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If there’s a single City Council district where all of Oakland’s most pressing conversations collide, it’s District 3. The area encompassing West Oakland, downtown, and Jack London includes the controversial site of the proposed Oakland A’s ballpark, towering new housing developments, the city’s largest homeless population, visible gentrification, and persistent environmental problems.
For District 3 residents, these hot-button issues are only the most recent examples of longstanding tensions in neighborhoods that have changed dramatically in recent years while also failing to escape the legacies of housing and job discrimination, environmental racism, and police violence. For many, the area is also home to the best Oakland has to offer: a sparkling waterfront, a busy city center, a legacy of Black power and resilience, murals, protests, an underground music scene, and easy access to San Francisco.
When The Oaklandside asked residents about their top priorities for preserving D3’s beauty and improving daily life, few neglected to mention the dire need for affordable housing.
West Oakland’s historically Black, segregated neighborhoods are products of redlining, urban renewal, and other racist housing policies. Today, it’s common to see longtime residents struggling to hold onto their homes. Meanwhile, one of the city’s largest homeless encampments stretches for blocks along Wood Street. Over the past two decades, but especially the past 10 years, higher-income newcomers have flocked to West Oakland and newly built neighborhoods in the Jack London district and downtown, fundamentally changing the area’s demographics.
“We get left behind and then replaced,” said one D3 resident, in response to an Oaklandside survey of residents. She said longtime, Black residents are still dealing with unsafe streets, poorly maintained sidewalks and schools, trash, poor air quality, and poisoned soil, and yet “we’re getting priced out.”
Many new housing developments have sprung up across D3 in recent years, putting Oakland on the path to meeting construction targets set by Mayor Libby Schaaf and exceeding regional planning targets for above-moderate-income renters. Most are market-rate apartment buildings renting at prices that many Oakland residents can’t afford, however, like $2,500 studios or $4,000 one-bedrooms. Overall, the city has done a dismal job building affordable housing, although some projects on the horizon, like a proposed complex at the West Oakland BART station with around 750 apartments and shop space, would include many low-income units.
Rev. Ken Chambers, pastor at West Oakland’s Westside Missionary Baptist Church, called District 3 “ground zero for the homelessness problem in Oakland.”
“When you add the pandemic on top of it, the lack of affordable housing, and the loss of jobs, it’s just a trainwreck waiting to happen,” Chambers said in an interview. “The district is going to have to pull together and collaborate, and it’s going to take the federal, state, and local government and county to work together in harmony.”
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Chambers sees West Oakland’s problems as deeply interconnected. When his parishioners get displaced from the neighborhood, they move far away and hop in cars to regularly return to their community. In this way, displacement can increase an environmentally harmful reliance on individual car ownership and the freeways that cut West Oakland apart starting in the 1950s and caused some of the area’s air pollution. Trucks serving the port are a major source of air pollution in the area. Studies have found West Oakland residents are exposed to far higher levels of diesel pollution than the Bay Area average, and have higher rates of asthma and shorter lifespans than their Oakland neighbors.
Christian Reid, a 10-year West Oakland resident, said he’s seen major turnover in his neighborhood. “Yuppies” have replaced Black families, and some of those newcomers regularly call the police on long-term residents, Reid said.
“When I first got here, obviously there was a lot more affordable housing and that meant there wasn’t as much homelessness,” said Reid, who said he’s grappled recently with his own role in the gentrification of the area. At the same time, he’s angered by the vacant houses he sees get flipped to sell at higher prices instead of used for affordable housing. Last year, the Moms 4 Housing movement tried to make the same point when a group of homeless mothers squatted in an investor-owned house in the district.
High housing costs have squashed an underground music world that Reid was immersed in. He views the flourishing of hip hop and punk music in Oakland as a modern iteration of West Oakland’s old thriving jazz and blues scene. But while a decade ago young artists could easily move to the neighborhood and invite the community to basement shows, now it’s often too hard to pay rent on such spaces.
Reid wonders how the pandemic will impact housing prices and availability. In the meantime, he’s been encouraged by scrappy entrepreneurs and supportive neighbors he’s seen selling flowers out of their front yard or installing fridges with free food.
“That’s the kind of thing Oakland is known for—community efforts,” he said. “This is where the Black Panthers are from. Those are the really positive aspects of what this place is.”
The survey respondent agreed: “We help each other out.”
Some longtime West Oakland residents feel unsafe
For many West Oakland residents, safety and violence continue to be constant concerns. On a block in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood, most people who stopped to talk to The Oaklandside on a recent afternoon said frequent fighting and theft make daily life difficult. Potholes, car crashes, and break-ins also came up.
More events and places to gather could improve safety, said two-year resident Kevin Awapossi, sitting on his 8th Street porch. His friend, Edgar Rangel, was visiting from Uptown, where he lives with his girlfriend in her affordable housing complex and can sometimes hear gunshots.
“Maybe there could be more security guards if it’s dark, so it doesn’t feel as dangerous,” Rangel said.
Homicides and other violent crimes have actually declined this year in West Oakland and downtown. According to police reports, there have been five killings this year compared to 10 by the same time last year. Violent crime overall is down 9% compared to the three-year average.
Around the corner, Mimi Allen has lived in her apartment for 10 years and before that lived in the neighborhood as a child.
“It was nice when I first moved here,” she said. Now, the noise, the “kids fighting” and “people setting things on fire” has made it difficult to enjoy the area.
Chambers, the West Oakland pastor, is among those who think policing is not always the appropriate response to these sorts of challenges. He favors further reviewing the Oakland Police Department’s budget and redirecting some of its funds to other social services.
Skepticism of the police, despite prevalent street violence and property crimes in West Oakland, has its roots in the role of officers in district neighborhoods. In 2000, a small group of Oakland police who worked the late-night shift and called themselves the “Riders” were exposed for framing suspected drug dealers, and even brutally beating some of them. The scandal reverberates to this day, despite reform efforts.
“I saw police talking to a homeless person in a wheelchair that was evidently sleeping in the doorway of a business,” Chambers said about a recent street scene. “Well, send a social worker out there. That person probably needed some encouraging words.”
Should the Athletics move to Howard Terminal?
The whole city is debating the future of Oakland’s last professional sports team, but District 3 is home to the site where the A’s want to move. For years, the A’s have eyed Howard Terminal, a former shipping berth on the waterfront just west of Jack London Square.
Jack London business owners said they’d welcome the additional foot traffic after games.
“I love the A’s, so whatever we can do to keep them in Oakland for the long term, I support,” said Cameron McKee, owner of Bicycle Coffee. But he said he’d be fine keeping the team at the Coliseum, too.
“Baseball fits in cities in a great way,” said Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District. “It would be a tremendous positive economic impact for Oakland and our neighborhood.” Proponents praise the employment opportunities the project would bring too. But there are “lots of chronic infrastructure needs” to overcome first, she acknowledged.
The debate is “bringing to a head lots of overdue issues, whether it’s air quality, or how to get people to and from the waterfront neighborhood,” Hauser said.
Keith Shanklin, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 34, which represents Oakland port workers, had harsher words about the A’s proposal.
“It’s a real-estate grab,” he said. ILWU has opposed the plan from the outset, saying a stadium would disrupt thousands of high-paying, blue-collar jobs by impeding truck access and deliveries from the busy port. “If you’re concerned about what’s going on in West Oakland, help us enhance it and not tear it up. You can still come down here and build a senior center and grocery store, and put some retail out here,” he said.
Shanklin said he’s skeptical about recent environmental issues raised around existing port inhabitants like Schnitzer Steel. (The Oakland A’s are suing the company’s state regulator, alleging it’s looked the other way on pollution.) Shanklin said that newfound concern is a convenient ploy to build the ballpark. And the A’s have been neighbors of other factories and facilities which have polluted the air in East Oakland for decades without pursuing litigation.
But advocates have been raising alarm around the port’s impact for years. Prominent West Oakland environmentalist Margaret Gordon wrote in a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed that chronic pollution from the port not only already disproportionately harms the area’s Black residents, but now also exacerbates their COVID-19 risk.
Next council member will have a say in the future of business, art in D3
The commercial zone around Bicycle Coffee in Jack London has changed tremendously since the shop opened a decade ago, McKee said.
“Across the street from us used to be a vacant lot. We swept it out and used to play Wiffle ball,” he said. “Now it’s a seven-story building.” The merchant embraces new customers from new housing complexes, but feels dejected by costs that prohibit even established business owners like him from buying a home in Oakland. Houses in historically low-income West Oakland can now sell for $1 million.
Those same high prices have prompted an expansion of the homeless population in the area, causing conflicting feelings for McKee, who said he both empathizes with the residents of encampments and believes they discourage potential customers from walking to shops like his.
Elsewhere in West Oakland, groups like People’s Breakfast Oakland have formed to bring supplies and food to houseless residents. West Oakland is often considered a “food desert,” though The Oaklandside’s election survey generated praise from residents for the relatively new Mandela Grocery Cooperative and Community Foods Market.
One survey respondent, Kate Zamora, said the city should support more local shops.
“The empty storefronts and lots along 7th would be a perfect spot for Black-owned local businesses, but Esther’s Orbit Room is shuttered, among others,” she wrote. “It looks depressing. Why not make it a destination for the locals to gather, like in the old days?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has either lent more urgency or completely upended what the future will hold when it comes to all of the issues on District 3’s collective mind. When will we next be able to go to a ball game—or a basement punk show, for that matter? What happens when you mix decades of poor air quality affecting primarily Black and Latino residents with a respiratory illness and now wildfire smoke?
The six candidates vying to represent this complex swath of Oakland—incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Carroll Fife, Meron Semedar, Seneca Scott, Alexus Taylor, and Faye Taylor—will face these questions on the campaign trail. We’ll be taking a closer look at these candidates—and what they have to say about D3’s greatest challenges and strengths—next.