Temescal is one of North Oakland's many lively districts. Residents have plenty of ideas about how to improve life for people who live and work in the diverse neighborhoods. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s northernmost neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s priciest houses and several sprawling tent encampments where unsheltered residents live. So it’s no surprise that housing and homelessness are top of mind for all of the District 1 residents who spoke to The Oaklandside about the urgent issues they’d like to see their city councilmember address.

“This district has seen some of the most rapid change in terms of demographics and wealth of any district in Oakland in the last couple decades,” said 17-year Temescal resident Noah Miller, in response to our election survey. “Those of us who aren’t wealthy find fewer and fewer affordable places to shop, and almost no affordable places to live. The neighborhood is diverse but losing some of that diversity through gentrification.”

Oakland’s District 1 borders Berkeley on the north, Emeryville to the west and West MacArthur Boulevard to the south. It includes Rockridge and the northern Oakland hills, which extend above the UC Berkeley campus. 

Particularly in the flatland neighborhoods of Bushrod, Santa Fe, Golden Gate, and Longfellow, city blocks are continuing to see longtime, often Black, residents being displaced from their apartments and houses, or selling family homes to move to the cheaper, suburban Bay Area.

“Pretty much every house on my block has changed hands from Black to white,” said Dave Boone, who’s lived on Genoa Street for a decade and runs a bike shop out of his garage. Boone, who’s Black, said his remaining Black neighbors have been approached by real estate agents who have asked them to consider selling their houses.

“It’s important to acknowledge that shift and uplift people still in the neighborhood, rather than just trying to buy them out of their homes,” Boone said in an interview.

Residents on Genoa Street say their neighborhood has seen major turnover in recent years. Credit: Pete Rosos

For many in North Oakland, the rising housing prices and rents and the loss of longtime residents raise polarizing questions about housing development: how much to build, where, and at what price point? 

Responding to our survey, Brad Hise said the answer is “expanding housing in the neighborhood, even if that means projects that some neighbors don’t like.”

Neighborhoods like Rockridge have histories of blatant racial exclusion that are apparent in the current demographics and who can buy a home there today: the most expensive areas, made up of single-family homes on large lots with tree-lined streets, tend to see the fewest new developments.

“We need more housing for all income levels to alleviate the pressure on the housing market,” said Hise. 

A proposal to develop hundreds of housing units on the California College of the Arts campus has sparked debate in Rockridge between residents supporting the project, those who want to see a far larger chunk of the new units rent out at cheaper rates, and those who say the proposal—which initially included a 19-story tower—is out of character with the aesthetics of the neighborhood. 

“We have mixed feelings,” said Kirk Peterson, of the new neighborhood group Upper Broadway Advocates formed in response to the CCA plans. The original proposal, which has since been downsized, “really obliterated most of the historic buildings on the site. It’s been ongoing for my entire life, this detrimental loss of historic Oakland. But that does not mean we think there shouldn’t be housing.”

Many neighbors of CCA have embraced the city’s pursuit of state coronavirus relief funds to buy one of the old CCA dorm buildings across the street from the main campus and turn it into supportive housing for homeless seniors and families.

Resident Petra Marar is among those who question whether new market-rate housing complexes will do much to make housing more affordable. She worries it could just displace the longtime residents in those neighborhoods who can’t afford the new apartments or the rising prices of older homes.

Marar wrote in response to an Oaklandside survey that she wants “assurances that people are not getting pushed out of my neighborhood, or District 1 in general, because of transit-oriented development, or other new development. I want to keep people here. I want to maintain protections for renters in particular. As a single renter with a salary below $70K it makes me sick to look at studio prices of these new places.”

At the new MacArthur Commons complex on the southern edge of the district, right next to the MacArthur BART Station, new studios go for about $2,400 a month.

Power-washing for community empowerment

Activists have fed unhoused residents and run community programs at Driver Plaza for years. Credit: Pete Rosos

When Frances Moore, known as “Aunti” Frances, and Matsu Momii spoke with The Oaklandside by phone this week, they had to talk loudly to be heard; their friends were power-washing Driver Plaza.

Aunti Frances, a former Black Panther, created the Self-Help Hunger Program, which hands out free hot meals at the little triangular park that’s bounded by Stanford Avenue and Adeline Street in North Oakland’s Santa Fe neighborhood. 

“We power-wash twice a month. We clean our own bathroom. We do our own gardening and the total maintenance of the park,” she said.“This is the weapon we have against gentrification: using public land for public good.” 

Aunti Frances, whose eviction from her North Oakland house in 2018 was covered by the media, said there used to be more “antagonism between the have-mores and have-lesses” when the neighborhood started changing rapidly 10 or so years ago. “There was a lack of cultural competency from the new residents; some knew they were gentrifying and some did not.” But the visible efforts of the Driver Plaza crew to take care of each other and beautify their community made a difference, she said. Ultimately, her program worked with Santa Fe CAN, a neighborhood group of mostly homeowners, to plant fruit trees in honor of community members and loved ones who’ve died or been killed.

“It took some time for us to mesh and understand our common goal,” she said. “Now we have built a memorial food orchard.”

These days, Aunti Frances said, she finds herself more at odds with city leaders. Driver Plaza organizers have been entangled in a long dispute about a single portable toilet, which the city has removed in the past. 

Other North Oakland parks have also become homes for people who are unable to find or afford a permanent place to live.

At Frog Park, which is located along the Rockridge-Temescal Greenway and was built by volunteers starting in the late 1990s, there have been conflicts between unhoused people and park users over the past couple years, said Theresa Nelson. The Rockridge resident spearheaded the development of the park when she realized there were few places for kids like hers to play outdoors in the area.

The Rockridge BART station on College Avenue is one of District 1’s neighborhood centers. Credit: Pete Rosos

Now, “growing encampments have made it almost impossible for folks to use this space as a park,” she said in response to The Oaklandside’s survey. Other Rockridge residents disagreed with this characterization, saying they and others enjoy the park without issue. 

“The city has not prioritized helping the people in these encampments to relocate to housing or shelters,” Nelson said. She said parents are concerned about piles of trash that build up, and about campfires started near flammable eucalyptus trees.

North Oakland business owners want more support

District 1 includes the popular College Avenue shopping area in Rockridge, shops and restaurants in Temescal along Telegraph Avenue, and Piedmont Avenue’s well-traveled strip. The area is known for its Ethiopian and Korean restaurants, high-end boutiques, and dive bars. But business owners and workers said they were already struggling to stay afloat in an expensive city before the pandemic shuttered shops and prompted mass layoffs.

“The vitality and health and interestingness of College Avenue and all it offers” is at risk, said Peterson from Upper Broadway Advocates, who’s an architect. “I have a storefront on College and I can’t get retail to go there.”

Trung Nguyen, chef and owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Co Nam, said small businesses are the “heart and soul of any city” and should not have to compete with large corporations that get tax cuts.

“I may not have 400 employees, but god-dang I have 30, and I know their names and where they live,” he said.

According to Nguyen, the toughest part of running his Temescal eatery is responding to robberies and people coming in daily who are dealing with mental health crises.

“I feel really bad for the guests and my staff,” Nguyen said. “This could have been avoided if our politicians were doing better at addressing housing shortages. We’re all human, we all have issues, but there’s got to be a way of taking care of fellow human beings, especially when hundreds of thousands of dollars are pumped into these places,” he said, referring to shelters and related service programs for unsheltered people.

Business owners in D1 say they were struggling to stay afloat even before the pandemic decimated their income streams. Credit: Pete Rosos

But Nguyen believes Oakland’s “social programs are too lax,” saying people are presented with too many “options,” instead of being put through structured rehabilitation and jobs programs.

“Certain things like housing you got to work for—it’s not a freebie,” said Nguyen, who said he immigrated to the U.S. and worked for 18 years to get a green card, which gave him permanent resident status.

Several people who answered The Oaklandside’s election survey argued for the opposite, saying housing is a basic right that should be guaranteed for everyone, not contingent on people working or fulfilling other criteria. 

“More free services targeting the unhoused: food pantries, community centers, health centers, outreach groups,” a District 1 resident said in response to a survey question about how to improve the neighborhood. “More and better support services for unhoused residents of Oakland,” said another. “We can and should do more to help our neighbors get the housing and support they rightfully deserve.”

Crime continues. What’s the right response?

Don Link says he’s missed exactly two Shattuck Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings since the group formed in 1994. 

Link ran for the District 1 City Council seat in 2012, largely on a platform of community policing, advocating for the sorts of relationships between neighborhood watch groups and law enforcement that he’d developed in North Oakland. 

Decades later, the neighborhood is still grappling with issues of safety. A few days before Link spoke to The Oaklandside, there was a drive-by shooting near Children’s Hospital that left bullet holes in cars on both sides of Dover Street, he said. There are frequent car thefts, too.

Families play at Rockridge’s Frog Park, where tensions between housed and unhoused residents have arisen. Credit: Pete Rosos

Even with all the safety concerns, Link, who’s worked closely with the Oakland Police Department for decades, embraces the movement to shear OPD’s budget and redirect funds to other services and programs.

“I think it’s probably long overdue,” he said. “I think we have asked the police to do an awful lot of things they’re really not equipped to do. To have cops trying to deal with mentally ill people who are acting strangely on the street really isn’t a good idea. Their training is not in psychiatric social work. They’re trained to restore peace—using force.”

As Oakland considers how to cut the police budget, there are programs in the works to pilot non-cop alternative responses to mental health calls, which advocates say are more humane and effective.

In District 1, the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District already has its own such program. The district trains “ambassadors” to offer resources to unhoused people in the area and de-escalate tensions when business owners or employees and unsheltered people find themselves in conflict.

In other cases, North Oakland newcomers call the police out of a lack of understanding about neighborhood dynamics, community anchors, and histories, said some established residents we spoke with.

“Oakland’s Very Own on the corner has been antagonized since it opened,” said Boone, the bike shop owner. The restaurant, at Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and 54th Street, is a Black community hub that hosts lively events and draws complaints from neighbors, he said.

“They’re doing community functions and are very community-oriented, and the cops get called on them,” Boone said. This, he said, continues amid calls to support Black-owned businesses. 

He suggested placards and audio tours that celebrate and inform new residents about the neighborhood’s history of community organizing. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party at Merritt College, when it was located on now-MLK, Jr. Boulevard in North Oakland. 

Max Cadji, who co-founded the Phat Beets Produce food justice collective in North Oakland said he sees a lot of cognitive dissonance: neighborhood residents celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers in 2016, but the same people complain about former Panther Aunti Frances and her group at Driver Plaza working to support unhoused neighbors, he said.

“White supremacy is masked,” Cadji said. When long-time residents get displaced from North Oakland, they “have to drive in to congregate, and when they congregate they are over-policed.”

From Cadji’s perspective, the most effective thing city officials can do is “leave us alone.”

This election three City Council candidates are offering a few ideas of their own about how to improve life in North Oakland. Steph Dominguez Walton and Tri Ngo are running against incumbent Dan Kalb to represent District 1. Next, we’ll be taking a closer look at these candidates and what they have to say about D1’s future.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.