Greetings from Alcatraz Ave: Meet Youth Spirit Artworks

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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.”

Mariah Johnson (L) works on an art project. Photo: David Jerrett
Mariah Johnson (L) works on an art project. Photo: David Jerrett

Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA)
1740 Alcatraz Avenue

Years in the neighborhood:


6 years

How YSA ended up in this neighborhood:

Sally: I used to work for a group called the Chaplaincy to the Homeless, which was one of the groups that was part of the first Alameda County Homeless Youth Collaborative that formed back in 1996. At the time, there was a lot of question about the identity of homeless youth. The city of Berkeley hired a person to look at this problem and try to identify who the homeless youth were in the community.

She concluded [that] most of the youth would tell you that everything was OK and they were just having a good time out on the street, but most of them were there because of physical violence and sexual abuse and other really horrible things they’d experienced. [Another] conclusion she made is that there was just as large or larger [of a] group of youth in south and west Berkeley that were couch surfing youth and that we had absolutely no handle whatsoever on who they were or what their circumstances were. And we were doing nothing for them.

Some years later, I left and took off time to have a family and moved to South Berkeley. I was living across the street from a whole family of drug dealers and dealing with a lot of trauma in our neighborhood that was right there in front of us in the way of people that were having to make their living selling drugs because they weren’t able to do other things. When my kid went to kindergarten, I just thought to myself, “I wanna work with these youth in Southwest Berkeley.” It was my neighborhood, my doorstep, the youth that were across the street from my house.

Toryanna Finley, youth mentor at  Photo: David Jerrett
Toryanna Finley, youth mentor at YSA. Photo: David Jerrett

About YSA:

I run the peer mentor program. [I] work one-on-one with each individual and help them set goals and achieve those goals, things like building and sending their resume out, looking for housing and medical care. If they’re in high school, finding ways to help them stay on track and graduate. If they’re applying for college, helping them apply or look for scholarships.

We try to use art to battle many things. Art saves lives. That’s our motto. We try to use art in every way that we can to touch everything out there. Like when they had that measure S thing. They were trying to make it illegal for you to sit on the sidewalk. We went to Berkeley City Hall [with huge] puppets and we basically shared how we felt about the measure. And we didn’t like it. And it didn’t pass.

The main thing is to really nurture critical thinkers. We’re a collective. We don’t have one person that’s the big ol' leader. We have these youth leaders. They’re very powerful. They have very strong voices. They know what they wanna say. They’re saying it. We’ve got something going here because of them, because of their power.

About the relationship between YSA and the community:

Photo: David Jerrett
Adonis Pollard, youth mentor at YSA. Photo: David Jerrett

Adonis: When other people do artwork in the community it gets tagged and the walls still get graffiti'd on, but, when we put artwork up, they don’t mess with the walls no more. People just respect us. It’s not like we go out and enforce it. We just do our work and we’ve never had to have somebody come out and scrub our walls off or redo a piece of artwork.

My theory would be they respect what I’m doing. They see somebody that was a part of this community doing something positive, then of course they’re not going to denounce one of their own and mess up someone doing something positive. That’s what I would think. We just keep our artwork perfect 'cause it’s good enough, I guess. It doesn’t need no corrections.

How art saves lives:

Toryanna: [Art] doesn’t talk back to you. It doesn’t criticize you. It doesn’t point the finger at you. It’s blank and it’s open and it lets you say whatever you want. It doesn’t judge you. That’s why I like art.

Mariah: [Art] is really very therapeutic to me. I like creating art out of stuff that’s already there. Instead of drawing, you can just remake it. I cut these images out; I remade them.

Brandon: My ideas come alive. It’s like boom, boom, boom. In my spare time, at my house, I do my own canvas all the time, commission work and stuff. Stay out the streets. I make friends here. My brothers and sisters, my coworkers, they show me the ropes.

DeShawn: Art is what makes me define who I am. It makes me feel better. When I come here, I’m so relaxed. People are so laid back. You could even walk down the street by yourself. But, when you’re in the hood, it’s a completely different aura. You can’t walk by yourself; you gotta be with people. You can’t stay relaxed; you gotta be with your guard up.

Photo: David Jerrett
Victor Mavedzenge (L) and Adonis Pollard (R), a teacher and youth mentor at YSA. Photo: David Jerrett

How can we maintain the good while we keep changing?

Victor: There’s a new restaurant that opened. The owners are really accommodating. They’re lovely people. You walk in there and you feel that they know you. Second time around, you’re chatting before you make an order so it’s not just a business. It’s a business with added value in that there’s that human connection. I feel that if we get that type of business going on, then the community just grows stronger.

About the future:

Toryanna: I wanna go into the medical field. Being an obstetrician and midwife. I like babies so I like helping people. That’s why I chose to be in charge of the peer mentor program. I might also get my MSW, so I can be social worker slash lady who delivers babies. I can help you with everything! That’s my dream. I’m trying to achieve that dream. I’ll get there.

Brandon: My boss told me one day [I could] own my own business and my own shop. This lady [at] Berkeley Bowl [saw my work] and liked it. She asked me to do a panda on a t-shirt. I wanna see a panda in real life. Haven’t seen one yet. I want to. Try to.

Sally: Youth in the neighborhood are thought of in a lot of circumstances as punks. They’re thought of as creeps, thought of as losers. All these negative stereotypes are attributed to youth that are out on the street or in the community so I think that it’s really valuable to turn that on its head. These are not the losers. These are not the punks. These are not the creeps or the thugs. These are the leaders. These are the prophets.


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