Esailama Artry-Diouf from the West African group Diamano Coura dancing in front of what was the original "Universal Language" mural at the corner of 14th and Alice streets. Credit: Ayse Gursoz

The Malonga Casquelourd Center is nestled in a section of downtown Oakland that has long felt like a microcosm of the city’s diverse cultures. That has a lot to do with the center itself, located on Alice Street between 14th and 15th streets, which has been fostering art and culture in Oakland since the 1920s—a place where children and adults from all walks of life gather to drum and dance. And just around the corner, Hotel Oakland Village provides affordable housing and services to hundreds of Chinese seniors. 

Alice Street: Film screening and Q&A

Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.

The New Parkway, 474 24th St., Oakland

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Not long ago, the corner of 14th and Alice was also home to a massive mural titled Universal Language—a colorful love letter to Oakland’s multiculturalism, featuring portraits of revered local artists and community leaders, created by artists Desi Mundo and Pancho Pescador of the Community Renovation Project. But in 2016, the city’s Planning Commission approved the construction of a new boutique apartment tower at the site, Alice House, offering market-rate units. After a lengthy fight, the mural was eventually obscured. 

The loss of the mural was a sign of the times in a quickly gentrifying area of Oakland. But for the Universal Language mural, it wasn’t the end of the story. The artists were able to recreate the work in spring 2020, several blocks away from the original on the side of the Greenlining Institute’s six-story building on 14th and Webster Streets.

The yearslong saga of the mural—and the neighborhood surrounding it, including the Malonga Center and Hotel Oakland Village communities—is now the subject of a documentary, Alice Street, by Oakland filmmaker Spencer Wilkinson.

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Much more than a behind-the-scenes look at the mural-making process, Wilkinson—whose relationship with Mundo began years before the mural was conceived, through their nonprofit work with youth—uses the film to examine the fight for social and housing justice that it inspired, and tells the story of how Oakland artists and activists banded together to demand community-benefits agreements from housing developers wanting to build in Oakland.

The Oaklandside recently caught up with Wilkinson ahead of next Tuesday’s screening of Alice Street at The New Parkway Theater, to talk about the significance of the documentary and how it is helping others across the country fight to avoid the displacement of longtime residents in their own communities. 

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did you originally get connected with Desi Mundo? 

We had just kind of crossed paths a lot because of his work with arts, and also he ran a youth program. When it came to the actual film, I was living on Alice Street and learned that Desi and Pancho were going to be starting this mural right down the street from my house. He connected with me because they [Desi and Pancho] wanted to conduct interviews with local residents and some of the cultural arts leaders in the community, to get to know what they would paint on the mural. I offered to help them with their process if I could also make a documentary about the mural. 

In a way, it was selfish of me to jump on their project because I wanted to know more about my own neighborhood. I had taken a couple of classes at the Malonga Center. I’d always been curious about what Hotel Oakland was, and conducting these interviews with them, it allowed me to understand more about how deep those two community centers are, and their histories. Having taken classes and learned under a couple of really amazing teachers there, I still didn’t understand how the center became what it was. Those interviews allowed me to get to know that.

For a lot of us who might not remember or maybe might not have known the entire backstory of the mural or the community surrounding it, the film is a great Oakland history lesson as well.

I don’t think there’s been enough focus put on the Malonga Center. It’s a world-class performing arts center located in the heart of Oakland, and I don’t think they’ve really gotten their due in terms of acknowledgment from the city—what a critical center it is within [the] cultural arts community and the African diaspora. Anyone in the country knows the Malonga Center, but I think a lot of people, even Oakland residents, are not really aware of the history and how important it is as an institution. One of our aims was really to try and help tell that story.

You mentioned that you lived on Alice Street. In the film, we hear from a neighbor who is opposed to the mural and what it represents. From your experience living and filming through the years, how have you seen the neighborhood change? 

I lived on Alice Street for a total of six years, and I lived on Jackson Street prior to that, starting around the year 2000. It has changed dramatically. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed. The rent prices have skyrocketed. And it’s caused a lot of pressure for the cultural artists that are based at the Malonga Center. You see it driving down 14th Street, and you see all the new luxury condominiums that are going up. Those are having direct impacts on local residents, causing displacement. 

It is nice to see businesses, restaurants, some new art galleries, and some things like that, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s catering to the longtime residents of downtown Oakland.

Over the course of producing the documentary, you all got to see the landscape of downtown completely change. In the film, it’s interesting to see footage of a pre-pandemic Oakland, with joyous people dancing and mingling unmasked in tight places.

It’s interesting that you say that. We began filming in late 2013 up until the beginning of 2020. We had a virtual screening a couple of months ago and a lot of the community was there. There were lots of folks who take classes at the Malonga Center, and there wasn’t a dry eye during the call. People talked about seeing the film almost like grieving and a therapeutic experience—to revisit life pre-pandemic and before gentrification had really impacted that neighborhood to the level it has. It’s almost weird to look at a room full of people without masks and not have some sort of a feeling about that.

An event at Hotel Oakland Village where elders participate in different cultural events. Credit: Spencer Wilkinson

When I was watching the film, I was also thinking of the Asian elders from Hotel Oakland and wondering how they are doing now and what they must have felt when the pandemic started and their world was shattered.

I’m still in touch with Hotel Oakland, and the director of the village programs, her name is Nancy Lu. You can see her in the film briefly. We were actually working on a little follow-up project about seniors in isolation which is apropos for what happens in terms of the pandemic. Everyone became isolated, all those programs had to be shut down: the singing groups, the dancing groups, the neighbors-helping-neighbors groups, all of that had to be closed down. I am also curious as to how that culture changed. They have such an innovative approach to senior care where the residents are running all of those programs. 

I hope that we all get to see a film about how these elders dealt with isolation and how the culture inside the village has changed.

We did a bunch of shooting before the pandemic, and then we interrupted the project. I would love to go back there. One thing I want to add is that we had done this impact campaign with the film. We got two grants from the California Arts Council and the San Francisco Foundation. Both provided grants to do “impact screenings” of the film where we were really focused on communities in California impacted by gentrification. We would reach out to nonprofits and establish relationships with them. We were able to do 15 screenings. A lot of those are in person and outdoors, and then a lot of virtual ones as well. We were in Fresno, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville. The impact tour was hugely successful for us and we want to continue to extend that tour nationally. 

What was the general conversation with folks in those communities? In what ways do you think displacement and gentrification in those places are similar to what is happening in Oakland?

Yes, there are so many similarities in the city of Fresno, they have early-stage gentrification, where people are starting to really move into central Fresno, and prices are going up for rental units. That was the same thing we heard in Santa Ana, in Los Angeles, and in Orange County. Even Watsonville is having some issues around rents being high. I think the pandemic exacerbated that trend of people moving and housing prices going up in super small towns. We showed the film in Helena, Montana where they’ve gotten this massive migration of people from California and other big cities. The film provided a way in which to discuss these issues and to share ideas. Like what happens in the film, when the community is fighting to negotiate with developers for community benefit agreements.

That’s a topic of discussion in all of these screenings where people are like, how did you do that? How can we share these messages on the walls and get public art to reflect the local struggles and bring people together and resist development that doesn’t really meet the needs of the local residents? At the end of the tour, we brought all of those cities together into one Zoom discussion about how to get and create a small organization that can continue to help people stay in touch and share best practices and talk about housing justice and resisting gentrification. This is something I’m passionate about.

Oakland really is the model, I think, that communities can learn from. I’m glad that the film opens up that door into learning from these longstanding groups in Oakland that are really doing that work.

The community rallied together to protest the housing tower that covered the mural. Credit: Ayse Gursoz

It was uplifting to see people like Favianna Rodriguez and Chaney Turner, who have been at the forefront of the fight to advocate for the arts and social and housing justice across Oakland, appear in the film. 

It had a huge impact on that Oakland downtown plan. If they hadn’t shown up and disrupted it, they wouldn’t have ended up centering equity as part of that plan. They’re real leaders and have had a real, measurable impact on the city.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.