Some Upper Rockridge residents are commissioning a Black Lives Matter art installation along this quirky stair path. Not all neighbors are happy about it. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, three young residents of Upper Rockridge chalked the names of Black people killed by police along a pleasant, art-adorned staircase in their neighborhood known as the “Sunflower Path.” 

They wrote a name on each of the 80-some steps that link Proctor Avenue and Morpeth Street, and chalked racial-justice messages at the top and bottom of the pathway, which sports expansive views of downtown Oakland and San Francisco. 

But the artwork was reportedly defaced with messages like “criminals”—and then washed away by a city worker responding to a neighbor’s complaint of graffiti at the location, local media reported at the time. Neighbors who supported the chalk messages responded by holding a vigil that drew dozens of Rockridge residents and raised money for local Black-led social justice groups.

A year later, some of those neighbors want to see a permanent Black Lives Matter tribute at the same location. A proposal to create a mural or similar installation, called the Oakland Stairs Project, has garnered almost 350 signatures from supporters. Organizers plan to bring a formal proposal to the city for approval soon.

But not everyone in the neighborhood is on board: Around 100 people have signed an anonymously created petition saying the project will create congestion and undermine the beauty of the existing path, which neighbors have lined with numerous quirky animal sculptures and colorful plants. 

The current proposal is an homage to this 2020 chalk statement on the Sunflower Path, but any permanent installation would be confined to the risers, not the steps themselves, per city rules. Credit: Courtesy Oakland Stairs Project

The neighbors pursuing the new art piece say the destruction of the original chalk art in June 2020 only inspired them to cook up bigger plans for the path.

“The desecration of what they had put together really started to raise this issue of our neighborhood’s history,” said Julia Liou, one of the residents behind the Oakland Stairs Project. 

When Rockridge was first developed in the early 1900s, racial covenants attached to home deeds required houses to be sold or rented to white people only. Redlining and other racist housing policies kept the area exclusive through the ensuing several decades. To this day, it remains a majority-white area—69% of the 94618 ZIP code is white, compared to 29% of Oakland as a whole—with homes that are priced out of reach for most Oakland residents.

“Learning about these racial covenants and deeds, it made sense as to why the neighborhood looks the way it does,” said Cara Jones, another facilitator of the art project. “Any tangible response we can create that sets a different tone really matters in my mind.”

“We want to recognize that history and make a statement that this is a neighborhood that celebrates its diversity” now, added Liou.

The group is accepting design submissions from Black artists and artists of color. A committee will select a winning pitch and propose it to Oakland’s Public Art Advisory Committee. The group plans to award the artist $15,000 fundraised by neighbors. 

But other residents who are opposed to the project have posted signs that say “save the Sunflower Path” around the staircase.

Neighbors have decorated the so-called Sunflower Path with playful animal sculptures and plants. Credit: Amir Aziz

“We believe that this is not an appropriate place for this project because it will alter a pre-existing artistic expression and more importantly it will impact the neighborhood negatively,” the associated online petition states.

It goes on to say that the art piece will draw more people to the quiet path, impacting parking, trash, and noise, and prompt trespassing onto the private properties that line the staircase. Painting the steps, it says, could make them slippery and unsafe.

David, a neighbor who lives next to the path and has been decorating the stairs with his wife for many years, told The Oaklandside that he supported the original chalk art, which was “timely” and temporary. But “we’re not happy about looking out our kitchen window and seeing stories about people who’ve been murdered every day,” he said, regarding the proposal for a permanent memorial.

David, who didn’t want to give his last name because of privacy concerns, acknowledged that “in a way, this is a not-in-my-backyard kind of thing.” He said the mural supporters should consider a “compromise,” placing the installation on the sidewalk in front of their own homes, or the homes of anyone interested in participating, not a path that abuts others’ property. 

“This place is a respite from politics,” another neighbor commented on the opposition petition. “I agree with the sentiment but just need a few places in the world to rest from the constant sadness.” 

Critics of the mural proposal have hung protest signs at the path. Credit: Amir Aziz

“The Sunflower Path is an expression of love and beauty and enjoyed by so many,” another neighbor wrote. “Altering it would be like painting over the Mona Lisa.” 

While the Oakland Stairs Project organizers are leaving the design of the potential mural or installation up to the artists to pitch, they say the city has told them that any paint must go on the risers only, not the stairs themselves, so they don’t believe there will be any safety hazards. They said they’re not planning to replace or remove any of the existing décor, which includes statues of frogs playing musical instruments, cacti, and sun sculptures.

“This is intended to promote racial justice, not tear us apart,” instead sending “an inclusive message,” said Jones.

Jones said that while researching the legacy of residential exclusion she grew more passionate about the need for a permanent, public anti-racism display in the area. She learned about “a history of white people unjustly excluding people of color with the excuse of creating a ‘good neighborhood,’” she said. “Racism has been disguised as a polite thing for too long.”

Rockridge residents, and City Councilmember Dan Kalb (third from left), rally in support of Black Lives Matter in 2020. Credit: Courtesy Oakland Stairs Project

The group says it’s received some artist submissions already, and is working with city staff and Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents North Oakland, to make their idea official.

Kalb, who attended the neighborhood vigil last year, told The Oaklandside he supports the mural idea and will consider donating to the project from his council office budget, once the group receives the necessary approvals.

“This is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think its very important that we highlight, in public spaces, the realities of our history of oppression and discrimination. One way to acknowledge the past and not repeat it is to be open about what happened.”

Kalb said he’s aware of the opposition. 

“Has there ever been anything in Oakland that has 100% support?” he said. “No, and that’s OK. People want to express their opposition, and they have a right to do that. We’re going to go forward regardless.” 

Jones said her group called their effort the “Oakland” Stairs Project in hopes that it won’t end with the Rockridge installation and instead lead to other tributes and educational initiatives throughout the city.

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.