Every second and fourth Saturday of the month, a group of neighbors from Allendale, Maxwell Park, Laurel, and Bancroft gather under the trees at the Walgreens parking lot on High Street to pick up reflective safety vests with the Oakland Public Works logo, plastic bags, pickers, and other supplies before fanning out into the surrounding neighborhoods to clean up trash.

The High Street Coalition was formed in July 2020 by Shoshanna Tenn, who grew frustrated with the amount of trash she saw collecting on the street while driving around the neighborhood.

“It felt like I was seeing masks on the ground everywhere,” said Tenn. “I remember being in the car with my kids complaining about the trash, and my kids said, ‘Do something about it, mom. You always talk about how dirty it is.’”

High St. Clean Up Volunteers
The High Street Coalition meets twice a month to clean up the neighborhoods surrounding High Street. Credit: Amir Aziz

Tenn decided to go out on foot and start cleaning up the trash around High Street. She posted on NextDoor, informing her immediate neighbors of her plan. After one of her neighbors, Michele Gadbois responded to her call-out, the pair “adopted” the corner of High Street and Quigley using the city of Oakland’s Adopt a Spot program, where residents can sign up to help clean streets, creeks, parks, and other public spaces. Volunteers work closely with Oakland Public Works, which provides an orientation and tools and supplies. 

“It’s not difficult,” Tenn said. “We encourage other people to do it.”

The first two clean-ups, she said, were just her and Gadbois. But word spread quickly on Nextdoor, and more neighbors began to join. 

The coalition now has 10 core members, including Tenn: James Owen, Linda Hunt, Jillian Greenacre, Karen Fong, Jacob Ritchie, Cindy Hobbs, Chris Gaw, and Peter and Emilly Wasserman. Gadbois no longer lives in the neighborhood. But the clean-ups can draw as many as eight to 25 neighbors—usually a mix of new and returning volunteers—depending on the time of year. The group’s growing email list currently stands at 180. 

The most trash the coalition has picked up during a single clean-up, Tenn said, was 20-25 bags. The volunteers don’t have to worry about disposing of the trash bags; Public Works comes by to pick them up. 

In the several years since the clean-ups started, Tenn has gotten positive feedback from neighbors—and her kids, who are now in college. “My kids came home and told me how much better High Street looks,” she said. “It feels good with people noticing.”

On the Saturday morning The Oaklandside visited the clean-up; coalition members were busy working on the logistics for a “bulky junk block party,” where, in addition to their regular neighborhood walk, they invited local residents to drop off their unwanted large items for disposal. As group members chatted about who would walk the neighborhood picking up trash and who would stay behind to assist with the bulky items, cars piled with trash lined up along Redding Street to access the group’s staging area behind Walgreens. 

James Owen, one of the coalition’s leaders, reminded the volunteers about safety measures: no picking up poop or needles, and if you’re going to clean an area next to a freeway off-ramp, do it with a buddy.

“James is hugely important to the group,” Tenn said. “I can’t stress enough how much time and effort he puts in.”

In addition to partnering with the High Street Coalition, Oakland’s Public Works department has teamed with other groups from East Oakland to help organize neighborhood bulk pickups, which allow residents to avoid driving down to the city’s main dropoff facility in deep East Oakland to get rid of unwanted clutter. 

From trash cleanups to community landscaping

In the spring of 2021, Caltrans cleared an encampment where homeless people had been living near a freeway off-ramp along High Street, leaving behind an empty and flat surface. Tenn and other coalition members saw an opportunity to clean up and repurpose the area as a native-plant garden, which the group would be responsible for caring for.

The coalition contacted Caltrans, the agency that owns the land, to learn how to be part of its Adopt-A-Highway program. After what Tenn describes as a “much harder process than she thought,” Caltrans approved their application to adopt the area next to the off-ramp. 

“We went through 12 drafts of a landscape plan before Caltrans would approve us,” she said. “We were ready to give up.” 

In February 2022, the coalition hosted a gardening day that attracted 40 volunteers. The team purchased mulch and rented a truck to get all of the supplies and plants over to the site. Tenn estimates that the group spent over $1,000 on supplies, only to have Caltrans halt the project over issues with the types of mulch and plants the group had purchased and how to access water for the garden. The coalition suggested fundraising to help offset the cost of replacing the old irrigation system at the site, an idea Tenn says Caltrans never responded to.

“We got nothing from them, except we were given a citation because one of our volunteers wasn’t wearing a helmet during a clean-up,” she said.

In an email statement to The Oaklandside, a spokesperson for Caltrans said that the agency does not provide irrigation for Adopt-A-highway plantings due to their policy on water conservation and encouraged residents “to pursue other options such as accessing water from the neighboring property or 5-gallon water jugs for their garden.” 

Ultimately, the mulch and plant issues were resolved, but not the matter of fixing the irrigation system in the new garden. Fortunately, said Tenn, the coalition has gotten help from Fire Station 17, just down the road from the off-ramp.

High St. Clean Up Volunteers
All of the trash bags the coalition collects get picked up by Oakland Public Works. Credit: Amir Aziz

Linda Hunt, also a core coalition member, is in charge of contacting the fire station when more water is needed to help ensure the plants are properly irrigated. The firefighters have occasionally come to water the garden themselves, especially during heatwaves. 

“That’s one of the best examples of a partnership between public servants and neighbors,” Tenn said. “They have been helpful and responsive.”

Tenn is hopeful that once the rainy season rolls around, the plants will have what they need to bloom come spring. 

Despite the hurdles in getting the garden going, Tenn said it has been rewarding to see this part of the neighborhood transformed. And she would like to see more groups like the High Street coalition emerge in other Oakland neighborhoods. 

For Tenn, it’s all about “neighbors coming together to help with beautification.” 

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.