For the past 15 years, residents of the Lehigh Valley have come together to celebrate art, music and food on the First Friday of every month. The monthly event, which is sponsored by the SouthSide Arts District and the Lehigh Valley Underground Concert series, provides a variety of programs suitable for everyone in the community.
From 1 p.m. until midnight, the South Side holds events at venues including the Banana Factory, Color Me Mine, Southside 313 Bar and Grille, Molly’s Irish Grille and Sports Pub, and the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.
Missy Hartney, the Main Street manager and South Side arts district manager, took over the planning of First Friday events this past year. During this time, Hartney found Gerard Longo, the blogger behind Lehigh Valley Underground.
Longo reports on the local music scene, and Hartney said she thought he would be a great partner for finding musicians for First Friday. Since then, the two have worked together to introduce new musicians to the community.
“We have seen a great increase in traffic of First Friday (attendees) who appreciate music, bringing First Friday back to what it used to be,” Hartney said.
Bethlehem resident Desiree Davila has lived in the Lehigh Valley her entire life. Growing up, she spent First Fridays visiting her grandma, who lived around the corner from East Third Street, attending a variety of events.
“It’s so cool to see Bethlehem grow over the years,” Davila said.
Davila has noticed the increase in traffic at First Friday events since the Underground Concert Series was introduced a few months ago.
“It’s a lot more popular than it used to be,” Davila said. “There are a lot more people coming into town for it, so it’s more exciting and crowded for all the restaurants and merchants.”
Davila said for the past 15 years, First Friday focused more on the merchants and staying open after hours. She has enjoyed the addition of musicians and art exhibits to the event festivities, particularly those held in the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Arts.
Sixteen-year-old Abigail Melhem is one of the students at the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Arts. For Melhem, First Friday has always been a family affair.
She got involved in the arts after growing up watching her mother, who is an artist, pursue her career. This year it was her turn to have her art featured at the charter school.
“I brought my parents here to see my artwork up in the gallery,” Melhem said. “It was really cool having my grandparents and parents here at First Friday to see my artwork.”
Melhem said she was excited to showcase her work to her family and the Bethlehem community. After the gallery, Melhem stayed with classmates Michelle Leonor and Gianna Raneri for a community service event at the charter school, which helped promote the arts.
Since Hartney took over seven months ago and partnered with the Underground Concert Series, she said the increase in turnout at First Friday events has restored energy and excitement to the Lehigh Valley.
“Businesses coming in and businesses going out is how First Friday lost its way,” Hartney said, “But now with someone like me creating this program to entice people to come downtown, we are really trying to re-energize First Friday.”
She said this past First Friday was different with the inclusion of the Invision Photography Festival.
“There are a lot more pop up art galleries this First Friday than we have in the past,” Hartney said.
She hopes to keep the momentum going into the next First Friday, which will focus on the holiday season.
During her time as director, Hartney said she has tried to inform Lehigh students about the opportunities First Friday presents to students, particularly those under age 21. Although some musicians perform at bars that require students to be older than 21, locations such as Godfrey Daniels on East Fourth Street allow all students to attend live music performances.
“They are a lot of fun, and every First Friday we try to make (each event) different and offer different things,” Hartney said, “so everyone has something for them to enjoy.”