Oakland’s most exciting upcoming art event does not take place in a gallery. It doesn’t even take place in Downtown Oakland. Spoken-word artist Ise Lyfe’s latest project eschews traditional art spaces for a neglected block of East Oakland, where the closed Green Side housing project has languished for ten years.

Brighter than Blight, which opens this Friday, comes on the eve of the Green Side project’s long overdue demolition and serves as an homage to the residents of public housing as well as a rebirth for the neighborhood.

Lyfe’s multimedia installation is an unprecedented collaboration between the artist, councilmember Desley Brooks, and the Oakland Housing Authority. What may appear to be an unlikely partnership amounts to a bold work of socially engaged art.

Lyfe, who grew up in a housing project in East Oakland, aims to draw attention the people and vibrant communities who live in public housing. The multimedia installation, encompassing the entirety of the housing project, draws heavily on testimonies from former residents of Green Side and other public housing projects in Oakland. According to councilmember Brooks, the installation incorporates photography, sculpture, painting, and spoken word.

“What we’re trying to do is one, letting people know that there’s art and culture in East Oakland,” Brooks said. “We’re also looking at a housing authority who made mistakes.”

Even as the installation attempts to portray the public housing in positive light, according to Greer McVay, a representative for the Oakland Housing Authority, the exhibit is also a canvas for issues that the authority faces.

“We want our neighbors to realize we do care about the physical condition of the property, we care about the whole family and not just putting a roof over their head but helping them reach a level of self sufficiency,” she said. “We’re always looking for better solutions and better ways to serve and help people so that we can break the cycle, this generational cycle of dependency.”

According to McVay, Green Side is a microcosm for larger trends in public housing: a lack of funding due to the sequester, and an obligation to update the role of the public housing authority.

In the past, “Programs were set up in such a way that did not allow for a lot of local customization,” she said. “We’re trying to remedy some of the challenges we’ve had over the years. We hope we’re shifting the way how housing is approached.”

Councilmember Brooks, who serves District 6 where the project is located, remembers the negative impact Green Side had on the surrounding community. When the housing authority closed the project in 2003, it was plagued by open-air drug deals and violence. In addition, the Oakland Housing Authority did not get federal approval to demolish the site until recently, which prolonged neighborhood residents’ frustration.

Two weeks ago, Brooks and other project leaders went door-to-door to inform neighbors about the installation and the project’s upcoming demolition.

“People were excited that the buildings were going to be demolished and something was going to happen on that site,” she said. “People on that particular corridor haven’t seen change and it’s always something to see a building come down in your neighborhood especially with that type of history.”

According to Brooks, it is important to reflect on the lives that were spent in the project before it gets demolished.

“We making homage to people who lived there,” she said. “Their lives weren’t all tragic. The story of east Oakland is brighter than blight. The story that is often told is negative. But from the people who lived there, not everything was negative. It does not define the people.”

Brighter than Blight runs from June 21-23 and June 28-30. According to Brooks, after exhibit ends, some pieces will stay at site some will be apart of ongoing exhibit that collects stories throughout Oakland.

After the building is demolished, the California Affordable Housing Initiatives (CAHI), and the Oakland Housing Authority will work together to create a urban farm in its place.

“This is just phase one,” Brooks said.

Ise Lyfe could not be reached for an interview.

Brighter than Blight is free to the public and open from 4-9 p.m., June 21-23 and June 28-30 at 7509 77th Avenue and Bancroft St; 510-874-1669 or facebook.com/BrighterThanBlight.

 

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