A lot has happened to the once-prosperous West Oakland neighborhood once known as the “Harlem of theWest.” Cal Trans cut it in half in the 1950s with the Nimitz Freeway, the building of a massive, bomb-proof, main post office eviscerated its nightclub district in the ‘60s and BART plowed through in the early ‘70s.
Plus nature had its say. First human nature, which ran the area down, and then the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which pressed “delete” on the Nimitz.
But after the freeway was rebuilt away from residential housing and replaced with the lovely Mandela Parkway, the western West Oakland neighborhood known as Lower Bottoms started attracting homeowners and businesses.
Meanwhile, the City’s 7th Street Corridor Initiative spurred business development around the West Oakland BART station, including an organic food store (Mandela Foods), a cafe (Revolution Cafe), and some public art, notably the “dancing lightpole” sculptures in front of the BART and the arty “freeway sign,” a few blocks down, which welcomes folks to actual Oakland.
Now developers are gearing up for an infinitely more ambitious leap, as Jabari Herbert of the West OaklandDevelopment Group (WODG), explained at a community meeting at the Linden Street Brewery in October 2013.
In the fall of 2014, WODG intends to break ground on the first of many buildings around the BART station. Eventually, there will be a full shopping and entertainment district, including the music clubs driven out by shortsighted urban planners in the 60s and “work force”—as opposed to low income—housing.
In about a decade, the project is foreseen to include 300,000 sq. ft. of office space, almost 1500 residential units, a 1400-car garage and nearly 100,000 sq. ft. of retail space, in pods of 40-50 businesses each.
A public-private partnership, WODG consists of an investor and three non-profits from the Alliance for West Oakland, the group which purchased the original parcel on 5th Street in 1999 from Union Pacific Railroad. Their plan is based on leveraging federal and regional funds in cooperation with private funds.
West Oakland is perfectly situated for such development, a lot of people feel, since it is the first BART stop across the Bay from San Francisco. Alas, some locals don’t. Indeed, they fear gentrification will drive up rents and real estate prices, drive out existing businesses and drive in strangers.
“Seventh Street used to be a nice commercial strip,” said one man, a longtime resident, at Herbert’s presentation. “The houses were painted beautifully and there was green grass everywhere—and no drugs.”
The West Oakland ‘hood scored its first number one record in 1942 with a tune by Saunders Samuel King. In the years following, Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Aretha Franklin and many others regaled audiences at Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club, the best known of the many venues which lined the street and were jammed on weekends.
In addition to a black-owned bank and pharmacy, there were other cultural businesses like Wolf Records, Reed’s Record Shop and Big Town Records. A plan to erect some 80 plaques commemorating those achievements is being spearheaded by Ronnie Stewart, a local musician, who has obtained a Redevelopment Project grant.
“We need the commercial,” the West Oakland old-timer continued. “But I am not ready to commit to the plan.”
Other West Oakland residents may be more active in their opposition. A retirement home, under construction across from a BART parking lot, burned down in September, possibly due to arson.
Why would one build a facility for light sleepers so close to the BART tracks, you might ask? As it happens, WODG’s plan includes encasing the tracks in a sound muffling tube made of fiberglass. It would be emblazoned with art, historic images and ads for the stores that will surround the station.
“It should encourage [riders] to go down and explore, do some shopping, see what’s there, rather than get in their car and get out,” Jabari told me when we spoke by phone.
“We’d like to pull in some of the newer emerging businesses, like a set of galleries, perhaps across from The Crucible, the industrial arts school two blocks down 7th Street from BART,” he said. “There have been several studies. The total dollars residents were spending outside of Oakland—when those studies were done seven-eight years ago—was close to a billion dollars.” And it is much more now. We want to keep those dollars in the community.”
But the process is not easy, he admitted. “There will be ongoing community meetings for the next ten years.”
“We are not pushing people out,” emphasized Herbert, who is African-American. “We are building where there is nothing.”
(Unlike the zero-sum gentrification game of other cities, West Oakland has plenty of empty lots, including the many parking lots around BART, which could be easily consolidated into one structure.)
Herbert has been at this for years. He started in 1997, helping to arrange for a feasibility and market study, which was done by a consultant in partnership with the city.
Herbert summarized the laborious, even Sisyphusian, task he has been pursuing for over a decade. It has involved multiple negotiations, loans, grants, applications and an almost bewildering array of studies.
“West Oakland has always missed out on the real prize, either getting the plans in late or whatever, ” Herbert said. “They would get the one-three million dollars for the planning but not the 50-60 million for the build-out,” although they did get grants for sculptures.
“The ‘blue ugly sticks’ are whack, I think,” James Berk, a co-owner of Mandela Foods, told me in reference to the sculptures in front of BART. “My issue with them is that they don’t do anything to express to the younger generation what used to be here.”
“The [Black] Panther headquarter used to be here,” Berk continued, “and [the group’s leader] Huey Newton died near here [9th and Center in 1989]. There is nothing to represent that,” a sentiment with which this author concurs.
Herbert mentioned the Black Panthers both in his presentation and to me on the phone. “I am working with Elaine Brown out of Supervisors Carson’s office to create a youth -owned and -run marketplace. That speaks to the Panther’s legacy of economic development programs which was often obscured behind the media focus on the guns and self-determination.”
Indeed, WODG’s proposal of music venues builds specifically on the area’s musical heritage and Herbert and his associates are attempting to make the project a cultural-commercial as well as a private-public partnership, a thesis seconded by filmmaker Carmen Madden.
Also African-American, Madden’s family has held real estate in the area since her father started investing over sixty years ago. In fact, mortgages on those buildings allowed her to make her striking first feature film, “Everyday Black Man” (2009). The new development could provide jobs as well as a place to grab a drink after a day filming, she told me when we spoke recently.
Given that West Oakland remains economically troubled, despite the immense injection of artists and nonprofits, a project such as this one might spur a significant economic turnaround. Certainly new clubs and restaurants will feed, as it were, Oakland’s already booming cultural and foodie scene as well as the locals who can afford it. And if jobs and loans to start businesses are made available, perhaps more of them will be able to do so.
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. For guidelines, see:http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines/