Oakland’s dangerous roadways
This article is part of our special investigative series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.
Kanitha Matoury had just gotten home around 6:30 p.m. on July 24 when she received an unexpected call: Hope Raymond, the evening cashier at Matoury’s downtown Oakland business, Howden Market, told her a car had crashed through the store and almost hit her. Luckily, Raymond survived.
“She heard a screeching noise of a car and just had a gut instinct,” Matoury told The Oaklandside. “Hope just pivoted and ran and ducked next to the cooler. Then the SUV plowed in.”
Matoury opened Howden Market in 2016 in the one-of-a-kind Howden Building on the corner of 17th and Webster streets after nearly a decade running the next-door restaurant, Spice Monkey. She renovated the space that was originally built in 1925, turning it into an organic grocery, deli, and cafe. The market quickly became a staple of the neighborhood.
When she arrived with her children in tow the night of the crash, the extent of the damage was evident.
The store’s iconic and intricate front entrance—big glass windows prominently displaying “Howden Market” next to orange and black glazed ceramic tiles with bird motifs—had completely collapsed, its metal frames twisted and five glass panels disintegrated into thousands of pieces on the floor. The car, a grey Mercedes Benz rental driven by a Stockton man who’d been drinking, had pushed all the way through the shop to a now-broken marble countertop. The market’s wine, soda, and household goods rack had exploded on impact. If it wasn’t for a concrete planter near the front, the car may have gone further into the store and struck Raymond.
Ananda Neil, a sales manager who developed Howden Market’s spirits program, was on the building’s second floor at the time of the crash. He helped survey the damage and tended to Raymond, who was in shock, with glass all over her hair and body.
Neil said he was heartbroken as he thought about how much effort Matoury had put into keeping the store open during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’d also invested in a pricey parklet for Spice Monkey only to have to close the restaurant in 2020.
The collision did not surprise Neil. “It’s just absolutely out of control. We have a block here near the store where there’s a lot of activity, cars screaming around the corner,” he said. “I’ve seen so many near misses, and of cars doing donuts nearby.”
He also noted what he considers a lack of police presence in the neighborhood that could help deter people from speeding.
Within hours, a handful of Matoury’s friends showed up. One person who works in construction, Juan Wong, organized people to buy wood paneling from Home Depot to secure the shop. Most of the group stayed until 4 a.m. to clean.
In the days following the crash, customers stopped by asking to help. “You see how connected she is to the community,” Neil said of Matoury, who opened Spice Monkey 12 years ago. Over the following month, more than 80 people donated to a GoFundMe campaign that raised almost $7,000 to help rebuild.
Despite the outpouring of support, Howden Market is still not open. Matoury has spent the past few months navigating financial and logistical problems that the pandemic has exacerbated.
Matoury has built a loyal community following in downtown Oakland
Opening Howden Market was the next step in Matoury’s vision to “serve and nurture people” with nutritious meals, self-care, and entertainment. When she opened Spice Monkey in 2009, it was to create a social space that served food with healthy ingredients.
Spice Monkey pivoted from cafe to a bring-your-own bar to a farm-to-table restaurant over the years. It was most successful when it partnered with Comedy Oakland to become one of the city’s most popular performance venues.
Samson Koletkar, a stand-up comic and co-runner of Comedy Oakland, worked with Matoury for five years to put on shows three to five nights a week. The space, he said, allowed comedians to hone their craft and gave the restaurant a star attraction. Among the people who played at the restaurant were Kabir Singh, who appeared on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and Karinda Dobbins, who has opened up for Trevor Noah. Javon Blair, Matoury’s assistant, said the shows helped the restaurant thrive financially.
“Comedy Oakland and Spice Monkey had a following,” Koletkar said. “They had great service, and there was the right synergy and environment. Everybody loved it.” The shows ran from 2015 until March 2020, when the pandemic shut everything down.
Lina Torio, an Oakland resident, musician, and business owner of the recently closed Oakland Hot Plate, bonded with Matoury over their shared experience as mothers running small businesses.
“You’re supporting families when you have a business. Anybody who has worked for Kanitha has seen her hires within the community,” she said. “If somebody comes in and their son or daughter needs a job, even if they don’t have the best communication or social skills, she’d bring them in and train them and allow them an opportunity to better their skills.”
In 2015, buoyed by the restaurant’s success, Matoury opened Howden Market next door. She wanted to create a curated shopping experience where a person could discover new foods and products. Matoury said she spent hours researching products to balance big-brand offerings with local and newcomer options. Choosing local artisan coffee or ice cream helped connect customers to Howden Market and their community.
When the pandemic hit, both businesses were financially affected, but the restaurant more so. By July 2020, Matoury closed Spice Monkey.
“We had to go in and take all of our equipment out. That was a sad day,” said Koletkar, from Comedy Oakland.
As for the market, Matoury made, at most, a quarter of her average sales. Businesses all over the city suffered the loss of customers, especially in Black and brown neighborhoods.
Over the last year, Matoury has had to let go of multiple employees. She said she is still keeping a few people employed through full and part-time roles.
Facing property destruction costs and construction delays, Howden Market remains shuttered
Matoury’s efforts to remodel the shop have been delayed by a shortage of construction workers and COVID-19 precautions have prevented multiple people from working in the small space at the same time. The contractor who worked on the building’s original reconstruction told her he’s overworked and can’t help. The cheapest contractor estimated it would take at least $40,000 to fix all crash damages. The administrative process for receiving insurance money has also been slow, Matoury said.
Due to paying rent, city, and legal licensing fees, Matoury also estimates she is losing over $1,000 a day, forcing her to dip into life savings. The rent and PG&E costs alone run about $7,000 a month. The money generated from the GoFundMe page has been exhausted. She’s grateful for everyone who gave, but says the high cost of running a small business in Oakland makes it nearly impossible to succeed in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“I fear we’re losing our customer base,” she said.
Losing more money is incredibly difficult on top of what she already lost by closing a restaurant she poured investments into in order to renovate the slightly dilapidated, early-20th century building up to code. Business owners who invest in old downtown Oakland buildings often have to clean up or redo expensive Art Deco facades, renovate sidewalks, change plumbing, and modernize gas lines. Torio, who renovated the bottom floor of a nearby hotel into the entertainment and vegan food venue Oakland Hot Plate, had to recently close her own place after putting in a half-million dollars over seven years. Only $80,000 of that money, she said, came from the city through matching redevelopment grants, which are limited to certain geographic areas of Oakland.
“There’s a lot of sweat equity that goes into rebuilding. You never get that money back,” Torio said.
Matoury tried to develop a deferred rent payment plan with her landlord to keep the restaurant open, but she said the landlord was worried about how long he’d have to wait to get paid, so she had to let it go and focused on the market. In April, the Filipino Mexican fusion shop Señor Sisig took over the former Spice Monkey lease.
Matoury said she thinks the city could have done more to help small businesses during the pandemic, like reducing or temporarily eliminating some fees for permits and local taxes.
“There was no city policy that said, ‘Stop paying into the city during the pandemic so we can figure it out.’ People were being paid to stay home to be unemployed. But how about self-employed people like myself?”
The impacts of cars colliding with businesses are long-lasting
Harry Hamilton, who works for Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department, said the city does not offer services, financial or otherwise, specific to road collisions that lead to the destruction of property. The assistance it offers to businesses that have been robbed or vandalized can be applied to collisions, including free information and advice on how to manage insurance claims.
But in terms of financial help, that’s only available through local community funders like the Oakland Black Business Fund and the Oakland Indie Alliance’s small business repair fund.
The Oakland Indie Alliance, a group of about 400 independent business owners, supports unique local businesses, especially those owned by people of color. The group previously fundraised around property damage, including in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests. Its executive director, Ari Takata-Vasquez, said businesses that suffer damage from car collisions are welcome to apply for its recovery grants, which provide up to $600 at a time.
“The challenges small businesses face right now are death by a thousand cuts,” Takata-Vasquez said. “So even though our grants are small, we can at least help them cover their deductibles so they’re not coming fully out of pocket.”
The city of Oakland has offered funding to help local businesses deal with emergencies before. For example, using federal CARES Act funds it created a small business grant program to assist businesses harmed by the pandemic. Oakland also enacted a commercial business eviction moratorium to soften pandemic losses, but this expired in September.
Some business owners say the city should do more.
Alexeis Filipello, the manager of the former Dogwood bar downtown, said cars collided into her business on three different occasions over a 10-year span, costing an estimated $80,000, including lost sales. She said neither the city nor the landlords should expect businesses to pay for damages that are often the result of poor road design. Currently, the city’s commercial lease laws force business owners to manage the costs of repairing damaged property, even though they’re leasing the space from a different owner.
Whether there are enough crashes affecting Oakland’s small businesses to justify creating an assistance fund is unknown because the city does not currently track information about collisions affecting storefronts. The Storefront Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that has gathered collision data affecting buildings for the last seven years, has records of 23 crashes in Oakland since 2013, but the group said that small business collisions tend to be underreported.
Storefront collisions are a daily occurrence in the U.S. According to the Storefront Safety Council, a car runs into a building on average about 60 times a day, injuring 4,000 people each year. Almost a quarter of collisions happen at retail stores and 6% at convenience stores.
One East Oakland storefront was run into twice before it was converted into a business that doesn’t accept walk-in customers. In 1992, an Oakland fire truck slammed into the side of a market located on the corner of Edwards Avenue and Greenly Drive after a collision with a runaway pickup, instantly killing a cashier. The victim, Huong Nguyen, was a 28-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who recently started her business with her husband, Hua.
In 2005, another collision happened at the exact same place when a food truck lost control and crashed into the building. The driver was injured and no one else was hurt.
The collision-prone storefront is currently the home of Cocina del Corazón, a catering company. Its owners told The Oaklandside that while they’ve been tempted to open up a restaurant there, they’ve also been afraid of what might happen based on the location’s history and their own experience. They often see revved-up cars speeding by on Edwards Avenue.
“This is a big walking community. And every time I hear the screeching, like a drag race, it worries me. I know there are kids playing nearby and I walk myself on the roads,” said Jazmin, who co-owns the catering company.
Richard Chang, who lived in the Greenly Avenue building in the late 1980s and 1990s with his family, told us his parents were worried about the same traffic issues back then. Edwards Avenue is a major traffic artery used by people connecting to the I-580. According to traffic studies, roads that serve as arterial passageways to a freeway are more likely to have dangerous conditions and collisions.
Moving forward on fixing downtown’s streets and re-opening Howden Market
Torio, who used to own Oakland Hot Plate, said two design issues come up constantly in discussions among small business owners downtown: the high number of one-way streets, which often result in people driving in the wrong direction, and too many old signal lights that are hidden from view due to trees or other barriers.
“You can’t see the lights, especially at night. They don’t hang over the intersection like in other areas of the city,” Torio said. “If somebody is not accustomed to downtown and how it works, they don’t see those lights. I’ve seen multiple accidents happen on those intersections.”
The road the driver who crashed into Howden Market was on, 17th Street, is one-way, and the intersection crossing Webster Street does not have a hanging light, though it’s impossible to say whether these conditions contributed to the crash because the driver was intoxicated.
In an email statement to The Oaklandside, Ryan Russo, the city’s transportation director, said hanging traffic lights over intersections rather than placing them on the side of the street does improve driver visibility, and that Oakland needs more of this design element. “We have a capital program to address these various outdated elements of our infrastructure—but a huge backlog, and much more work ahead of us than behind us,” he wrote.
Some pedestrian and bicycle advocates who followed the Howden Market crash online noted that reducing Webster Street to a one-way lane might slow down some cars. But Oakland’s former policy director of mobility, Warren Logan, wrote on Twitter that all of the intersections in the area, including the one where Howden Market is located, have stoplights and other features that should make it relatively safe.
“At some point, it’s not the design of the roads that’s the issue,” Logan wrote. “I’ve grown tired of coddling drivers with multi-million dollar capital improvements that still cede massive amounts of space to cars.” Logan suggested that a more aggressive design like closing the streets to non-local traffic should be considered.
Raymond, who survived the Howden Market crash, told us she is grateful she is still here and that her family was upset about the close call. And while she is a bit more careful now, the incident is not going to make her afraid to live her life.
“I’m thankful no one was hurt. You never know what’s going to happen,” she said.
Matoury said that in addition to preparing a comeback, she has distributed perishable goods—dairy products, pastries—that could be donated or sold. She thinks she’ll be able to connect with charities to give food to people in need, or sell some to pay the rent. And she’s still hopeful about her future in Oakland.
Koletkar of Comedy Oakland told us he wants to work with Matoury to create a new show at a different location, or maybe even the market.
But if the streets continue to feature dangerous driving, Matoury said she’ll make some different choices. One of the big ones will be her future transportation. Before the crash, her youngest child recommended she stop using a sedan and start using more public transport.
According to Matoury, after seeing the destruction caused by the crash, the little one said, “Mommy, I changed my mind. Go get a big car. People are driving crazy.”
Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.