It's Tuesday afternoon, and a couple dozen people are standing in a circle holding hands on what looks like a traffic median in North Oakland, saying grace.
Frances Michelle Moore, locally known as Aunti Frances, asks for silence so the group can say a blessing. She's serving up a free hot meal, as she's done every week for the past five years.
The crowd is mostly older black men. And most of them come here every Tuesday. They're also here at Driver Plaza -- a tiny wedge of a park between Stanford Avenue and Adeline Street, at 61st Street -- throughout the week. That’s why Moore decided to serve meals here.
“This has always been a gathering point," she says. "It is a mixture of people. Some people are homeless, some people are indoors, but we’re all low income. So hey, we got to eat and what better way to show community but by breaking bread?”
But when Moore isn’t around, the scene can be a little different. How different? That’s a matter of whom you ask.
“I pick up the garbage every day when I go out there. Today, there was four pint bottles. I picked up some broken glass and things like that,” says Fiona Wilmot, who moved to the neighborhood last year. Wilmot is part of a wave of new arrivals. Many came as the mortgage meltdown made homes more affordable in Oakland, especially compared with San Francisco's high prices.
“I often see people drinking with open containers," says Wilmot, who lives only a few houses away from the plaza. "After about an hour and a half, two hours, things get very loud. ... It may calm down sometimes after dark, sometimes not.”
The city’s Department of Public Works has received almost two dozen complaints about the plaza in the past year and a half, and that doesn’t include complaints handled by other departments.
To address some of those issues, Moore and some supporters paid to have a portable toilet installed at the plaza. But they didn’t have a permit. In fact, the city doesn't grant permits for permanent portable toilets, according to Joe Devries, assistant to Oakland’s city administrator. So, the city has forced the toilet's removal on two occasions.
“Short of having not filled out a permit or going through any of the right procedures even for a temporary Porta-Potty ... we kinda need to see that before we could even entertain something long term," Devries said. "And based on the neighbors' concerns, I don’t know that they would get it granted."
In October, Moore and others protested outside City Hall, chanting, "We want the Porta-Potty back!" and holding signs saying, "Where can we pee?" The group has met with city officials, but thus far there are no plans for a temporary or permanent toilet.
For plaza regulars like Dwight Hill, the toilet isn't really the issue. It’s about the continued existence of their longtime cultural space, in a neighborhood that dropped from 53 percent African-American in 2000 to 36 percent in 2010.
“This is a losing thing. We’re gonna lose,“ said Hill, while digging into some of Moore's roasted potatoes.
“Why would anyone want a Porta-Potty out in front of their apartment complex, or their condo? Why would anyone want someone who ain’t got a job, ain’t generating no money, ain’t contributing nothing to society, just hanging around?” he added.
A lot of people out here on Driver Plaza feel that the newer, often non-black, residents have a vision for the neighborhood that doesn’t include them.
Stuck somewhere in the middle is Nate Williams, director at Santa Fe CAN, the local neighborhood association. He would like to see the space improved for the whole community, with trees, benches and tables. But when he looked into the permits and legal requirements, he put those plans on hold.
“It sometimes feels inevitable about gentrification, and there’s always gonna be tension between the newer and the older residents that are around,” Williams says.
"Sometimes I think those issues are much bigger than we, as residents or volunteers, can handle,” he adds.
On a rainy afternoon, Kedar Akbar was one of at least a half-dozen men sitting on benches and rolling office chairs. He said that when he was in fifth grade, there were some barbecues and a play structure out here. Now he comes to learn from his elders.
“There’s a lot of wisdom that is also here that you can’t get in books or you can’t Google it. Because racism isn’t just social, it’s structural. So we don’t have these things intact for us, and this is one of the ways, unfortunately, that it’s preserved, is through the oratory things and them telling stories. A lot of these people are from Mississippi, they’ve gone through the '60s. This is a Black Panther neighborhood, Nation of Islam and all of these -- and SNCC and things like that.”
Akbar said the city could at least install a water fountain to make it feel like a park. But even that would take a while to get permitted and built. Meanwhile, the porta-potty is gone and the neighborhood continues to change. A three-bedroom home is listed for sale up the street for $700,000.
Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.