BERKELEY/ALBANY -- The smell of spicy Thai food, the sound of Brazilian drums and the sights of a traditional Scottish dance were just a few of the sensory delights drifting down Solano Avenue as one of the Bay Area's biggest block parties celebrated its 39th year Sunday.
At the Solano Stroll, the biggest annual event produced by the Solano Avenue Association, visitors packed the street from curb to curb, walking the 1¼-mile stretch from Berkeley to Albany to be entertained and to engage with more than 150 food vendors and nonprofit booths. Organizers optimistically estimated the event would draw as many 300,000 visitors throughout the day, though there was no way to confirm that number.
Robert Cheasty, the Stroll's official emcee and board member for the Solano Avenue Association, said the event was a way for local business owners to thank their customers and draw attention to the variety of shops along the way.
"We try to maintain a small-town feel for the event, even though we get people from all over the place," Cheasty said. "It's kid- and family-friendly " It's a great energy."
This year's Stroll kicked off with a parade down Solano from the Berkeley side to Albany, with a display of pageantry that included marching bands, Boy and Girl Scout troops, Congregation Beth-El and the Downtown Berkeley YMCA.
"All the community comes out," said Angel Chen, of Albany. Her children, who attend Cornell Elementary School, walked the route and participated in a Chinese cultural dance dressed as dragons and lions. "It's wonderful to see."
Indicative of the area's varied and unique culture, Solano Avenue was the backdrop for a plethora of street entertainment, including belly dancing legend Jamila Salimpour, a ballet folklórico troupe and nearly 50 musical acts in styles from country and folk to jazz and zydeco.
Napa Valley rock band Cheating Daylight, making a return trip to the Stroll, headlined the event. The band's guitarist and keyboardist, Jesse Crosson, 19, said his group hoped to bring a high-energy performance.
"It's definitely a party atmosphere," Crosson said. "We just like to have a good time, and this is a good environment to do that."
Businesses along Solano benefited from the extra Sunday foot traffic. Restaurants like Café Raj, at the western end of the Stroll, stayed busy all day serving up a chicken masala and vegetable samosa buffet at discount prices.
"It's really good for us this year," said employee Supriya Shrestha."Last year, we had a stage with loud music in front, but this time we were able to put tables outside."
Gathering Tribes, a store specializing in American Indian art and jewelry, took part in the Stroll for the 22nd straight year. Owner Pennie Opal Plant said the event always manages to bring in new customers and added mailing list sign-ups, giving the store an economic boost of 50 to 75 percent over a usual Sunday.
"We have over 100,000 people in the street; I don't know how anyone couldn't benefit from that," Plant said. "It's consistently good."
Plant's husband, Michael Horse, who starred as Deputy Hawk on the TV series "Twin Peaks" -- took the opportunity to meet with customers and talk about his paintings and handmade jewelry.
"It's nice to see the families," Horse said. "There's something here for everybody."
Jim Simon and his wife, Marla, of Walnut Creek, were first-time visitors to the Stroll and wanted to see what they'd been missing.
"We usually go into the city on Sundays," Marla said. "Berkeley is much closer, but we never take the time."
Later, Jim showed off a hand-painted tie he purchased from a local artist.
"It's not the typical vendors you usually see in the East Bay," he said. "I don't wear ties often, but I'll find a reason to wear this."
As he watched the morning parade pass, Jeff Ronner, of Oakland, said he tries to make it to the Stroll every year to support the "small town effort."
"It's a social and political tradition that's still alive here, and it's always refreshing to see," Ronner said. "People don't talk to each other anymore, so it's great to see this kind of community involvement."
Albany resident Michael Sukov took the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and get to know neighbors he'd never met.
"It brings us closer together," Sukov said, "It helps build and maintain a sense of community, which is needed these days."
This year's Stroll introduced a few new twists. Motorcycle police from all over the state came to participate in a motorcycle rodeo and agility competition at the Thousand Oaks School. At one end of the avenue, children enjoyed climbing a rock wall and taking their chances in the dunk tank.
With the Solano Avenue Association no doubt already planning for the milestone 40th Stroll next year, board member Cheasty summed up what so many had experienced firsthand on a perfect September day.
"It's a wonderful avenue," Cheasty said. "Everything you want to do, you can find on Solano."