The California Hotel was bought by EBALDC and renovated in 2012. (Sanfranman59/Wikimedia Commons)
Kokavulu Lumukanda is a history buff who likes chatting about how his family moved to Oakland from Texas during the first half of the 20th century. First it was his aunt in the '30s, then his uncle in the '40s. Lumukanda moved from Dallas to Oakland in 1968 when he was 21 and eventually found himself living in West Oakland -- a part of the city that has felt a lot of pressure from gentrification.
Given that his family has roots in Oakland, he takes personally the displacement of the city's African-American population -- which has dropped 10 percent in the last decade.
“I haven’t found a place I can really call home yet in this American wilderness," he says.
Lumukanda, 68, raised his children in a West Oakland home with the help of housing vouchers and had to leave when his landlord died and the property was sold. Last summer, he moved into the historic California Hotel, an affordable housing building near the Emeryville border. He doesn't want to leave the neighborhood, a place where he was politically active many years ago, but it's likely a "foregone conclusion," he says.
Oakland talks about keeping longtime residents from moving away, but the city is struggling to find ways to make that happen. The nonprofit in charge of the California Hotel recently bought the vacant lot next door to build more affordable housing, and has been trying to re-engineer the larger neighborhood -- a part of town that hasn't seen the heavy investment and new development going on elsewhere -- with the help of numerous partners and the community.
But will it work?
The California Hotel is an anchor in the corridor that runs along San Pablo Avenue from Emeryville toward downtown. The hotel was once the place for African-American musicians and entertainers in the '50s and '60s, like Ray Charles and Richard Pryor. It now serves 149 residents in 137 units through Section 8 housing subsidies.
The East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. bought and renovated the hotel in 2012 (it has been used for affordable housing for decades) after its previous owners let it fall into disrepair. The California Hotel now has case managers on hand and psych services, a computer lab and a community garden. Plus , residents in the building can hear live music every third Friday in the hotel lobby.
“That’s what these people need. They need the whole package. Not just one piece of it,” says resident Raymond Maurice Edwards.
"When you look out the window and you walk down the street and you see 20 needles and things like that, that’s not a conducive environment to do constructive things," he says.
Edwards, 48, has noticed dramatic changes in West Oakland, such as new residents. But he hasn't seen many of the benefits to his neighborhood that are often brought on when big money moves in. That's why he applauds EBALDC's commitment to work with the community.
Chief Operating Officer Charise Fong points out mounds of fresh dirt and new plants on the San Pablo Avenue median. She says that last summer her organization held a series of community meetings during which it received input from residents and community groups.
"The residents came together with a design team to think about what are some quick guerrilla-style projects that they could turn around and beautify," she says.
Ray Kidd, co-chair of West Oakland Neighbors, attended a couple of these meetings and was part of the team that helped improve the median.
"There was actually more volunteers than there were tools," he says.
Kidd says that EBALDC coming to the neighborhood and buying up the California Hotel was a game changer, but he doesn't think the hotel alone is enough to prevent market forces and private development from having a larger impact, as it has in other areas of the city.
Adjacent to the hotel is the vacant lot where EBALDC plans to build about 55 new low-income apartments, many of which will be for families, Fong says. In the meantime, a $1 million grant from the San Francisco Foundation will help pay for programs and "pop-up" events on the site, she says.
"We’re actually going to turn that into a temporary community gathering space," she says.
It's a place where EBALDC can experiment, Fong says, including having pop-up markets where residents can try out small business ideas. There may be a performance space with a temporary stage when the weather gets nicer, she says.
Events will coincide with First Fridays, which are held on Telegraph Avenue, and will have general themes, like the arts or education.
EBALDC is also helping lead a larger neighborhood initiative through a partnership called the San Pablo Area Revitalization Collaborative (SPARC), which focuses on improving the health, economy and safety of the area.
"I think there is a groundswell frankly in the country -- certainly in the Bay Area because of all the pressures on people, particularly in low-income communities -- to bring everybody on board to figure it out," says Fong.
Part of the SPARC collaborative includes other nonprofits and public agencies chipping in to provide services. For example, every week Heather Smith serves food in the lobby and sets up a makeshift health care clinic where hotel residents can come and get blood pressure readings.
"They can get information here, and we sit down and build relationships and trust in the community," says Smith.
Most affordable housing developments have residential services on-site, but this is resident services times 10, says Amber Lamason, EBALDC's neighborhood and economic development manager.
EBALDC, which has been around since the 1970s, is known mostly for affordable housing. The group was able to pull together to raise the $40 million to renovate the California Hotel apartments. Now the nonprofit will take the next couple of years to raise between $25 million to $30 million to pay for the new development.
Lumukanda says what EBALDC is trying to do is good. But he recognizes that everyone who wants to see this part of West Oakland improve for the people who live there now is up against a city grappling with rapid change.
"We need two or three more California Hotel-size residential places," says Lumukanda. "It’s as though these economic pressures will overtake us and our memory of what had gone before will pass."
If this experiment works, it may represent one of the few models of how an Oakland neighborhood was able to grow from the ground up.