey says he wants to bring it to Germantown within two years. Kinsey told Newsworks he hopes to partner with OARC and Mt. Airy USA (MAUSA) to make it happen.

MAUSA’s Executive Director Anuj Gupta and Rep. Evans said they’re on board with the plan. “There’s a real thirst in Germantown for this kind of thing. We’ll be glad to help in any way we can,” Gupta stated.

Evans said OARC learned a lot from Gupta’s expertise during the planning stages of West Oak Lane’s Night Market. MAUSA twice-hosted the food fair and has a third food-oriented street festival in the works for September.

Bringing Night Market to West Oak Lane is the result of 30 years of work and effort to build community, he asserted. “A block party of food and opportunity – that in a sense is what we provide. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

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