The Coliseum's massive parking lot became a surprising asset for Northern California during the pandemic. Credit: Pete Rosos

Many residents of District 7 view their part of the city, often referred to as deep East Oakland, as a land of promise.

District 7 borders San Leandro from the hills to the Bay and encompasses the Coliseum, Oakland International Airport, huge industrial parks, middle-class neighborhoods in the hills, and working-class communities in the flatlands. Historically, D7 was a regional jobs center, and even after many of the district’s factories closed down in the 1970s and ’80s, the airport, Coliseum, and warehouses there remained important economic drivers for the city. The district’s economic decline, however, gave rise to a complex assortment of challenges that residents and city officials are grappling with today.

Much of the district’s real estate remains undeveloped or derelict. Empty, old commercial buildings, warehouses, and vacant lots abound. Much of deep East Oakland lacks basic amenities such as parks, grocery stores with fresh produce, affordable housing, and banks. Residents suffer disproportionately from health conditions like asthma due to various environmental hazards, especially polluted air from industrial plants and the I-880 freeway. Zip codes in the flatland areas of District 7 have some of the highest poverty rates in the city. Meanwhile, ongoing gentrification and displacement is occurring in the district’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Larry Reid, District 7’s council member, is retiring this year after 23 years in office. His exit creates a rare opening, and five candidates have stepped forward to run. Whoever wins will need to address economic and health inequities that have existed for decades. But East Oakland residents say that District 7’s future is just as much about opportunity—the promise of sustainable and racially just economic development—and that the area’s key resource is its people. 

Allyssa Victory, a criminal justice attorney and Oakland native, grew up visiting family members in D7 and now lives in the district. She said that East Oakland’s longtime residents have a stronger sense of community than exists in most other parts of the city. “People in this neighborhood bring me plates of food. Even my neighbors who only speak Spanish make the time to engage with me,” Victory said. 

”The culture here is amazing, and you get to see all types of people,” said Ray Naggi, a cashier at Oakland Express market located on International Boulevard at 103rd Avenue. Naggi, a student at U.C. Berkeley, has been working at Express Market since his early teens. 

Stephanie Bautista, an employee at Primetime Nutrition, a grocery store, grew up in deep East Oakland and is now raising her own child in the neighborhood. “I’ve been here my whole life, I know where everything is,” Bautista said. ”I’m going to be here for the rest of my life.”

District 7 residents have pride in their neighborhoods and communities, but many feel their part of Oakland has been neglected by city officials over the years. Housing development has been focused on market-rate homes downtown; park and recreation investments have been concentrated at Lake Merritt; and problems like illegal dumping, homelessness, pollution, crime, and dangerous traffic conditions haven’t been tackled to the extent residents would like.

Several East Oakland residents told The Oaklandside that the key to District 7’s future is local control over unused land, which is abundant and could be developed in a way that creates jobs and addresses root causes of inequity like poverty and racism.

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Housing and homelessness

Over the past decade the number of homeless people in Oakland, including in District 7, has grown enormously. During the same period, rents and home prices, even in the poorest parts of D7, have risen to levels few locals can afford. Meanwhile, deep East Oakland has seen relatively few new housing developments, affordable or otherwise. A mixed affordable- and market-rate housing complex called  Coliseum Connections, completed in 2019, was the latest development to be built. Councilmember Reid lauded the development, which he spearheaded. 

Glenn Redden, an unsheltered man, has lived in East Oakland since 1963 and been living on the streets since 2007. “I’m an old man, so I can’t really get a job now,” or afford to pay rent, he told The Oaklandside. While he would love to see the city provide permanent housing for unsheltered residents, he’s not sure it will happen in his lifetime. “I want to see improvement for the betterment of everybody,” Redden said.

Other District 7 residents are barely hanging on to their housing. The average price of a studio apartment in Oakland is $1,795 a month, and a recent analysis of national housing trends showed that rent across Oakland climbed 108% over the last decade, while income rose by 59%. 

Rafael Manuelo, who works at Fiesta Auto Insurance on International Boulevard and 103rd Avenue, said he’s struggling to pay his $2,000 rent on a minimum-wage salary. Manuelo likes living in deep East Oakland because he can live close to his work, but providing for his family has not been easy.

Marlon Whitmore, who is originally from South Berkeley, lives with his father Bruce in a parking lot near the now-defunct Walmart on Edgewater Drive. The Walmart, which closed in 2016, was the only grocery store with fresh produce in the area. It was also the source of hundreds of jobs that, while low-wage, were important for the neighborhood. Now, the old Walmart parking lot has transformed into an unofficial RV park for unhoused residents and a rest-stop for big-rig truckers. 

In 2019, Whitmore’s mother’s house, where he was living at the time, burned down. Until recently, Whitmore kept a steady job as a FedEx delivery driver. “I’ve always kept a job,” he said, “and I worked everyday for the last two years.” An injury left Whitmore jobless and he now receives worker’s compensation, but he said it’s not enough to afford housing.

Five or six months before the coronavirus pandemic, Whitmore would have described the side of the parking lot where he stays as a “ghost town.” Now, half a dozen RVs are parked there. “I keep the place as clean as I can,” Whitmore said, adding that he cares about keeping the whole neighborhood clean, which is littered with used furniture and trash illegally dumped in the streets. Given his current housing situation, Whitmore wants to be able to live in a clean environment, have an official space where he can park his RV, and secure affordable housing for his father. 

“East Oakland is the last frontier. We still have a lot of land, and we can temporarily address the homelessness crisis by moving [people] onto vacant land,” said Candice Elder, executive director of East Oakland Collective

East Oakland Collective and other grassroots community organizations have taken it upon themselves to inform residents about vacant parcel lands that can be used for public use, and have even occupied vacant lots in the district and moved unhoused tenants to them. 

“We reclaimed a 20,000-square-foot parcel that’s been vacant for decades in deep East Oakland,” Elder said. “We only lasted 30 days before the city kicked us off.” 

Councilmember Reid recently partnered with District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor, Mayor Libby Schaaf, and community leaders to open Operation Homebase, a new COVID-19 isolation trailer program located on Hegenberger Road. But efforts to get unhoused residents into trailer sites like the one on Hegenberger, which is part of a larger statewide effort, have yielded mixed results.

The Oakland Coliseum is the largest piece of publicly-owned land in the city and key to East Oakland’s future. Credit: Pete Rosos

Land and development

Oakland officials are currently deciding what to do with the Coliseum site. One possibility is that the Athletic’s baseball club will move out and build a new stadium in West Oakland, leaving vacant the single biggest piece of publicly owned land in the city. City officials have also discussed selling the Coliseum property to the A’s or other developers. 

In 2015, city officials proposed building “Coliseum City,” a massive project that would have included market-rate and affordable housing units and a new business center that promised to create thousands of jobs and drive a new wave of economic development in surrounding neighborhoods. That deal fell through, partly because residents’ concerns weren’t addressed, but the general idea of a mixed residential and commercial redevelopment at the Coliseum site is still on the table. 

But East Oakland residents haven’t waited on the city to act. The Black Cultural Zone is a grassroots economic development coalition aimed at maintaining a place for Black-owned businesses, Black artists, and institutions in East Oakland. Their most notable project has been the activation of a cultural hub near Eastmont Mall in District 6, though the end goal is to have a variety of multi-cultural hubs throughout deep East Oakland, including District 7. 

“Hand them over, we’ll develop them,” said Nehanda Imara, a coordinator with Black Cultural Zone, about neglected properties in the district. 

Imara has lived in East Oakland for decades and ran in 2016 for the District 7 council seat. “There’s a beautiful legacy of organizing and a sense of neighborhood connection,” Imara said about D7. “The thing that probably disrupted it the most was the crack epidemic, and now we’re in another epidemic—a pandemic,” she said. “People are still proud to be from East Oakland in terms of what has come out of East Oakland— the Black Panther Party, the rich cultural performers and athletes, scholars, and educators. That sense of self is very resilient.” 

Imara would like to see the next D7 councilmember support economic development that is driven by and for the community, especially development that addresses food insecurity and environmental hazards.

In recent years, city officials have allowed controversial projects, like a massive crematorium on 98th Avenue that burns 3,600 bodies a year, to be built in East Oakland. Area residents feel that these kinds of activities would never be permitted in wealthier and whiter parts of Oakland. Imara said the crematorium and other industrial activities have caused increased air pollution.

According to Ernesto Arevalo, a program director at Communities for a Better Environment, understanding the district’s environmental inequities is a matter of knowing the area’s industrial history. “Neighborhoods like Columbia Gardens are right next to the freeway and experienced white flight after they decided to build the freeway,” he said.

Arevalo, who spent most of his life living in “the hundreds”—the neighborhood between 100th Avenue and the San Leandro border—said District 7 has some of the most heavily polluted neighborhoods in the state. “These are communities that are experiencing disproportionate amounts of environmental racism,” Arevalo said. The wildfire smoke now affecting the entire Bay Area, he said, demonstrates how bad air quality can affect people’s lives. “Everybody in the Bay is experiencing this, but in East Oakland, this is a daily experience.”

Public safety and preventing violence

Regina Jackson, executive director of East Oakland Youth Development Center, believes the most challenging issue in District 7 is violence. 

“Unfortunately, the area has been called a killer corridor for decades and a disproportionate amount of shootings, killings, and stabbings occur within a 40-block radius of our center,” Jackson said about EOYDC, located on International Boulevard at 82nd Avenue. Jackson, who also serves as Chair of the Oakland Police Commission, a citizen oversight committee, believes investing in East Oakland’s people is the solution.

Linda Sanchez, D7 resident and program manager for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, said crime is a symptom of the poverty residents experience in the district. Recent investigations have shown that economic inequality is a factor in the region’s violent crime rates. 

City officials, said Sanchez, should focus less on policing crime and more on addressing root causes. “They’re always talking about the high levels of crimes and yet they’re not necessarily talking in terms of okay, what resources are available to this community?” Sanchez said. As for solutions, Sanchez said local elected officials should “walk on some of these streets.” If they did, said Sanchez, they would see that even small investments that lift people out of poverty can go a long way to reducing street violence and other types of crime.

Ray Naggi from Oakland Express market believes there should be more job opportunities for formerly incarcerated people in East Oakland because “that shouldn’t define a person.” Many District 7 residents have criminal convictions, which limit their job opportunities and put other necessities, like renting an apartment, further out of reach.

Regarding jobs, the attorney Alyssa Victory said Oakland can do a better job of enforcing statewide “ban the box” laws, which prohibit employers from inquiring about an employee’s criminal record. Victory also expressed frustration with the fact that many of these issues have been voiced by community members time and time again. 

Sanchez said her organization, CURYJ, is currently advocating that the Oakland Police Department be defunded and those dollars be spent on other community needs like schools, parks, and libraries. “District 7 really is an example of historical, political, and economic neglect that has been going on for many, many years,” Sanchez said. 

Many residents expressed wanting a candidate who will simply listen to what they have to say, because they have been asking for the same solutions for years. “This community in East Oakland has for decades said what it has needed,” said Sanchez. “We’re one of the most surveyed, most door-knocked.”

“We need someone who is actually willing to listen to someone from the flats,” said Arevalo of CBE. “A just transition from poor East Oakland to a healthier community needs someone with the vision to work with existing residents and do so in a way that really loves up on up folks.”

Residents like Redden, who are unsheltered, will stay put and see what the future holds. “You grow up here. It’s home,” Redden said. “There’s no place like home.”

Five candidates are running to represent District 7 on the Oakland City Council: Aaron Clay, Marchon Tatmon, Robert Jackson, Marcie Hodge, and Treva Reid. Next, we’ll be taking a closer look at these candidates and what they have to say about D7’s future.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.