John Thomson, resident of the Harrison Hotel, is helping with the launch of the Oakland Lowdown space in a storefront below the SRO. Credit: Amir Aziz

Five years ago, John Thomson was sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the Laurel district with four other people. They made it work, but it was cramped and he longed for a place of his own. Then one day he got a call he’d been waiting on for three years. 

He learned he’d snagged a spot in the Harrison Hotel, one of the few remaining single-room-occupancy buildings (SROs) in downtown Oakland that provides affordable housing to low-income residents.

Thomson loves having his own apartment, and he loves the perspective that downtown living gives him on the place he’s called home for 23 years.

“It gives you a kind of panorama of life in the city,” he said. He means that literally—as in the view from his window, where he spots landmarks like the Tribune Tower along with new high-end housing towers—but also figuratively. Having lived in almost every type of situation one can imagine, and having navigated life in Oakland in a wheelchair, he has a strong grasp on the landscape of social services and housing out there. He says there are plenty of beneficial services available, but it’s “disjointed.” You have to know where to go to find what you want.

That’s why Thomson and his collaborators at the Oakland Lowdown have released a zine with insider tips—shared through a resource map, personal essays, a directory of services, and original collages. The graphics are splashy, the text is readable, and the design is somewhere in between a 1990s punk zine and a user-friendly webpage. 

“I want people to get the help they need,” said Thomson, who contributed an essay, reporting, and art to the project. “I’ve passed out the zine in the building and on the street and gone to a few homeless encampments. They like the articles, but the bread and butter has been the practical stuff like the map.”

The zine is just one of the first releases from the multi-layered Oakland Lowdown effort. That’s the name of a brand new community space located in a storefront at the bottom of the Harrison, at 300 14th St.

A couple of years ago, Resources for Community Development (RCD), which owns the Harrison, approached artists Chris Treggiari and Justin Hoover of Collective Action Studio about turning the storefront, previously a liquor store, into a community space. They ended up renting it for a subsidized rate.

Their art focuses on community engagement and storytelling, and for the very first project in the space, a group of Bay Area high school students interviewed Harrison Hotel residents about their lives downtown and turned those conversations into murals that hang in the windows. 

Treggiari quickly pulled in Cole Goins from Journalism + Design at the New School. The pair has a history of collaborating on projects that blend art and journalism. Together, they’ve worked with Harrison residents, staff, and neighbors to launch the Lowdown, “a community studio for news and art.” (Goins has previously worked with The Oaklandside on community engagement efforts.)

a new apartment building next to an old building with a "hotel" sign
The 81-unit Harrison Hotel is one of the few remaining SROs downtown. Nearby, the Atlas high-rise towers above it. Credit: Amir Aziz

“We’re really into this idea of creating physical spaces that increase access to quality news and information, and kind of democratize journalism education,” said Goins. “If you boil journalism down to its component parts, the actual product can be anything: a zine, a flier, a billboard, art. We’re interested in creating more original work rooted in the needs of people in this community.”

By design, the programming at the Lowdown is nebulous. Lately, they’ve been screen-printing images of a collage by Thomson on the sidewalk to engage neighbors. One Harrison tenant has begun holding Narcotics Anonymous meetings there. There’s a makeshift news studio set, where they plan to broadcast downtown news blasts on a monitor in the window and online. And they envision hosting workshops on how to take quality pictures with cellphones and how to make public records requests—as well as open studio days for art-making and creative writing. 

Usually open on Tuesdays, the goal is to expand the Lowdown hours and hold more events. They’re about to renew their lease with RCD for another year, and they currently have the budget to operate through early 2023, largely thanks to a MacArthur Foundation grant.

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Chris Treggiari (left) and Cole Goins, facilitators of the Lowdown, hang out on what they hope will turn into a broadcast news set. Credit: Amir Aziz

One word comes up repeatedly in conversations with the facilitators of the Lowdown: “listening.” Hearing from people in the building and broader neighborhood about what they want in a community space or what information they need in a zine. 

“It’s very democratic and cooperative,” said Thomson, one of a handful of Harrison residents who have been involved in shaping the Lowdown from the start. They’ve received stipends for their work.

Treggiari and Goins got connected to that initial tenant group through a mental health case manager at the building, Jada Folse.

Folse works for LifeLong Medical Care, which has a contract with RCD, and she’s been working at the Harrison for more than 10 years. Along with other Harrison residents and staff, she successfully advocated for the closure of the liquor store at the bottom of the building. All of the residents are formerly homeless and have experience with either mental health challenges or substance abuse, Folse said, and removing easy access to alcohol and the drama that a liquor store can attract is part of LifeLong’s harm reduction model. 

She worked with others to explore more empowering uses for space. When she heard about the idea for an art-focused hub, “it absolutely fit.”

“It’s something the community needed,” she said. “In my building people tend to isolate, since it’s an SRO and many people don’t have family. We have so much talent in there, and people don’t know where to go for it. This gives them a place right outside their front door.”

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A community member contributes to a collage in the window of the Lowdown. Credit: Amir Aziz

Folse was especially moved by a piece in the zine by tenant Melba Douglas, who interviewed another former resident, Sabrina Fuentes, about her experience at the Harrison and her path to her current job as a case manager with the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County. Fuentes was one of Folse’s first clients, and her success has been an inspiration to the case manager and residents alike, so it was exciting for Folse to see her story reach a wider audience through the zine.

“People are bombarding me, asking, ‘When is the next zine coming out?’” and if they can contribute, Folse said. “I think they have something to call their own now.”

Thomson’s main hope for the Lowdown is to create a space for people to gather, like a town square or a bazaar.

“It feels nice to be involved in something good for the neighborhood,” he said.

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.