A collective of Bay Area nonprofits, residents, and small businesses working under the name 7th Street Thrives released a report in late September laying out an expansive plan to revitalize West Oakland’s storied Seventh Street corridor, once a hub of commerce and entertainment so lively that it was referred to as the “Harlem of the West.”

Building on work that began in the 1990s, the 40-page document details long-standing systemic issues impacting communities around Seventh Street—particularly Black residents whose families have lengthy histories in the area—and proposes solutions to reinvigorate the commercial strip between Brush and Wood streets.

“The 7th Street neighborhood has been redlined for too long,” the report states. “Neighborhood residents, businesses, and community are anxious to see urgent reforms … making it even more critical to act fast and galvanize more control over the neighborhood and its success.”

The goal of 7th Street Thrives, according to the report, is to “create a thriving Black business, arts, and cultural district that draws on and sustains 7th Street’s rich legacy” by activating underused or vacant spaces to promote foot traffic, providing funding and technical assistance to emerging and longtime Black-owned businesses, and increasing beautification efforts.

The coalition lists dozens of partners on its website, led by several Oakland-based nonprofits including Bay Area Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), and Alliance for Community Development. The city of Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department is also listed as a collaborator, alongside a variety of other community-based organizations and businesses.

Sasha Werblin, senior program officer at Bay Area LISC, a financial institution that supports community development projects, told The Oaklandside the preferred term for the 7th Street Thrives effort is “reparative development.”

“We’ve tried to stay away from the term ‘revitalization’ because it’s been used constantly in more of a pejorative way for, especially, cultural communities,” added Werblin. “The term [reparative] is honoring the fact that there is a need for repair in this community that’s been redlined and decimated by intentional actions by local government and federal government agencies.”

Unlike previous attempts by the city of Oakland and commercial developers to repair the corridor, which Werblin said have tried to “drive huge outcomes in a relatively short timeframe,” 7th Street Thrives focuses on small, yet actionable measures that are already underway.

“There was a lot of planning and not as much action,” Werblin said, referring to previous plans. “We really work to be different by respecting and supporting those planning efforts while seeing how we can fill the gaps.”

‘A mini version of downtown Oakland’

A BART training passes above a 7th Street sign in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Today, Seventh Street looks completely different from what it looked like in the early and mid-20th century. In the early 1900s, scores of Black people from the South migrated to West Oakland in search of better job opportunities. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Seventh Street corridor was nicknamed the Harlem of the West for its vibrant jazz and blues music scene, with once-booming nightclubs like Slim Jenkins Supper Club and Esther’s Orbit Room hosting performances by Billie Holiday, Al Green, Etta James, B. B. King, and other legendary musicians. During the daytime, it served as a bustling economic, cultural, and social hub, complete with a Black-owned pharmacy, banks, grocery shops, eateries, and record stores.

Ronnie Stewart, executive director of the West Coast Blues Society, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving blues and jazz music as an art form, described Seventh Street as an economic powerhouse in its heyday that was mere walking distance from his childhood home on Adeline Street.

“Seventh Street was a mini version of downtown Oakland,” he said. “It had all the components that one would need in a thriving community. We used to say, ‘We don’t have to go downtown with the white man; we can do our business right here.’”

Noni Session, a third-generation West Oakland resident and the co-founder and executive director of EB PREC, remembers when she and her family would frequent Seventh Street in the 1980s. Session and her father, who used to own what is now Cypress Grocery on Mandela Parkway, would stop by Esther’s Orbit Room to pick up bait, ice, snacks, and soda before going fishing at the Seventh Street pier.

“West Oakland, right there on Seventh Street, is where my family’s future developed,” Session said. “There’s no other place that we’ve been in for about 50 years.”

But after World War II ended, wartime jobs disappeared, leaving many Black West Oaklanders unemployed and impoverished. In a bid to revitalize the neighborhood, which city officials at the time considered “blighted,” city planners and commercial developers embarked on the construction of the above-ground West Oakland BART station, the Main Post Office building, and the Cypress Freeway, which collapsed following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

However, these so-called “urban renewal” projects devastated the region. Almost 5,000 families were displaced, more than 800 businesses shut down, and about 2,500 Victorian homes were razed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. From the late 1950s through the 1960s, West Oakland’s population fell by 20%, the 7th Street Thrives report states.

“That was what destroyed the economic component of Seventh Street,” Stewart said regarding the urban redevelopment projects at that time. “They would block off the front of nightclubs, leave big bulldozers and heavy equipment, have street closures … They wouldn’t do anything to support the businesses.”

“Most of these commercial developers actually haven’t ever walked the corridor,” Session said. “So, where’s the logic in creating what you may name a ‘community development plan’ without having a sense of the community?”

Aiming to create positive—and lasting—change in West Oakland

Placards on the sidewalk on 7th Street in West Oakland pay homage to artists who helped establish the corridor as a hub for Black music and entertainment in decades past. Credit: Amir Aziz

The 7th Street Thrives report is the result of a two-year investigation by advisory and working groups—comprised of 27 representatives from small businesses, nonprofits, and housing authorities—who reviewed reports from previous revitalization efforts, surveyed the physical environment, and collected feedback from residents and other stakeholders to determine how best to move forward.

“We’ve walked every step of that corridor and spent that time really taking a fresh look at it,” Session said.

The report outlines four sequential priorities, each dependent on the last.

During the research phase, 7th Street Thrives found overflowing trash cans, vandalized properties, sporadic dumping of furniture and other large items, overgrown vegetation, scant foot traffic, and vacant storefronts along the corridor.

“Business owners have been really frustrated about the amount of trash not getting cleaned up, and they often have to use their own resources to do cleanup around their business,” said Werblin.

In response, the first priority of the 7th Street Thrives plan involves beautifying the environment by establishing regular cleaning and maintenance services and supporting existing small businesses to help Seventh Street appear more inviting and attract more visitors.

The second entails strengthening the political power of local business owners by creating a merchants’ association that will “be the voice that engages with the city and potential investors,” Werblin said. This would differ from a traditional business improvement district in that it would be more of a grassroots effort that does not heavily rely on the local government to operate, she added.

The third objective will be to activate vacant and underutilized land by using storefront windows, fences, and walls along the street for marketing campaigns to reframe the historically blighted narrative surrounding the commercial corridor.

Ensuring these solutions are long-lasting—the fourth and final priority area—would be achieved through creating sustainable infrastructure such as a community development corporation, or by forming a West Oakland small business resource collaborative that “[galvanizes] resources for West Oakland’s Black and People of Color owned business community,” the report states.

The 7th Street Thrives collective hopes to implement these plans within the next one to two years, according to the document. Werblin and Session described these goals as ambitious, yet doable.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Werblin said. “We’re just a couple of folks loving on Seventh Street and working to repair it.”

Roselyn Romero covers small businesses for The Oaklandside as a 2023-24 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. Previously, she was an investigative intern at NBC Bay Area and the inaugural intern for the global investigations team of The Associated Press through a partnership with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Roselyn graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and minors in Spanish, ethnic studies, and women's and gender studies. She is a proud daughter of Filipino immigrants and was born and raised in Oxnard, California.