St. Andrew’s Plaza isn’t big enough to even be officially called a park. Still, this small sliver of asphalt in West Oakland has become yet another contested space -- a flashpoint over gentrification.
Neighborhood parks and public spaces are usually representative of the people who live nearby. But what happens when the neighborhoods themselves are in transition?
Earlier this month, the city began to fence off the plaza, at 32nd Street and San Pablo Avenue, which had long become a gathering point for homeless and low-income locals.
James Johnson says that he hangs out in the park playing chess and listening to music.
“We gather and tell jokes and laugh with each other. It’s very real at this park. It’s a lot of real people with no disguises,” he says. “We come here to share the love for each other.”
But others say the park is a hot spot for fights, public intoxication and drug activity. It’s not the first time the city has fenced off St. Andrew’s Plaza. The city erected a fence in 2014, but it didn’t last long. Some local residents tore it down and the city backed off.
But that reprieve for the plaza won’t happen this time. The temporary fence around the park will be replaced by a permanent one, and there will be a complete renovation of the plaza as a green public space. The city has a $456,275 grant to make that happen, and it has been soliciting public input at a series of community meetings.
Critics of the city say those meetings have left one important part of the community out -- people like Johnson, who use the park day in and day out.
Anti-gentrification activists like Lisa Gray-Garcia, who goes by the name Tiny, say this is less about renovation and more about exclusion, a thinly veiled attempt to push out poor Oaklanders of color from one of the few remaining spaces they can claim as their own.
Tiny, along with other activists from Poor Magazine, say they did their own research on people in the park -- what they call “wesearch” -- asking them what they wanted.
At a rally, Tiny and other activists set up a folding table, handing out cups of warm coffee, oranges and slices of pizza. A smattering of people, including some journalists and activists, gathered, while some park regulars came for the pizza and then watched from a short distance, standing across the street. An Oakland police car pulled up about half a block away, and then the officer got out and circled the park.
“We want it to stay the same.” Tiny says. “We want to be able to stay in our neighborhood, sitting and convening.”
Tiny and others believe fencing off the plaza has less to do with community improvement and more to do with changing just who gets to gather under the umbrella of community. “The reality is racist, classist stereotypes are said about poor people when we sit in public, when we stand in public and when we be in public,” she says.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?
Two days later and less than two blocks away from the plaza, a different group of community members gathered to talk about the future of St. Andrew’s Plaza.
In the auditorium of the West Oakland Youth Center, about 40 local residents discussed how to renovate the park. One point of discussion was a fence that would surround the plaza.
There had been an overwhelming response at a previous meeting that a fence was necessary to protect the park as a safe public space. City officials told the crowd that a community member would hold the keys to the park -- opening the gates in the morning and shutting them at night.
Some in the crowd wondered what that would mean. Would one person have the power to decide who could gain entry to the park?
City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose West Oakland district includes St. Andrew's Plaza, told the group that it would be more about making sure the plaza wouldn’t become a dumping ground for trash and waste, as it had been in the past.
“The idea,” she says, “isn’t to keep people out, it’s to make it inclusive for all.”
Others wondered if a wrought-iron fence would create a prisonlike feel, or if it would visually break up the vision of a welcoming open space. Among most in the room, the fence was considered necessary, but the crowd offered suggestions on how to make it less foreboding. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be black, one resident said -- perhaps it could be green. Several residents suggested some kind of art to make the fence less, well, fencelike.
The room was not filled with just newcomers to the neighborhood. Renia Webb grew up in West Oakland and works for the nonprofit developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. (EBALDC). For her this isn’t about gentrification. It’s a long overdue project that she believes will create a safe space for her children to enjoy.
“They are scared to even walk by that park,” Webb says. “It’s unfair that because of about 20-30 people, our whole community does not get to enjoy that beautiful space, and now it’s going to be a green space.”
Webb looks forward to activities in the park, such as tai chi and art classes. “In a perfect society, can we have more communal spaces,” she says. “That’s the only way you are going to know your neighbor.” For Webb, the plan for the plaza is a way to create community in a changing neighborhood, not a way to push people out.
Hard to Reach
There was outreach to people who frequent the plaza in the month leading up to the first community meeting, including posted signs in the plaza and at the corner store, according to city spokeswoman Karen Boyd.
For several years the city has tried connecting people with the services they may need, but in some cases outreach workers have been threatened, she says.
“We had those communications with the young men and women that were there, who were at a place where they could have those conversations, because some of them were not able to get out of their addictions,” says Brigitte Cook, a staff member in McElhaney’s office.
In the past 12 months, there have been 239 police calls for service at the park, including calls related to drug dealing and assaults. The public works department has removed illegal dumping 140 times during that same time period, says Boyd.
Operation Dignity is the nonprofit that visits the plaza regularly to provide outreach to the homeless. Executive Director Tomika Perkins says helping this population comes down to a matter of resources. It can take months or years before people receive the services that they need because of the backlog.
“Our primary barrier to stabilizing these clients are the long waiting lists ahead of them -- not just for general affordable housing, but particularly programs that provide supportive services for the mental health and substance abuse needs so conspicuously present at this site,” Perkins writes in an email.
Some anti-gentrification activists agree that the park needs to be cleaned up, and acknowledge that the city did reach out to the people who frequent the park. Paul Blasenheim, with the group Economic Development without Displacement, critiques the way in which the city connected to the plaza’s population.
The city, he says, focused on services, including holding a social service fair. But he says when he asked the city if the architects running the redesign process would be at the fair, “they looked at us like we were crazy -- they were like, no, of course they wouldn’t be there.”
Blasenheim says this sends a clear message.
“Folks who are in the park get 'served' -- quote unquote -- with services, but nobody actually asks them what real vision they have," he says.
Blasenheim says that’s a shame.
“Folks who are poor know how to hustle, and that hustle is really brilliance, that just doesn’t get recognized by the powers that be,” he says.
Whether or not the renovation of St. Andrew's Plaza is a sign of gentrification or a community coming together to clean up their neighborhood may be up for debate.
But there is one thing both sides agree on. The realities of gentrification -- skyrocketing rents, evictions and displacement -- are pushing more and more people to the margins and making it harder and harder for the city to serve their growing needs.