In February of 1995, Swan’s Market, the former home of a low-cost department store that occupied the block of Old Oakland bounded by 9th, 10th, Clay and Washington Streets was a blank, boarded-up block. Only the terra cotta medallions decorating the walls and the iconic Swan’s sign were visible. Many of the surrounding blocks were empty lots.

Yet Joshua Simon, a senior project manager for the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), chose to take Ruth Silber there on their first date. He had a vision for the property he wanted to share. “We were going to create a place that was affordable where small businesses could grow and thrive,” Simon said. “Our idea was to have 4th Street for the rest of us.”

“I was trying to take in what he was saying about the neighborhood,” said Silber (now Ruth Simon), “but the other half of my brain was like, ‘is he going to hold my hand?'”

The Swan's development includes 18 units of affordable rental housing.  Photo by Laura McCamy

The Swan’s development includes 18 units of affordable rental housing. Photo by Laura McCamy

It was five more years before the vision Simon shared with his future wife became a reality. EBALDC believed that, if Swan’s was to be the anchor for a vibrant neighborhood, it needed to include diverse elements, so it included affordable and market-rate housing, plus office and retail space. Financing and building the complex project took time.

The first thing Ener Chiu, commercial planning and services manager for EBALDC, says about Swan’s is, “I’m biased. You can write it down.” As he walks around Swan’s on a bustling Farmers Market Friday, he greets many people by name and others stop him to talk or ask questions.

Chiu also found romance at Swan’s Market: he met his wife when both were working on the Swan’s development. “I fell in love with this neighborhood through her,” he said.

Chiu, who lives across the street, taught his two daughters to ride bikes in the courtyard at Swan’s, safe from street traffic. “This building, Swan’s, is special to me as a neighbor,” he said. He calls it the “living room” of the neighborhood.

“I see EBALDC’s strength as having patient enough capital and a mission that creates fertile soil,” Chiu said. He described the growth of the block as “fits and starts.”

Taylor's Sausage in the Housewives Market.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Taylor’s Sausage in the Housewives Market. Photo by Laura McCamy

When the Housewives Market’s original building closed in 1999, Raymond Gee, owner of Taylor’s Sausage, became one of the first retail tenants in the new incarnation of Housewives in Swan’s. He said it took some time for people to come back to the neighborhood, but he sees many reasons to be optimistic: “Now people walk their dogs. People walk around at night.”

Gee, who started working at the sausage company 30 years ago and bought the business when the owner retired, has seen many changes in the neighborhood during that time. He remembers when “every weekend was like July 4th” at Swan’s Marketplace and the Housewives Market. “Everybody sees everybody when they pick up their food, pick up their clothing,” he remembered.

This is how sausage is made, by Raymond Gee.  Photo by Laura McCamy

This is how sausage is made, by Raymond Gee. Photo by Laura McCamy

Taylor’s Sausage has weathered some lean times since the move to Swan’s, because “we have a good reputation,” according to Gee. “People want to get their good, old-fashioned sausage.” Almost any day you go to the market, you can see him stuffing sausage casings and making links on the gleaming metal tables behind his meat counter. Taylor’s Sausage received a top rating from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 that brought even more people back to rediscover this corner of Oakland.

Endgame has a reputation for carrying unusual and small press games.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Endgame has a reputation for carrying unusual and small press games. Photo by Laura McCamy

Endgame, which has been in Swan’s for almost ten years, moved from a smaller location on Lakeshore.  Rather than seeing a “brutalist box,” as a 2001 report about Swan’s described the Convention Center, co-owner Chris Hanrahan sees it as an asset: “500 people at a time will spill out the doors” heading for lunch Rattos and passing by his store.

Hanrahan appreciates the walkability of the “tucked away” neighborhood, noting, “You can get almost anywhere” on foot. “I actually think this is a great stop” between Jack London Square and downtown, he added.

The space hosts at least almost daily events in a mezzanine outfitted with tables for all kinds of games. One of Hanrahan’s frustrations is having a store that comes to life in the evenings in a neighborhood where many of the eateries close early. He and his Endgame co-owners plan to remedy this problem by opening a café in the space next to their store and staying open until at least 10 p.m. to provide quick fare for evening gamers.

Swan's Cohousing is an unexpectedly quiet, green oasis in a bustling urban neighborhood.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Swan’s Cohousing is an unexpectedly quiet, green oasis in a bustling urban neighborhood. Photo by Laura McCamy

Suzanne Van Houten was both one of the first tenants at Swan’s and one of the newest. She and her husband, Michael Schafer, were part of the group that worked with EBALDC to include market-rate co-housing units in the new development and they moved into their new home in 2000. Co-housing, “a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods,” according to cohousing.org, was a good fit: a project that aimed to build a community in a spot that had lain fallow for decades.

Van Houten is happy with the changes she has seen in the neighborhood over the years. “I grew up in London. I like living in a mixed-use building with some history to it.” She added, “For me, it feels like being in a city, and I like that.”

“We were kind of concerned that I would become too gentrified,” said Schafer, who noted that “we have seen a lot of

come and go over the years we’ve been here.” He loves the walkability of the neighborhood, but wishes there were more local-serving businesses such as a grocery store or dry cleaner.

Suzanne Van Houten, Laura Traversa and Tim Piper in front of Swan's Studio.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Suzanne Van Houten, Laura Traversa and Tim Piper in front of Swan’s Studio. Photo by Laura McCamy

Van Houten, a hair stylist and color educator, saw a new opportunity when the commercial space below her home became empty. “I was concerned about who was going to move in,” she said. “Then I thought: I could move in!”

She opened Swans Studios last summer and now shares the space with master barber Tim Piper and wedding specialist Laura Traversa. Traversa remembers coming to Oakland as a big outing when she was a kid. “It was the happening place,” she said. “You would dress up and come to Oakland.”

Chef Domenica Rice takes a break at Cosecha.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Chef Domenica Rice takes a break at Cosecha. Photo by Laura McCamy

Domenica Rice opened Cosecha in 2011 in the Housewives Marketplace. A Chez Panisse alumna whose “family has been in and around the food business forever,” Rice said, “We were inspired by the mercados in Mexico,” where vendors make food from the ground up in small stalls.

“I just got really tired of eating burritos,” Rice recalled. “Interesting food tracks with quality ingredients.”  She offers diners a menu that is “more like you would get in Mexico.”

“It’s very time-consuming, but it’s a big payoff,” she said of preparing authentic ingredients like house-made corn tortillas.

The chef recalls treating Cosecha “for the first three months, like an art installation.” She told her workers not to quit their evening jobs while she tested recipes. “I didn’t want to force something onto the neighborhood that wasn’t needed,” Rice said.

Fortunately, the neighborhood loved her handmade Mexican cuisine, and the feeling is mutual. “I keep telling all the parents, make sure their (child’s) first tortilla is here,” she said.

Asked about the future of Swan’s Marketplace, Chiu won’t make predictions. “A lot of things that drive business decisions have to do not with the neighborhood, but what’s next to the neighborhood,” he said. “We’ve gotten past the point of wishful thinking and ‘if you build it they will come.’”

“It becomes like a filter,” said Simon, who is now  Executive Director of EBALDC. “The strong businesses stay and the weaker businesses close or move. We’re getting a stronger and stronger mix.”

“We still go back to Old Oakland on date night,” added Simon, who hopes that more people will find something — or someone — to love on historic streets that are once again thriving.

“[It’s] nothing like Uptown,” Gee said. “The area is more like for working class. It’s nothing high-end, nothing fancy, but you have a choice of food.” In other words, a great place for a night out that isn’t too spendy.

“We’re a community, first and foremost,” said Chiu. “We’re trying to make Old Oakland a place that’s hard to avoid.”

Why should you go to Swan’s Market? Glad you asked! Three reasons to visit Swan’s Market ASAP are right here.

Read our other Love Letters to Oakland: San Pablo and Alcatraz and 40th and Webster.

What part of Oakland would get a love letter from you?  Let us know.

11 Responses

  1. Jonatton Yeah?

    As someone who lives a block from there I find it so hard to believe this jewel was boarded up just a few years ago. Wow. It really ties the neighborhood together and the collaborative nature of the businesses in there is just fantastic.

    Reply
  2. Matt in Uptown

    Cheers for Old Oakland and EBALDC, but what is with this town’s fear of success, fear of the other, fear of change? Old Oakland is gentrified… Desco, Tamaringo, Cosecha, District, Liege, The Trappist, Rosamunde, and Miss Ollie’s are not working class establishments. Mexicali Rose, Pacific Coast Brewing and Rattos maybe, but the rest of old town -no. Today, housing in the area is mostly large condo developments where 1br units start at $300,000 -is that working class? If you own a coop unit and a business -are you not gentry? Maybe they mean they don’t want people moving in that they perceive to be trendier than themselves? Again, I’m happy for Old Oakland, but this class bating, change fearing mantra gets so old.

    Reply
  3. OaklandNative

    Where are the African Americans? Oh, wait, we’re post-racial Oakland–we have no African Americans.

    Reply
  4. Linda@EastBayEnvy

    Thank you for sharing the backstory about Swan’s. What a wonderful project for Oakland. For more love notes to Old Oakland small businesses, check out these East Bay Envy posts:

    Miss Ollie’s: http://eastbayenvy.com/miss-ollies-old-oakland/

    Umani Mart, Cosecha, Caffe 817: http://eastbayenvy.com/5-favorites-old-town-wait/

    The Trappist: http://eastbayenvy.com/five-favorites-old-oakland-trappist/

    The Bookmark: http://eastbayenvy.com/oaklands-best-kept-secret/

    Obviously, I love Old Oakland too!

    Reply
  5. r2d2ii

    When I buy sausage at Taylor’s there’s usually an African-American helping me.

    Reply
  6. Len Raphael

    Taylor’s customers seem to be mostly black when I’m buying my monthly supply of hot turkey sausage. A bit too sweet but very lean.

    Reply
  7. OaklandNative

    There were no African Americans in this article.

    As an African American native in Oakland, I want to be visible in discussions of gentrification, development, etc. I feel like we’re being erased.

    Reply
  8. Matt in Uptown

    OaklandNative, I understand what you’re feeling -there’s so incredibly little about Oakland’s gay community in Oakland centric media. However, based on the research I’ve read about Oakland’s African-American population the movement out of Oakland is related to improved racial equality -people living there they want to live vs where they’re relegated to. Just like I no longer feel relegated to the Castro, African-American Oaklanders are seeking better options because they can. As for this Old Oakland story, I’m not surprised that there are a lack African-American individuals because Old Oakland is not historically or presently very African-American. I just took a scan of Oakland Local’s stories and the African-American perspective is often present.

    Reply
  9. OaklandNative

    Matt,
    You’ve articulated many of my concerns about how the history of Black Oakland, including Black Gay Oakland, has been whitewashed. It wasn’t subtle.

    When I shopped at Swans, there were African Americans in the center and in the neighborhood. There was a definite black presence. Gentrification had to erase that so that people would not associate Oakland with “black.”

    You brought up the gay community. Downtown Oakland was considered by many to be the Black gay center. It became more and more visible in the 90s.

    Many African Americans moved because they wanted to. Some because they had to (landlords sold their homes, they could no longer afford the rent, etc.). For whatever reason, many African Americans wanted a place to come back to.

    The issues of the Black gay community were very different from those of the white gay community (Castro). Castro was notorious for its racism. Remember the Badlands controversy?

    In fact, many Black gays and lesbians today complain about the lack of community/presence in this New Oakland. They don’t want to move out and be further isolated.

    My comment is not based on any reading, but personal experiences.

    Reply
  10. Laura McCamy

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments and the Old Oakland love.

    I want to clarify one issue: there are definitely plenty of African Americans in Old Oakland, including business owners (which was the main focus of my article). I would have liked to include a photo of Lucky’s Barbershop, a very vibrant African American establishment on Clay Street in the Swan’s building, but they declined to have their photo taken and I respected their wishes.

    Reply

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