Rashad and Chandi Armstead (L–R) will soon be commercial tenants at the California Hotel, which is at the center of EBALDC's efforts to establish an African–American-focused cultural hub on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue. Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED
Rashad and Chandi Armstead (L–R) will soon be commercial tenants at the California Hotel, which is at the center of EBALDC's efforts to establish an African–American-focused cultural hub on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

A Black Cultural Corridor Takes Shape on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue

A Black Cultural Corridor Takes Shape on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue

On a recent Sunday, in the parking lot behind the California Hotel on Oakland's San Pablo Avenue, the Harvest Festival is bustling. Parents line up for plates of barbecue; kids decorate pumpkins in the pumpkin patch; and neighbors of all ages hang out while a DJ spins funk, soul and old school R&B.

The scene is just one example of how longtime, mostly African-American West Oakland residents are revitalizing a formerly blighted stretch of San Pablo Avenue with the help of East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), one of Oakland's largest affordable housing developers. Soon, the California Hotel will be at the center of a new cultural hub that will include a music venue, recording studio, restaurant, black culinary collective and a youth-focused music education program.

Such efforts began in 2011, when EBALDC purchased the California Hotel and converted it into 137 below–market-rate units, mostly studio apartments. The hotel, which had been vacant since 2007, is part of an EBALDC project called SPARC, or San Pablo Area Revitalization Collaborative, which seeks to cultivate a cultural hub on San Pablo Avenue that harks back to West Oakland's legacy as a stronghold of black business.

The California Hotel.
The California Hotel. (EBALDC)

"There's a beautiful history in place here," says EBALDC's associate director of neighborhood collaborations, Romi Hall, adding EBALDC will begin construction on affordable family housing on the same block next year. "I think we've got to work really hard to preserve that part of the story and make it new, and that's what we're really trying to do in the neighborhood in partnership with residents."

As early as February 2019, the California Hotel will open a new brick-and-mortar location of popular Oakland eatery Crave BBQ (which recently closed its pop-up on 17th and Center Streets). Crave BBQ's new space will feature a music venue, The New Zanzibar Stage. It gets its name from the California Hotel's original restaurant, The Zanzibar, where prominent performers like Billie Holiday, James Brown, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Pete Escovedo and Big Mama Thornton once played.

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The Oakland Public Conservatory of Music (OPC), a music education nonprofit specializing in African American musical traditions, is collaborating with Crave BBQ on concert and educational programming at the new space. OPC's founding director Angela Wellman says that while The New Zanzibar will honor the hotel's legacy of jazz, blues, funk, soul and Latin music, it will also cater to young people.

"It's going to be music that's grounded in the African American experience," she says. "But we have to try to stay relevant. We can't reinvent a museum type of situation—that's what it would be, like a living museum. That will be part of what we're doing, but we also have to be relevant and make sure we showcase exactly what's happening right now and how the music is continuing to evolve."

EBALDC's Romi Hall.
EBALDC's Romi Hall. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Amid Oakland's rising real estate prices, EBALDC's below–market-rate commercial rents are a big reason African-American small businesses and nonprofits have been able to anchor themselves in the neighborhood. OPC moved into the California Hotel's downstairs commercial space a year ago after being displaced from its previous location in 2014. And Blackball Universe, Grammy-winning Oakland musician Fantastic Negrito's record label, found a home in another EBALDC property down the block—a former liquor store—after losing its previous Jack London Square location.

Cultural preservation is front-of-mind for the new EBALDC tenants as Oakland's black population continues to decline amid ongoing gentrification. (African Americans made up 47 percent of Oakland's population in 1980, compared to 24.7 percent according to the latest census estimate.) "The way to sustain our culture is to make sure young people are acquiring skills to sustain it," says Wellman, adding that she and Rashad Armstead, the owner of Crave BBQ, will offer workshops and activities for young people interested in the music and restaurant businesses.

When the California hotel opened in 1929, West Oakland was a thriving African-American and Latino neighborhood with an active cultural scene. That changed in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system, BART and the U.S. Postal Service building on 7th Street displaced many of West Oakland's cultural institutions and longtime residents. In the '70s and '80s, the crack epidemic and mass incarceration further ravaged the community. And in recent years, West Oakland became the front line of a culture war as wealthier, whiter residents move in and upscale coffee shops and luxury apartment buildings spring up near homeless encampments and under-resourced schools.

"We have a lot of deep connections to West Oakland. My great-grandmother opened her first restaurant in the '60s, back when 7th Street was all black businesses," says Armstead. He plans to run a black food collective out of his new space, with food trucks, guest chefs, consumer products and and live cooking demos from black-owned businesses. The goal is to share resources with other black restaurateurs getting their projects off the ground.

"That is our way of combating gentrification," says Armstead. "Almost like setting the culture for businesses coming in here, letting them know we're not going anywhere."

Annette Miller of the Hoover/Foster Resident Action Council.
Annette Miller of the Hoover/Foster Resident Action Council. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Local residents seem to resonate with this mission. Annette Miller, who was handing out handmade gift baskets to kids at the Harvest Festival's pumpkin patch when I visited, is a lifelong West Oaklander who went through an arduous fight to save her grandmother's home from foreclosure. Not long after winning her house back, Miller's 19-year-old son was shot and killed. Those experiences motivated her to pour herself into community organizing; she's the chair of a neighborhood advocacy group called the Hoover/Foster Resident Action Council, which supports EBALDC's efforts to revitalize San Pablo Avenue.

"My thing is, even though I lost my loss, I feel that I still need to stay connected to the community to let folks know, there's actually different ways to heal, like meetings, being around kids, support organizations," she tells me while helping a little girl with glitter on her cheeks select a pumpkin. "As long as I mix myself with other organizations like SPARC, I believe we can make a difference."

During my visit, I check out another party in the California Hotel's downstairs rec room, where residents of all ages serve themselves from a soul food steam table as one neighbor regales them with his conga playing. "[The residents] hold a lot of history, they have a lot of opinions on how things should play out," says Monique Kennedy, EBALDC's West Oakland resident services manager. Her job is to help the residents of the hotel and neighboring EBALDC properties coordinate events and advocate for their interests.

The lobby of the California Hotel in West Oakland.
The lobby of the California Hotel in West Oakland. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

"We wanted to come here because we wanted to be part of a solution to rebuild our neighborhoods," says Field, the manager of Blackball Universe, which released Fantastic Negrito's 2016 album titled The Last Days of Oakland.

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"We wanted Blackball Universe to help create the type of environment we feel is necessary in Oakland—now, before it's gone. Black Oakland is rapidly declining, and if we're not part of the solution to help establish something, we’re participating in the decline."

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