Noni Session is the director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which has plans to bring Esther's Orbit Room back to life. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Noni Session and her father went strolling on Seventh Street when she was a child in the 1980s, “it would take us forever” to walk the entire road, said the third-generation West Oaklander.

Session’s father “knew everyone,” stopping frequently to chat while his young daughter waited antsily by his side. A grocery shop owner, he was relatively well-off for the neighborhood, and would often buy bikes and books for local children. He regularly took Session to the Seventh Street pier, where he’d go fishing. On their way, they’d stop at Esther’s Orbit Room, where Session’s father would buy a bag of ice and get her a cream soda or another sweet treat.

“By the time I was aware of Esther’s, it was a bar and liquor store,” said Session. But she soon learned it had once been a legendary jazz and blues club that hosted the likes of Al Green and Etta James. Esther Mabry, the “Grand Lady of Seventh Street,” opened the first iteration of her club in 1950, at one end of the then-bustling Seventh Street corridor, known as the Harlem of the West for its thriving Black music scene and commercial district. It was one of many successful Black-owned businesses there, from other music venues to restaurants to dentist offices.

But many Black residents who’d come to the neighborhood for wartime jobs lost their employment after WWII ended and, offered few other opportunities, fell into poverty. City planners declared West Oakland “blighted,” beginning an era of demolition, displacement, and redevelopment. That “urban renewal” process tore down thousands of homes in the 1960s and forced many Black residents and other people of color to leave the area. Meanwhile, the 1957 construction of the Cypress Freeway cut through the cultural hub and literally divided the neighborhood. BART tracks were built right along Seventh shortly after. 

Cypress “was a huge double-decker freeway that brought all the cars and Mack trucks straight through West Oakland,” Session said. She was 14 when the Loma Prieta earthquake toppled the structure. Session ran over from her grandmother’s house, and found the area quiet for the first time in her life. “There were birds tweeting. It was like another planet.”

The West Oakland BART tracks were built right along the Seventh Street corridor, once considered the “Harlem of the West” for its active Black music and business scenes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Decades later, Session and her colleagues and friends in West Oakland want to restore the Seventh Street corridor to something closer to the vibrant economic and cultural hub it was before the freeways and neglect and eminent domain. The organization she directs, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) is in an agreement to buy the old Esther’s Orbit Room property, which is now a dilapidated, locked-up structure that still sports some hand-painted signage. The club closed for good in 2009, and Mabry died a year later.

The cooperative’s members imagine the Esther’s of the 21st Century as a BIPOC arts and residential space, where permanently below-market-rate units will be occupied by “resident owners” who have a say in what happens to their home. Organizers have grand plans for the space, including three housing units, a farmer’s market, an art gallery, and an events space. The Esther’s Orbit Room & Cultural Arts Center project is the first piece of EB PREC’s ambitious vision of revitalizing Seventh Street—this time without the displacement. 

West Oaklanders enthusiastic about the return of Esther’s

“I myself did not have a strong vision for that corridor,” admitted Session. “After the freeway fell, it looked like a generic industrial place,” not the stuff of inspiration.

But a few years ago, EB PREC, along with the Mandela Grocery Cooperative, a worker-owned market on Seventh Street, organized a “Black economic salon,” as part of a planning process for an upcoming development complex at the West Oakland BART Station. The idea was to establish Black-owned businesses in the commercial space there, but the participants ended up feeling like they weren’t granted the independence they needed to realize their vision for the property, which is being developed by BART and private companies. At the same time, they didn’t want to abandon months of work. 

A couple of days later, Session was “lurking” on Facebook when she saw a post announcing the Esther’s property, at 1724 Seventh St., was for sale. The comment thread under the post was filled with people’s hopes and dreams for the site.

“I burst into the office the next day like, ‘Hey, y’all, I know what to do,” said Session. She wanted EB PREC to buy Esther’s. The organization owns only two properties, and they’re both strictly residential, so the co-op’s staff regarded her warily at first.

Nobody else scooped up the property, which Session attributes to the widespread perception that the corridor is “inactive.” Typically, “these spaces sit and languish until they’re so vulnerable that swaths of land can be bought for a song,” Session said. “Then folks start to make revitalization plans, and you can make such a huge front-loaded profit on properties bought.”

But EB PREC had gotten to know “an untapped customer base champing at the bit for basic services, but also basic community engagement,” in the neighborhood, Session said. EB PREC wants to take Esther’s “off the speculative market,” guaranteeing long-term affordability and community control of the space.

As EB PREC spread word of the plan, it was met with enthusiasm, Session said: “White folks, Black folks, young folks, old folks—they were all like, ‘Oh my God, Esther’s Orbit Room!’” 

A “direct public offering” allows regular residents to invest

Esther’s was sold by the late Mabry’s family in 2015. It’s now a decrepit, locked up property. Credit: Amir Aziz

EB PREC is in contract to buy the property for $1.5 million, and estimates the whole renovation and revitalization project will cost another $3.4 million to complete. 

To raise the large sum, the organization decided to try something rare: a fundraising process called a direct public offering (DPO), which lets regular community members, along with foundations and traditional financial institutions, invest in the cooperative. Shares are $1,000 apiece—EB PREC is subsidizing this cost  for some BIPOC artists—and give investors a say in selecting board members, a vote on cooperative decisions, and a targeted 1.5% annual return.

While venture capitalists and wealthy people deemed “accredited investors” overwhelmingly support white-owned businesses, proponents say DPOs can allow a much more diverse array of projects to get funded, and they allow local residents to throw their money behind causes they support.

“There’s a tangible return that’s modest,” if you invest in a project like EB PREC’s, said Kim Arnone, managing partner at Cutting Edge Capital, “but also as a community member, there’s that intangible return of building a better, more vibrant, inclusive place to live and work and play.” (Berkeleyside, The Oaklandside’s sister site, was the first local news organization to undertake a DPO, in 2016.)

Arnone, who lives in Oakland, advises her clients on investment offerings, and she said EB PREC is the first cooperative she’s seen do a “Regulation A” offering, which requires filing particularly “onerous” paperwork (see the “offering circular“) with the government in order to gain the ability to fundraise more widely. This can be “cost-prohibitive” for organizations, she said. But EB PREC is affiliated with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, whose lawyers helped the organization apply and get approved.  

A mural memorializes West Oakland’s musical history. Credit: Amir Aziz

Since launching the DPO, EB PREC has raised nearly $490,000 from community investors, according to the organization. EB PREC has also raised about $3.3 million through other methods, including large loans from the San Francisco Foundation and the Kataly Foundation. The organization still needs another $1.12 million to cover the project cost. 

EB PREC’s agreement with the current owner of the Esther’s site, Sunrise Properties, which bought it from Mabry’s family in 2015, would have allowed the organization to save money if they’d been able to close on the property by June 15. But they’re allowed to extend the deal, and some environmental questions forced them to. Research revealed there once was a gas station nearby, and they’re working to confirm a lack of resulting environmental hazards. 

Session said one intention with the DPO is to raise awareness of the financial tool among other BIPOC-led and community groups that want to help bring Seventh Street—or other cities and neighborhoods—back to life, but who’ve faced barriers in raising money to do so. Each week, Session and Ojan Mobedshahi, EB PREC’s finance director, give supporters a weekly detailed update about the project on Instagram, in hopes of “demystifying” the process they’re undertaking.

“One of the things of difference in wealth for Black and white communities is access to capital,” Session said. “Once you have the vision, the people, and a project, where are the resources?”

The DPO method not only allows organizations like EB PREC to access funds, said Arnone, but also, notably, directs the returns back to community members, rather than allowing wealthy investment institutions to profit off the BIPOC ventures they support. Additionally, she said, these “community capital offerings” can inform foundations and established investors about the sorts of projects that have local support, so those institutions can follow the community’s lead and fund the projects too. Arnone expects to see the model grow in popularity in Oakland.

“The Bay Area has a sense of pride and place, and a recognition that the same old economic models are not going to keep our communities diverse and vibrant,” she said. 

Seventh Street was once a thriving jazz and business district

Esther’s was only one of many jazz clubs in West Oakland in the 1930s through 1960s. In 1950, after waitressing at Slim Jenkins Supper Club, an iconic Seventh Street nightclub that reportedly opened the day Prohibition was repealed, Mabry and her husband opened Esther’s Breakfast Room, a café that hosted live music. They bought the building in 1959 and officially opened the Orbit Room in 1963. The venue drew national names like Billie Holiday and B.B. King, but it was also a breeding ground for a distinctive local sound. “Oakland had its own, kind of gritty, blues scene,” said David Peters, organizer of the upcoming Black Liberation Walking Tour

Slim Jenkins Supper Club, along with Esther’s Orbit Room and numerous other venues, contributed to a vibrant Seventh Street corridor. Credit: Oakland Local

“I was a young adult when I saw Big Mama Thorton at Esther’s,” said Alternier Cook, a third-generation Oaklander born in 1940. At the time, Slim Jenkins was “too high-class” for neighborhood kids like her, who were too young to be let in anyway. Cook said she and her friends also steered clear of the bar John Singers, because their fathers were always hanging out there. But after the corridor’s liquor stores and bars closed for the night, everyone partook in the “after-hours liquor” sold by a man called “Raincoat Jones,” because he’d hawk bottles he hid inside his large jacket, she recalled.

Seventh Street was much more than nightclubs. The strip had shoe shops, banks, dentists, and grocery stores. “There were enough goods and services being offered out of that corridor that a person really did not have to go much further,” said Cook, whose uncle owned a mortuary there until the 1980s. 

Cook has seen the neighborhood endure many cycles of destruction and “renewal.” “I think it was a concerted effort to make sure these families didn’t get too much of a foothold,” she said about the development projects that displaced locals. Peters sees the neighborhood as headed toward the next stage of that cycle, with out-of-town corporate developers buying up property and “changing the character of the neighborhood” without much resident input.

Peters invested in the Esther’s project because “this is the community doing something for itself,” he said. “It’s such a symbolic project, but it’s also more than a symbol. The plans would actually provide real space for cultural practitioners to come back into this historically Black cultural space.”

The establishment of the new Esther’s will be a years-long endeavor, but EB PREC has already begun working with House/Full of BlackWomen, a performance art project dealing with the displacement and sex trafficking of Black women and girls in Oakland. The group will help facilitate conversations about the future and history of Esther’s, culminating in a performance.

“What does it look like to refuse displacement and actually contemplate a right to return?” said Amara Tabor-Smith, co-founder of House/Full of BlackWomen. She said EB PREC’s project resonated with her as not only an effort to keep artists in West Oakland, but to keep their audience as well. 

“I make work for and about my community, and if my community is no longer here, it’s irrelevant, it’s a museum relic,” Tabor-Smith said. “It has been part of our experience as African Americans to be uprooted. How do we continue a legacy of having that [Esther’s] space not only provide housing but be a meeting place and a cultural center too?”

The tenants won’t only be renters, but something more akin to cooperative owners. That could include anything from shared maintenance tasks to shared profits from the events held there. 

And “if we sell the land, it would be by cooperative vote,” Session said. Occupants would have the first right of refusal to buy it. But “the underlying goal is to hold the land indefinitely so it becomes a generational asset. We restrict our ability to turn the acquisition back into an asset.” Like a community land trust, EB PREC will own the land and has written into its bylaws provisions guaranteeing the long-term affordability for the commercial and residential tenants.

The Bay Area is known for several prominent worker and real estate cooperatives. Despite the popularity of those institutions, the model is still rare in the region.

“The reason you don’t see more cooperative enterprises is that the tools of finance and the conventions have not prepared themselves to support this kind of community structure,” Session said. “Banks still don’t even know how to lend to co-ops.”

The Esther’s project, she hopes, will “show how you reclaim a space even if you’re not showing up with $10 million in capital. But—get it right—we will be showing up with $10 million in capital.”

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 grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.