Greetings from Alcatraz Ave: Meet Veronica Ramirez and Jonathan Youtt

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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

Veronica Ramirez and Jonathan Youtt
P.L.A.C.E. for Sustainable Living (People Linking Art, Community and Ecology)
1121 64th Street

Years in the neighborhood: 3


How you ended up in the neighborhood:

Veronica Ramirez: Jonathan and I were part of another organization traveling the nation, setting up eco-villages with local grassroots organizations. Then, in 2010, we were looking for a spot in Oakland. Jon and [I] were interested in rooting. I was kind of done with traveling and I was excited about landing somewhere and seeing who was on board with making some changes, if the neighborhood needed some changes.

Jonathan Youtt: Actual Café had opened a year earlier and was proving to us that there were people in the neighborhood that were hungry to gather and hungry to eat and hungry to meet. It comes down to personal relationships ultimately. Having a landlord relationship, especially having someone who’s not out for the money and specifically not out to destroy the character of the neighborhood. [Our] landlord had been here for 50 or 60 years. He could easily tear all of this down and build a five-story condominium like they did five blocks away and make bank -- make bank! -- but he specifically hates that. [He] was just loving and wanting the right thing for his property. And that’s rare.

Photo: David Jerrett

About PLACE (the place) and place-making (the concept):

Jonathan: [We] educate people about sustainable practices in urban environments. Specifically [how] to live off less in a city: grow your own food, collect your own water, use your water 2, 3 times. Now we’re in the craziest drought that California’s ever had and all of the workshops we’ve ever done in greywater and rainwater harvesting is all that more relevant.

We’re solution based. If there’s an issue, let’s figure out the best way to resolve it. And we think it’s through environmental action. And through place-making and helping neighbors figure out what resources are in the community. What resources and needs do we all have? How can we meet our needs?

Place-making is really just reinventing public places in between private spaces. It forces people to talk about what would you like to see in these open spaces, the commons. What some people [see] as the intersection all of a sudden becomes reinvented when you think about what if we were to put a bench here? Or a parklet? Or a planter? Or a fruit tree or some public art?

About arriving in the neighborhood:

Jonathan: I think it’s different from a regular neighbor moving in. Most neighbors, it’s like, “Oh, great, we got our house. We’re gonna be in our house. And we’re gonna just close the door at the end of the day.” Our purpose is community serving so we’ve come in specifically to reach out. We’ve gone door to door since we landed here.

Veronica: For two years, we were holding potlucks and meet-ups and brainstorms. We’d have elders come and young people. Didn’t do anything outside until we got information from the neighborhood about what they wanted.

Jonathan: A lot of the issues that we’re finding, especially in a transitioning neighborhood like this: there’s old-time residents and there’s new residents. And the new residents complain online about “This person is stalking the neighborhood” or “This burglary happened” and it’s real stuff, but are they going door to door and finding out who their neighbors are and demystifying who’s who in the neighborhood? Are they thinking about the judgment that they’re making? We’re trying to break through and get people talking and that’s what happened through these place-making potlucks.

Veronica: It’s building trust because people were afraid. So let’s give them a common place to meet. I think it’s a really good start to just begin to speak about what is in your neighborhood and how can relationships and trust be built.

How can we maintain the good while we keep changing?

Jonathan: Historically, this is where the Black Panthers got their start. They were around feeding and empowering their own neighborhood. The roots of that are here. [Big developers] don’t care that that community used to live there. There’s no interest in preserving the historical nature of the neighborhood. They’re seeing dollar signs only. We’re in completely different worlds. The developer world is working around one set of criteria and the community world is working around a different set of criteria.

I think the bottom line [is]: how can we come together with people that are present currently -- old time residents and newcomers -- [and] determine how we want our neighborhood to grow? If we can get a cross-section of where the neighborhood would like to go and where it wants to see itself, a vision, then [we can] make sure that developers are working within that vision versus us having to play catch up to their vision.

Photo: David Jerrett
Photo: David Jerrett

About police presence:

Jonathan: When we first moved in, there were some bikes stolen. One of our stewards found two kids rolling with our bicycles so he cut them off with the car and said, “Yo, these are our bikes.” Initially they thought, “You guys gonna call the cops?” And we’re like, “No. We’re not gonna call the cops. This is not what we’re about. Do you like the cops?”
“Well, we don’t like the cops either, but it seems like you like bikes.”
“And it seems like you would like a bike so there’s this group right here in our place [called] Spokeland. They have an Earn-a-Bike program. If you’re interested, you come, you volunteer, you get certain hours, you get a bike part. You get more hours you get another bike part. By the end of the program, you’ve got a bike.”

One of those kids came back over and that for me is a testament. Wow, we didn’t go call the cops, which was their first instinct and a lot of people’s first instinct. All of a sudden, we had more street cred than other organizations because we weren’t playing that typical game. That was, I think, a sign of success.

About the future:

Jonathan: Having weathered 17 years over in the city and now having nothing to show for it, we learned that we need to secure property. We can’t do this again and not have a foothold in the neighborhood. We’re just going to get kicked out like every other artist enclave that has ever tried to develop anything.

Artists are the first to get evicted. They’re also the first to make old industrial neighborhoods more attractive because we do galleries and event spaces and make it more interesting. And then the cafes start opening. You look at any metropolitan area. Artists are always the front wedge of gentrification, mostly inadvertently, and then they get kicked out. They get priced out. Because they didn’t have enough resources to actually purchase or secure the property.

We’re really looking at ownership models, real estate investment trusts that are actually conscious and are building relationships with people from all walks of life to say, “Do you want to preserve the culture of this neighborhood? Cause, if so, let’s secure property to make sure that those cultural institutions have a home.” So that’s where a lot of our motivation is.



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