Activists, Entrepreneurs Fight for a Place in West Oakland's Future
Inside a cafe on West Oakland's Seventh Street, a patron plays an untuned piano. A volunteer sits on a couch, while others tend a coffee bar. Occasionally a customer walks in, but not often.
The proprietor, Tony Coleman, says he's on a mission to turn this still-unnamed establishment into a place where old and new residents get involved. He sees a place for people from the community to come up with their own solutions to their problems.
“It was once called the Revolution Cafe,” he says. “It was like a community hub, and we plan to bring it back.”
In West Oakland, a lot of conversations could start with that phrase: “It was once ...”
Decades ago, before freeways, BART and a sprawling post office complex shattered what was already a fragile neighborhood, Seventh Street boasted clubs that drew the biggest names in jazz and blues. You can see hints of that history in the faded Esther's Orbit Room and in Slim Jenkins Court, an affordable housing complex named after the owner of a long-gone Seventh Street supper club.
West Oakland has never fully recovered.
Welcome to West Oakland: A Changing Neighborhood
Meet those working to improve the lives of all in the community -- the newcomers and long-time residents.
The neighborhood has long struggled with crime and blight, and much of the area has been under heavy gentrification pressure as the recovery, tech boom and displacement of San Francisco workers have gained momentum. And neighborhood activists complain that city officials haven't offered much leadership in addressing the area's issues, let alone managing them.
“They’re going to get it ready. But who are they getting ready for?” he says.
The neighborhood is simmering with activity and more development is coming. The writing is on the wall, Coleman says.
Coleman says he's a community activist at heart, not a businessman. But he acknowledges that it may take the same aggressive business-savvy sense that's being deployed around the neighborhood to create the kind of establishment he dreams of -- a place that will serve everyone in the community. Even then, a lack of property ownership and a lack of adequate resources mean that small-business owners like Coleman will have to find more creative ways to stay.
You Have to Make Your Rents Affordable
Several years ago, Coleman was searching for a space that could serve his vision. But he didn't have a lot of money or a line of credit. He walked up and down Seventh Street. Rents were too high, he says. Then he found the property owned by Lucy Lequin.
“You have to make your rents affordable,” she says. “I made it affordable.”
In 1995, Lequin helped convince the city to create a historic district around several properties she owns on the block of Seventh between Peralta and Campbell streets. Since then, there have been numerous entrepreneurs who have leased her properties. But most have failed, she says.
Coleman, whose cafe had a soft opening about a month ago, is the latest to give it a shot. He owns a bike shop at Seventh and Peralta called Bikes 4 Life, which he opened around five years ago. He has now leased four of Lequin's properties, including the cafe space.
“I liked his vision,” says Lequin. “I liked what he wanted to do in the community. He’s been a great asset.”
Like many property owners in the neighborhood, Lequin doesn’t hide her frustration at city bureaucracy. She says it’s hard for small businesses to comply with Oakland’s rules and regulations. And she echoes what others have said -- that the city is too focused on large development and doesn't focus enough on smaller businesses.
Lequin has since moved out of Oakland, and after 20 years she’s ready to sell her property.
“I have kind of surrendered to the fact that I am not the one that’s going to be able to see to move forward,” she says.
West Oakland Has Very Little Money
There isn’t a lot of cash in West Oakland for businesses or neighborhood improvements, says Patrick Lane, who works in neighborhood investment in the Office of the City Administrator. In the past, the largest stream of city funds came from West Oakland's designation as a redevelopment area, which made property tax revenue available for some local projects.
That money could be used to pay for parks, facade improvements and smaller neighborhood efforts.
But it took West Oakland awhile to accept working with the city's redevelopment agency. That's partly because residents in West Oakland were weary of the city's involvement in development, Lane says.
“There is very little funds in West Oakland at this point,” he says.
The state abolished redevelopment agencies several years ago to help balance its budget. Lane estimates that West Oakland lost out on roughly $7 million in redevelopment funds, an amount that was likely to grow substantially.
The loss of funds has made it harder for the city to offer support to would-be small business owners like Coleman, Lane says. But if the area becomes more affluent, Lane says, Coleman will have to adapt his business model. That could mean higher cafe prices, which would make it more difficult to serve lower-income residents, he said. If Coleman can't adapt, and he doesn't have a landlord who keeps the rent low, the outlook isn't so good, says Lane.
“The cafe by itself probably won’t be able to pay its rent when it gets [to be] a successful neighborhood,” he says.
How Some on Seventh Street Have Made It Work
If you walk a few blocks from Coleman's cafe and toward the West Oakland BART Station, you’ll reach the Mandela Foods Cooperative. When you walk inside, one of the first things you notice is the bright display case where you can purchase an assortment of drinks. The store also stocks organic foods, candy made by local makers and fresh produce.
The cooperative's mission is food justice, but the store serves everyone, says Mariela Cedeno, director of social enterprise and microfinance at Mandela Marketplace -- the co-op’s nonprofit arm. When wealthier customers purchase the higher-priced goods, it allows the store to keep the markup of fresh healthy produce lower, she says.
The store has become an anchor business for the neighborhood, Cedeno says.
"When new residents come in they're spending their money there, and the native residents have business ownership," she says. "What makes Oakland great is lifting up the culture of Oakland. And the culture of Oakland are the native residents."
It took cooperation and collaboration to make the co-op work.
At the beginning, $200,000 in redevelopment funds helped build the grocery store. The co-op is also leasing its space on Seventh Street from another nonprofit, Bridge Housing. Even with all the help, it took three years for the co-op to break even, Cedeno says.
'He's Going To Have To Trust Somebody'
There are plenty of people who want to collaborate in West Oakland. Take Seneca Scott, a former official with the Service Employees International Union who volunteers at the Bottoms Up Community Garden. The garden is on a vacant lot that Tony Coleman rents from Lucy Lequin, and Scott had what he thought was a great idea for the neighborhood: a beer garden. He even had an investor lined up, he says.
But Scott couldn't persuade Coleman to go along.
“He’s going to have to trust somebody,” Scott says. “And if you’re not willing to do that it’s not going to work.”
Scott says he's moved on and is now trying to collaborate with neighborhood groups to bring a farmers market to West Oakland.
“We don’t have a lot of time here," Scott says. "Things are getting expensive by the month. Rents going up by the month. And we do have some really good opportunities to act right now, and so we’re just going to act."
Coleman says he's more of a "free spirit" than Scott is -- and that he's trying to take action with the property he's renting, too.
“I’m just trying to make good with it while I got it, and then try to do as much good as I can during the time that I have it,” he says.