Greetings from Alcatraz Ave: Meet Margaret Norman and Geoff Holton

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Photo: Tuesday Bassen
Photo: Tuesday Bassen

By Andrea L. Hart

On one end, you're in Oakland. At the other, you’re in Berkeley. If you keep going, you’ll end up back in Oakland. If you trip, you’ll fall into Emeryville. It’s an interesting mash-up of municipalities with a rich history of activism and commerce. When I moved here 10 years ago, there was only one restaurant within a short walk and the newspaper once referred to Alcatraz as a “corridor of violence” between South Berkeley and North Oakland gangs. Now it sports a bicycle collective, a cupcake shop, several cafes, two yoga studios, a weekly farmers' market and about five more spaces with permits to open in the next six months.

With headlines constantly barking about evictions in San Francisco and plans to turn West Oakland into a playground for the rich and techie, I wondered what was happening to my neighborhood. To get a sense of my neighbors' perspectives, I talked to people from 10 blocks of Alcatraz Ave. about their lives, their impressions of the recent change and their ideas about how we might endeavor to “do it better.”

Photo: David Jerrett
Photo: David Jerrett

Margaret Norman and Geoff Holton
Artist, Architect, Building Owners and Landlords
1743 Alcatraz

Years in the neighborhood: 4


How they ended up in the neighborhood:

Margaret Norman: Geoff is an architect so the idea was to find a building where I could have a studio and he could have an office. This had been on the market for a long time. Geoff got really excited about the location. The whole building was Bay Records, a recording studio. Everybody said it was known for having great sound.

Geoff Holton: It has a very interesting history. All of these artists had been in [it] over the years. It was kind of a place for local bluegrass and roots music, gospel and stuff like that. Because it has this big room, they could get big things like gospel choirs in here. There aren’t really many places like that so we were really happy to be able to keep it [as a music studio] in some form.

About finding tenants:

Margaret: Geoff really wanted, from the start, a café in the front. And I kept saying, “Don’t get attached! It’s not a great place for a café. There isn’t going to be enough foot traffic. Let’s take what we can get." Maybe four to five months before we were ready to occupy, Geoff had gone in where Alchemy used to be and talked to them. They were in such a tiny space. They were interested. So we just cultivated that.

I went to Alchemy because I hadn’t checked them out yet. The person in front of me said, “Oh, I’ll get her a cup of coffee.” I said “Oh, that’s so nice.” The guy behind the counter said, “Yeah, he’s famous.” So ensued this little conversation about how he was a musician. When things were falling apart with this musician that we had thought we were going to sign a lease with, I thought, well let’s go see if, through Alchemy, we can contact those musicians. Maybe they know someone who would want the space. And we did. And Tommy said, “I think we’re interested.” He was the guy who bought me the cup of coffee. He’s one of the three people of Beats Antique. We felt like having this guy, who was originally going to take the music studio, was very reassuring.

Photo: David Jerrett
Photo: David Jerrett

About arriving in the neighborhood:

Geoff: I kinda came in here all idealistic thinking that this was all going to be really positive change and I wanted to handle it in a sensitive way. There’s this thing called Park(ing) Day. It’s in September and it’s this world event where activists around pedestrian safety and that sort of thing do these temporary interventions in a parking space. It started as this sort of performance artist
thing in San Francisco by this outfit called Rebar, but now they’ve turned it into this open source thing where they encourage people to do it. So I did one.

I am sensitive to this feeling that we’re new people. We’re the interlopers. Gentrifiers.

Margaret: [Although], we didn’t displace anyone. This was a business that was dark and not really providing anything to the street.

Geoff: I went around and I talked with a lot of the merchants around here and it was a lot of support, but there were a couple of businesses who weren’t so thrilled about it. They’re basically focused on parking. They’ve got elderly clientele who drive and their businesses are already struggling and, to them, every loss of a parking space they perceived as loss to the business because they don’t really see the new people coming to the neighborhood as their clientele.

I did not want to be all aggressive about it so I really backed down and then that was when I approached Sally [at Youth Spirit Artworks]. I wanted to try to figure out a way that the focus could be off the idea of losing a parking space and onto the idea of how we as a neighborhood think about gentrification in a way that could bring all the businesses up, bring everybody along, not have some people feel left out.

So it’s just sort of this idealistic notion. We haven’t concretized it yet, but [there’s an] ambitious grant that Sally went after that [would involve] a Tuesday art walk that would tie into the farmer’s market. Her organization wanted to do workshops with the local merchants and help them figure out ways to tap into all these new people that are coming in. Is there a way that they could do something to engage?

About the future:

Geoff: One of our side projects is to get in touch with [the man] we bought the building from who ran the [recording studio] and do a little hallway gallery -- pictures and a little bit about the history [of the building]. [And eventually we’ll install the green roof.]

The city got a grant to convert one of the two problematic liquor stores in the neighborhood, get them to do that whole transition to good fresh food.

Margaret: That means the city actually provides the funds or even provides the equipment to put in a proper food storage cooler and the construction they need to actually store produce and dairy.

Geoff: And they get a consultant who helps them redesign their store. It’s all this full package deal. It’s kinda neat. They really provide the support to the business owner to make that transition.

Margaret: And I really hope that Alchemy continues to thrive. They bring a lot of interesting things. They’ve hosted lawyers giving free legal advice to sustainable businesses. So there’s activity sometimes in the evening. [Beats Antique] talked about doing a movie night. I guess I hope that the residential character doesn’t change a whole lot.



To meet more Alcatraz Avenue neighbors, check out the rest of the series!