When visitors to this week’s VillageFest meander through the streets of Downtown Palm Springs Thursday evening, they’ll also be taking part in a bit of history. The city’s popular nighttime event will be celebrating its 30th anniversary, even though the math to arrive at that number is a little tricky, thanks to the pandemic.
The event that sees streets closed every Thursday evening and replaced with vendors of all types has been ubiquitous with Palm Springs since it began in 1991. Now in its 31st year of operation, organizers are choosing to celebrate 30 years this Thursday due to its closure through much the first year of the battle against COVID-19.
It was that closure, however, that really drove home how popular the nighttime market is to visitors and how proud locals are to show it off.
“I was honestly surprised how much of a demand there was for us to reopen,” said Joy Brown Meredith, president of the Main Street Palm Springs business association and one of the early creators of VillageFest. “We had so many people calling and commenting online. I think people were really craving an outdoor experience like VillageFest at the height of the pandemic.”
VillageFest was created to aid Downtown business owners, who had a craving of their own. They needed something that would help draw weekend visitors to the city a little earlier than usual.
“During the recession, the city was trying really hard to drum up interest and bring more people in,” recalls Meredith, the owner of Crystal Fantasy on North Palm Canyon Drive. Added Dan Gonnella, who chairs of the city’s VillageFest Board: “The City Council needed events to extend the weekend and keep tourists in town longer. That’s why VillageFest is on a Thursday.”
Now, for many locals and visitors alike, VillageFest is the de facto start of the weekend.
In the beginning, about 50 vendors lined Palm Canyon Drive from Amado to Tahquitz. Now at 200 vendors strong at its peak, the street closures have almost doubled. VillageFest now stretches about a half-mile from Amado to Baristo. There’s something for everyone, including locals and tourists.
“Whenever I have visitors in town, one of the first things they ask about is VillageFest. It’s become a tourist draw of its own,” says Gonnella. He estimates at least 5,000 shoppers visit VillageFest each week, but that number would almost double pre-pandemic.
Walking up and down the street during VillageFest, you’ll notice how different it is from most other street fairs. Gonnella says that’s by design.
“We’re not just another swap meet,” he offered. That’s due in part to stricter standards. Each item sold must be at least 75% handmade. That helps weed out some of the more low-effort offerings at other street fairs.
“There’s a pretty stringent screening process. We don’t let everyone in that applies,” says Gonnella.
The Board also strives to have a good balance of vendors, which wasn’t always possible. “There was a time when we had way too many soap makers or way too many candle vendors,” Meredith said as she recalled some of the craft trends of the past decades. “But now we have a good balance.”
The extra foot traffic doesn’t just help the VillageFest vendors, it also helps the nearby restaurants and brick-and-mortar businesses, most of which stay open during the evening event.
Meredith said some days during the heat of summer her business will more than double thanks to VillageFest.
“No one wants to shop during the day when it’s so hot,” she said. “But as soon as the sun goes down and the locals emerge for the day, they want to get outside. VillageFest is perfect for that.”
VillageFest can also serve as a springboard for business owners. “It’s a lower barrier of entry for people just starting out. It’s a steppingstone where they can test out the demand, and it’s less risky than committing to a brick-and-mortar storefront,” says Gonnella.
Meredith proudly remembers local businesses that got their start at VillageFest, like Brandini Toffee and The Heyday burger restaurant.
“There’s something so heartwarming about seeing a business that started at VillageFest thrive,” she said. “Every time I drive past one of those businesses, I think, ‘Wow! I had a small part in that!’”
There is something for everyone at VillageFest. Diverse food vendors ensure visitors can enjoy a meal they can’t get anywhere else in the desert. Different entertainers set up at each block, singing hits by Frank Sinatra, classic rock, and even breakdancing.
The event also serves as an information hub. Beyond things to buy, people can register to vote or learn more about a local religious group. It’s also a public gathering place: Teen girls gather around the handmade jewelry. Homeowners decide on which piece of fine photography would look best in their home. Children test out the toys and learn about terrariums. Veterans cluster around the American Legion and Palm Springs Air Museum booths.
But beyond the woodworking, pottery, and pizza-throwing, what has remained at the heart of VillageFest for 30 years has been community. It can be hard to forge meaningful connections in a place with so many transplants who may have stronger ties in their hometowns.
“The Valley is made up of transplants,” Gonnella remarked. “So many people move here after living most of their lives elsewhere.”