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A 200,000-Square-Foot Arts Complex Takes Shape in East Oakland

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Arts educator Rosalyn Nash, event presenter Assan Jethmal and art gallery director Natalia Ivanova (left to right) are the core team behind a new community space called Agency. If all goes according to plan, it'll be part of a new arts and culture complex with space for performance, education, permaculture and more. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

We all know the story: artists move into a low-income area in search of cheap space, set up shop and eventually attract wealthier interests that push out long-term residents. But in East Oakland, a coalition of artists and educators is trying to rewrite the narrative by doing something improbable—making a new development serve the community.

The new space is a former cotton mill slated for redevelopment. Once the project is completed, the entire 200,000-square-foot Jingletown building, not far from the Fifth Avenue Marina, will become a new arts and culture complex called The Loom (2150 Livingston Street). It’s an ambitious project that promises solar power and a permaculture garden, spaces for classes and events, affordable artist studios, dining, retail, below-market-rate co-living spaces and even a hotel.

While the blueprints for most of those features are still being drawn up, an art space called Agency has already moved into the bare bones of the cavernous, brick warehouse. Agency is a collaboration among Rosalyn Nash of The People’s Conservatory, which provides arts education to underserved K-12 students; Assan Jethmal, an event producer with Endeavors Oakland and co-founder of Good Mother Gallery; and Natalia Ivanova of the nonprofit downtown art gallery ProArts.

Each player brings with them a wide-ranging network of artists and activists, many of whom are people of color making forward-thinking work and in need of affordable places to create, gather and perform. And their goal isn’t just to get a symbolic nod to diversity and inclusion from the developer, but to give the community direct access and influence.

“What we’re bringing to the table is bringing folks who are boots on the ground, doing work with the community, creating the arts and culture of Oakland,” says Nash. “As the developers, they have the capital, they have the space. But we have the culture.”


Since moving in in August, Agency has already shown the potential of what an 8,500-square-foot space like this can offer. A textile art exhibit curated by Maymanah Farhat featured big, colorful, hand-sewn pieces. Some were whimsical and kitschy (like a rug portrait of 2000s-era Soulja Boy by Assan Jethmal’s brother Ian). And others used fabric for potent storytelling, like Daniel Drennan ElAwar’s “vigil knitting,” made while waiting on news from Palestinian friends taking cover from Israeli bombings.

Earlier this month, Agency hosted a musical healing circle by the Song Remedy, a project of SOL Development singer and community organizer Brittany Tanner. On a September night in the warehouse’s spacious courtyard, chart-topper and Oakland native G-Eazy rocked a crowd at his album release party for These Things Happen Too. The People’s Conservatory students have been doing schoolwork at Agency (and soon, a music tech lab with free classes is coming thanks to a grant from Apple). An African diaspora dance festival, an NFT festival and a holiday artist market are also in the works.

“As long as I’ve known Rozz and Assan, it’s all about sustaining the art,” says Karega Bailey of SOL Development, who is slated to perform at Agency’s costume gala and fundraiser on Oct. 28 with Brittany Tanner and rap supergroup Grand Nationxl. “They understand art to be an integral part of society and any community. … I imagine [Agency] could be a new focal point of story and gathering and belongingness for artists in Oakland.”

The idea for Agency began to germinate with Jethmal throwing COVID-safe artist markets and hip-hop shows in the parking lot outside of the Tribune Tower. Eventually, he worked with the landlord and artist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith to turn the tower’s fifth floor into a blank canvas for muralists, including Bud Snow and Vogue TDK. (The murals were eventually digitized and sold as an NFT.)

When Jethmal wanted to find a permanent space, the owners of Tribune Tower, an investor group called Highbridge Equity Partners, pointed him to the larger and much more affordable property that would eventually become Agency and The Loom.

Instead of waiting for the developer to take the lead, Jethmal pitched Highbridge: “Let’s all be at the table, ground-up, before you even start,” he said, arguing that his coalition of artists brings a cultural value greater than any monetary deposit.

Aboudi Kabbani, senior vice president at Highbridge, listened. “We’re not a developer that’s just trying to build market-rate housing or a commercial building and make a lot of money,” Kabbani explains, adding that Highbridge specializes in historic sites. Its holdings also include the former YWCA building on 15th Street designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan.

“There’s only a couple of investors,” Kabbani says of The Loom. “Everyone’s in this for the long haul, not looking to flip or anything like that. As long as we make enough money to sustain the projects that’s all that really matters.”

Kabbani has a few ideas for how to make that happen: established commercial anchor tenants will pay market-rate rent, subsidizing the costs for smaller businesses and nonprofits. (Speed Power Strength gym was already in the building before Highbridge purchased it, and is staying on.) The Seed Barn, a building adjacent to Agency, can hold performances, community fundraisers and meditation classes, which could be sustained by rentals for weddings and private events.

Highbridge has enlisted David Baker Architects, a firm known for innovative affordable housing projects. Fletcher Studios has been charged with the landscape architecture, and has lofty goals of making The Loom a regenerative project that produces its own solar energy and minimizes water use and construction waste.

A new development that’s sustainable for culture and the environment? Given the ways the city has changed over the past 20 years, some Oakland residents might understandably raise their eyebrows at the idea. But if all goes according to plan, The Loom might become an important connecting thread in the local cultural fabric for years to come.

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