“How do I make the neighborhood more walkable?” This is the question owner Sal Bednarz asked himself in the late 2000s, as he was planning a new business. He had not been able to afford to live in a walkable neighborhood during his 20 years in Oakland. With the opening of the Actual Café in December 2009, Bednarz changed that for himself and a corner of the Golden Gate neighborhood.
The storefront at the corner of Alcatraz and San Pablo that is now home to the Actual Café was blank for 20 years after the 1989 earthquake collapsed the façade and closed the Pacific Bait and Tackle shop. “The site called out to me because it was visible,” Bednarz recalled.
Kristine Vejar, owner of textile business A Verb for Keeping Warm, had her eye on the area as well. “I would drive past Alcatraz and San Pablo every day,” she recalled. “I finally got the courage to call the broker.” She liked the spot on the corner – until she opened the door of the store next door and fell in love with that space. She opened her unique knitting store in November 2010.
“Oakland is my favorite city in the United States,” said Vejar, who has spent most of her life in The Town since leaving home at age 18. “When I decided I wanted to really put roots down and open a storefront, I wanted to bring it into Oakland.”
Being one of the first new businesses in the neighborhood (Tribu Café across the street opened its doors shortly before the Actual) was risky. “It kept me up nights,” said Bednarz. “The risk paid off.”
Before opening the Actual, Bednarz felt that the city he loved was disappearing. “The dot.com boom made a big dent in that culture,” he said. He decided that, “as an experiment, I could try to make a difference.”
The Actual Café, with its famous laptop-free weekends, has made a difference, and not just to the customers who daily flow through the café and Bednarz’s new restaurant around the corner, Victory Burger. He strives to create community with the other merchants as well.
“We definitely got welcomed here,” said Eurydice Manning, owner of James and the Giant Cupcake. When she moved her online bakery into a storefront in July 2011, adding more color — and sweetness — to the block, she said, “I was glad to be in a place that was starting to have an impact.”
The neighborhood has had an impact on Manning’s business, too. Before opening her first storefront, she had sold her cupcakes through an online store. Once customers started coming in and making requests, she expanded her selection to include vegan and gluten-free cupcakes which, she noted, sell out almost every day.
Vejar sees a benefit from her tasty neighbors: “My customers really enjoy being able to go to Actual,” she said, to pick up lunch during an all-day class at her store. She added, “They LOVE the cupcake shop!”
“We have a lot of cross-pollination with all the businesses down the block,” Bednarz said. He loves the color and the lights of the yarn store and cupcake shop, which add visibility for all the merchants. “It has a reinforcing effect.”
The fourth storefront in the row, a hair salon, is the newest business. Keeley O’Neil opened Trim On San Pablo this September. Born and raised in the neighborhood, “I love the location,” O’Neil said. She hopes that more people will walk down the block and discover her salon, which offers a range of hair treatments in addition to cuts and color. She sees the proximity to San Francisco as a plus for people who like to go out in the City: “They can get their hair done in our salon and it would be a quick trip for them.”
Both Bednarz and Vejar stressed the importance of support from the City of Oakland in helping get their businesses off the ground. Vejar got a matching grant from the city “which was really meaningful to me.” Bednarz gives high praise to his city council member, noting, “The city support is very different now under Dan Kalb.” He added, “The city, I think, in general is waking up to the fact that good things can happen here.”
The intersection of San Pablo and Alcatraz is part of a corridor that was once known for prostitution and violence. St. Columba Church on the west side of San Pablo provides a grim reminder of the problems that still plague Oakland, with a collection of crosses in the front yard marking the year’s toll of homicide victims. Across the street, small business owners are doing their part to change that story.
The merchants on the block currently employ almost 50 people. “We hire, very consciously, people who live in the neighborhood,” said Bednarz. He has also hired graduates from The Bread Project, which trains parolees for food service jobs. “I think my responsibility as a small business owner is to try and make that connection.”
These entrepreneurs share a strong sense of mission. “I wanted to subsidize my income because I wanted to start a nonprofit for mental health and substance abuse,” O’Neil said. Manning loves to see “how shocked people are” when they discover the delicious and ever changing flavors in her store.
Vejar appreciates this neighborhood, which welcomes her dye studio as well as the retail store. She also has a back patio, which provides space for a natural dye garden and a huge, and hugely pampered, angora rabbit named Marcel. “A big goal we have is to teach people how to make clothing” so they can create a new skill set, she said.
Bednarz used Kickstarter funding to pay for Victory Burger’s façade so that, when the people who supported him walk by, they can say, “I helped fund that beautiful thing I’m looking at.” Funders can find their names on a poster in the restaurant.
Manning calls this Oakland neighborhood “one of those hidden gems.” The independent businesses on this slice of San Pablo Avenue are working to knit their eclectic and diverse corner of Oakland into a vibrant community.
This story is part of a series funded by a generous grant from Oaklandish to Oakland Local.
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