As a child, I was enamored with the sound of the saxophone. Mellifluous jazz melodies captivated me. It’s why my first trip to the streets of Westwood in the early ’90s, when I was around 10, was so memorable.

Walking the streets, my parents and I came across what seemed to my young eyes a titan of a man standing on a corner, holding a sax. He effortlessly blasted beautiful sounds into the air, the case on the ground in front of him rapidly filling up with change and dollar bills. I had no clue that busking wasn’t particularly glamorous; to me, the sax player was a sagelike street version of John Coltrane, playing with virtuosity and verve.

I remember requesting — to the point of nearly demanding — a dollar from my parents to toss into the case. I’ll never forget that. It’s my earliest memory of Westwood.

Back then the streets here had a buzz, a cosmopolitan energy, the feeling that something was happening. It seemed that on any given day, you could see the entire world in the village. I didn’t experience many, or possibly any, other pedestrian-friendly areas like it growing up in L.A.

Westwood’s appeal as a go-to retail destination on the Westside began to diminish in the late ’80s as shoppers were lured away by newer outlets such as the Westside Pavilion and Santa Monica’s revamped Third Street Promenade and concerns over public safety. (In a twist of fate, the university recently acquired the Pavilion, which closed in 2019, where it will build the new UCLA Research Park.) As the decades passed, and as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged local businesses, many decried the empty storefronts that plagued the village.

Luckily, just as many — including UCLA and the Westwood Village Improvement Association — became determined to bring the buzz and the magnetism back. First Thursdays was launched in March 2022 to help revitalize the village and create a new bridge between the campus and local communities. The project aimed to attract fun-seekers back to Westwood, send foot traffic toward the area’s businesses and manifest the lively college town atmosphere Bruins have always loved. It didn’t take long for the monthly festive affair to become one of the university’s signature events.

That fondness for the Westwood Village experience felt during her own college days led Mary Osako 96 to create First Thursdays. “This is really UCLA’s love letter to Westwood Village and L.A.,” says Osako, vice chancellor for Strategic Communications at UCLA, which developed and organizes the events. “With lines of students snaking down the block waiting to get in, you can feel the vibrancy and excitement. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, community partnership and buy-in to bring back an entire village. We’re energized by the success of the series so far.”

Watch a highlights reel from First Thursdays:

On the first Thursday of every month throughout the academic year, the streets are alive and thrumming with energy as UCLA takes over a section of Broxton Avenue south of Weyburn Avenue. The area is blocked off to cars so the village can welcome throngs of students, faculty, staff and residents to imbibe its vitality. The events are family-friendly and free to attend. The series, which has attracted more than 50,000 people over its two-year run, has breathed new life into the college town’s businesses. That vibrancy has been augmented by other new developments nearby, including businesses like Ranch 99 and Sender One and the UCLA Nimoy Theater.

Each First Thursday begins with a UCLA pop-up from 12–4 p.m.  at the Westwood Village Farmers’ Market; past pop-ups have offered mindfulness awareness workshops, blood drives, CPR courses, composting demos and financial literacy coaching. The day’s festivities culminate in a lively block party from 7–10 p.m.

Each event has a theme inspired by the season: On past First Thursdays, an autumn “Night Market” served up samples of L.A.’s unparalleled cultural cuisines; a Halloween-inspired “Spooktacular” came complete with face painting and pumpkin decorating; and March’s “Game On” featured a livestream of a UCLA men’s basketball game, plus trampoline fun, bungee and rock-climbing experiences and wheelchair basketball. First Thursdays have also provided a venue for highlighting some of the university’s and local community’s best artistic and service-focused enterprises, including UCLA Adaptive Recreation, the UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and the Westside Food Bank.

The events also offer a glimpse into the pedestrian-only future of Broxton between Weyburn and Kinross avenues: A project several years in the making, Broxton Square is set to be realized this summer. First Thursdays has proven that the plaza can be put to use as a sacred, communal, car-free space that beckons Bruins, businesses, tourists, Westwooders and Angelenos from other zip codes. Broxton Square, along with other future developments like the L.A. Metro Purple Line extension to Westwood, will put the neighborhood on track to reclaim its past lofty status as a hub for shopping, dining and entertainment in Los Angeles.

That was the original vision for Westwood Village in the 1920s; it was only the second planned development of its kind built in the U.S. Thanks in part to UCLA’s First Thursdays, Westwood is once again a place where people want to be, a place where memories are made.

See you next First Thursday.

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Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.