Before you enter Omni Commons, you’re greeted by its “free store”—racks of colorful clothing free for the taking by unhoused residents living near the Temescal property or anyone else in need.
This store, which extends into the foyer of the 22,000-square-foot building on Shattuck Avenue, is part of Omni Commons’ greater experiment in redistributing Oakland’s wealth and resources. Since 2014, a volunteer collective has operated a radical sort of community center there, with an ethos of providing to people instead of profiting off of them.
The building has served as a headquarters for mutual aid groups, a venue for film screenings, puppet shows, hip-hop concerts, and zine festivals, a clinic for repairing electronics and decorating bicycles, a laboratory for microbiology experiments, and a meeting space for countless community organizers.
“Pretty much every Bay Area leftist group knows about or has passed through Omni at some time,” said Kai Ye, who does press for the collective. “It’s an important space for building social and political movements at a time when affordable events space is extremely difficult to find.”
Those options could become even more elusive if Omni doesn’t raise an extraordinary amount of money in the next month. The collective, which bought the building in 2016, owes nearly $900,000 on its property loan and could face foreclosure if it fails to come up with the funds or obtain another loan quickly.
A crowd-funding campaign has brought in $28,000 so far, and the group is planning a fundraiser party for the evening of Nov. 11 while furiously filling out loan applications.
“We’re working all fronts,” said Yardena Cohen, one of Omni’s many co-founders. She said it’s unclear what their original lender—an anonymous donor who enabled them to buy the property—will do if they don’t get the $900,000.
“We’re trying our best to get them paid off before we find out,” she said.
The pandemic decimated Omni’s income
Seeds for Omni Commons were planted during Occupy Oakland, where thousands of people camped out downtown and demonstrated in the streets, dreaming of a society where power and wealth weren’t concentrated among a select few.
The momentum and relationships built during that movement prompted a large group of organizers to seek out a physical space to continue their work. Some were part of organizations that were renting from exploitative landlords at the time, Cohen said, and they longed for a place where they’d be in control.
The white and blue building where they landed, at the corner of Shattuck and 48th Street, was built in 1934 as the Ligure Club, a social headquarters for Genoese garbage collectors. At the time, Temescal was an Italian American neighborhood, and the clubhouse, with its ballroom and bocce ball court, served some 900 members. In the 1980s, the building became the Omni nightclub and was later privately owned by a couple who rented it out for various uses.
The Omni Commons collective signed a lease in 2014, which included the appealing option to purchase the building.
“We wanted a world without landlords,” said Cohen. “We wanted it to be off the permanently speculative real estate market.”
They were able to buy the property for $2 million, thanks to an anonymous wealthy donor who covered half the cost outright and gave them a loan for the other half.
According to Cohen, Omni has never missed a monthly payment, but the loan, meant to be a bridge loan until they found another one, included a nearly $900,000 balloon payment after five years. The collective was able to negotiate a one-year extension because of the pandemic, but it expires at the end of this year.
Like most venues, Omni Commons has struggled throughout the pandemic, shutting down completely and then scaling back its public events. Many of the 10 member organizations permanently based in the building experienced hardship too, and Omni forgave their monthly payments to the collective, previously a reliable source of income along with revenue from events.
To make matters worse, there was significant turnover among volunteers at the time, including people in charge of finances, collective members said.
“There’s been no lack of understanding about what we needed to be doing, but we lost some institutional memory in the past couple years, and it’s taken us a while to get our act together,” Cohen said.
Computers, parachutes, and vegan cheese
On Wednesday afternoon, visitors rifled through the racks of pants and jackets at the free store in the Omni entryway, some grabbing cans of food or fresh carrots and celery from the Town Fridge outside the building.
Inside the entry hall, the staff from Acta Non Verba, a youth urban farming organization that’s one of Omni’s 10 members in the space, handed out produce boxes to people who came by to collect their weekly shares.
“If Omni shuts down, groups like that are going to be displaced,” Ye said.
Upstairs, Joe Leisner, a longtime Berkeley activist and volunteer with Food Not Bombs, was hammering pieces of wood that will turn into a new wall separating Omni’s library from a new political meeting room.
Over in the “disco room,” Francesca Tettamanzi was preparing to host a roundtable discussion for community-centered businesses.
Downstairs, C.C. Clark was setting up a silkscreen to print a Lithuanian flag in the “media lab,” an area of the building that looks like a garment factory, where anyone can drop in and pay $5 to use the equipment. Clark has been working the industrial sewing machine to prototype parachutes for Zipline, a company delivering healthcare and aid around the world by drone.
The former Ligure bocce ball court is now home to two of the original Omni members, hackerspace Sudo Room and DIY science organization Counter Culture Labs. The space is at once dizzying and neatly organized, with rows of labeled boxes filled with parts and gadgets, computers and test tubes, and a vintage vending machine.
At the lab, some citizen scientists are part of an effort to develop an open-source model for producing insulin, aiming to make a generic drug accessible without reliance on the pharmaceutical industry. Others are concocting vegan cheese.
Only the large, chandelier-adorned ballroom sat empty, waiting for its next event.
The Omni building is a “gem of a space,” said Peter Mui, who hosts “fixit clinics” with Sudo Room. “The people I’ve met are amazing.”
Mui thinks Omni Commons is a good candidate for one of the “climate resilience hubs” the city plans to fund for resource distribution and disaster response. That’s one of many dreams Omni members have for the property, including opening a commercial kitchen, making it wheelchair accessible, continuing improvements on the 90-year-old structure, and converting the ownership structure to a land trust. But those plans are on hold until their future in the building is secure.
In the years since Omni opened, members have watched high-end housing developments spring up around them and seen longstanding institutions disappear, making their effort to “preserve this precious little gem that remains here” feel urgent, Mui said.
“This is the kind of place where once they disappear, they don’t come back,” he said.