Inside a warehouse in West Oakland, a child swings upside down in the air, attached to a harness and a rope that’s hooked onto metal rafters. A man shouts to the girl, “Kick your legs up,” encouraging her to complete a trapeze routine.
Decades ago this space was a “company of machines that made machines,” said Lili Gaudreau, owner of Trapeze Arts.
Now it’s a school for circus arts.
The building is in the southwest corner of West Oakland. You’d almost have to be lost to find it, even though it’s located right near the Bay Bridge.
“It couldn’t be in a better place, but it’s like the forgotten stepsister,” Gaudreau said.
To some, that has been the story of West Oakland, once a hub for World War II shipbuilding and manufacturing, where people migrated from the South to live and work. At its height, around 1950, there were 40,000 residents in the neighborhood. Today roughly 25,000 people live there.
After the war, thousands of people and jobs left for the suburbs, and several public projects destroyed parts of West Oakland. Decades of blight and crime followed, with little revitalization.
Now West Oakland is experiencing an influx of new money and people, driven by the demand for space in the Bay Area. Rents and home prices have soared. It’s been hard for the city to keep up, and some are concerned that the speed at which West Oakland is changing is leaving behind economic equity and human dignity.
Industrial Spaces Could Play a Role in Creating Economic Equity
Achieving a new neighborhood can be done in a lot of different ways, said Brian Beveridge, co-director of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a nonprofit.
“I think leadership and public policy need to use a different lens,” he said.
Most of the redevelopment happening now is focused on big developments and projects with strong capital, leaving out a portion of the population that has been underserved for years, said Beveridge.
Other critics say many of the people who have been struggling in West Oakland for decades are being displaced, rather than lifted, by this new tide of money.
“I mean, you want to deal with racism, then deal with racism,” Beveridge said. “Racism is an economic issue. People are shut out of the economy.”
There needs to be more innovative thinking in government and more “handholding” for local entrepreneurs to create more economic opportunities for them to succeed, he said.
Beveridge likes the idea of creating a large space — perhaps the size of a Costco — that could accommodate lots of smaller vendors.
“Why couldn’t we take a warehouse and do that effectively with 30 or 40 small businesses?” said Beveridge.
The space could be a destination spot, like the Public Market in Emeryville or Market Hall in Rockridge, he said. But in West Oakland, it would look and feel like the local businesses in that community.
This would give the city a chance to live up to the values it preaches, such as equity and integrity, said Beveridge.
Oakland Lacks Resources to Support All Kinds of Business
The city doesn’t have the staff that would support such a project, said Margot Lederer-Prado, with the city’s economic development office. She is also the person at City Hall who knows the most about the current and future status of industrial properties in Oakland. Her job is find space for new or expanding businesses, but not necessarily the microbusinesses that Beveridge is talking about.
“We need someone like me, who rolls up the sleeves and writes the grants,” she said. Someone who can spend the time and energy to see a project through, she said.
Some have criticized the West Oakland Specific Plan, adopted by the city in 2014, for not including enough direction on how to equal the playing field for current residents. The plan itself states that it’s important to retain and preserve West Oakland’s industrial land and the job base that it supports. And in that document, Lederer-Prado asks how the city can court new industries while preserving “existing quality jobs that have provided generations of Oakland residents with a decent living wage.”
But Oakland doesn’t really get to decide which businesses move in and which move out on private property, said Lederer-Prado. And the city is not prepared to buy property to develop because of what it costs, she said.
Meanwhile, the plan acknowledges that there is a skills gap between residents and the kinds of jobs that are expected to grow in the region, such as tech, life sciences and green energy.
“Those with families who may have been unemployed for one or two generations — it is hard to relate,” said Lederer-Prado.
Providing Jobs is About Human Dignity
Some businesses moving into the area are providing good entry-level jobs for locals while trying to improve the area. If you pass Ocho Candy on Adeline Street, you might see Rich Turner taking a break. His apron is covered in organic chocolate.
“A lot of the people in the community out here come by and knock on the door,” he said. “And they are constantly looking for work. It’s hit and miss.”
Turner will tell you he’s come a long way. Last year, he was living in a halfway house in downtown Oakland.
“Fresh out of prison, you don’t really have much to fall back on,” he said. “And I did 10 years, so I didn’t have too much waiting for me.”
Last year, Turner was given a chance to work at Ocho Candy.
“It was the best thing next to sliced bread,” he said.
The owner, Denis Ring, said he tries to hire locally. But he estimates Ocho retains around 20 percent of local hires, adding that some employees just don’t have the simple skills — such as showing up — to stay with the job.
But he gives them a chance. He said it’s about human dignity — and that for a neighborhood like West Oakland, providing jobs is one of the best things any business can do.