On one end, you’re in Oakland. At the other, you’re in Berkeley. If you keep going, you’ll end up back in Oakland. If you trip, you’ll fall into Emeryville. It’s an interesting mash-up of municipalities with a rich history of activism and commerce. When I moved here 10 years ago, there was only one restaurant within a short walk and the newspaper once referred to Alcatraz as a “corridor of violence” between South Berkeley and North Oakland gangs. Now it sports a bicycle collective, a cupcake shop, several cafes, two yoga studios, a weekly farmers’ market and about five more spaces with permits to open in the next six months.
With headlines constantly barking about evictions in San Francisco and plans to turn West Oakland into a playground for the rich and techie, I wondered what was happening to my neighborhood. To get a sense of my neighbors’ perspectives, I talked to people from 10 blocks of Alcatraz Ave. about their lives, their impressions of the recent change and their ideas about how we might endeavor to “do it better.”
Photo: David Jerrett
Payam Imani and Chris Meyers
Alchemy Collective Café
Years in neighborhood:
Payam: 5, Chris: 8
2010 — the seed of revolution was planted.
2012 — storefront on Adeline
2013 — café on Alcatraz
How Alchemy started:
Payam Imani: We worked for an independent business owner and it was a cool job. I don’t think either of us really saw a future in being baristas, but it was a nice day job. Wasn’t until it got bought out by a family from San Francisco that notoriously buys places and just cuts all the quality out and runs it a little more mechanically that we started to realize there was a problem. Not just for us, but for other people that needed jobs.
Chris Meyers: We’re both the type of person that, when we decide to do something, we’ll keep trying until it happens. When you have a crazy idea, it’ll attract a lot of people who are really excited for about ten minutes and then they find other things to do because it’s just so much work and it takes so long. But for us it was really our baby, so we were going to keep trying.
Imani: [In 2011,] we started out at Phat Beets, the farmer’s market. They’re social justice oriented so they’re really excited about the idea of the co-op. We started pouring coffee at a table. We didn’t make any money, but it was a way to start and feel like we were in business.
Meyers: Then we did the cart at Biofuel Oasis for like…a month. We were gonna do it longer. Then we figured out that it was just not sustainable. None of us had a truck that could drive the thing. So we were borrowing someone’s truck to drive the trailer to bring this thing to Biofuel Oasis, unpack it, start up the generator and do that for a few hours.
Imani: The espresso machine takes a half hour just to heat up, build pressure. Do that all before 7 a.m. and then you have like ten customers.
Meyers: We were looking for a tiny little storefront and we found it at the Firehouse Art Collective space up the street. We basically just took our cart and shoved it inside and the city let us be a mobile unit so it was pretty affordable. We still had to raise some money through a Kickstarter to get that going. None of us had any kind of finances to put into it. Just labor. [When we got the opportunity to move into this space], we did the second Kickstarter. Half of it was funded by that and the other half was just people who had come in when we were in the smaller spot and said, “If you guys ever need to borrow some money, we’d like to help you.” So we took out a pretty big business loan from some people that just liked what we were doing.
Imani: First we needed our friends. And then we needed our customers.
Meyers: We couldn’t have done it without being worker-owned, because we have a group of people who all feel ownership of it and who are willing to sacrifice to make it happen as an investment for them.
Imani: Chris and I poured so much into it. And there’s not necessarily a quick financial turnaround on that. But what you do have is freedom and independence and something secure for the future. So we can keep growing and not have to live a life in fear susceptible to an employer sort of ominously deciding your fate. It’s totally worth it, and our neighborhood provides us with so many resources like networking that is just invaluable. Alchemy as a cooperative business model could work anywhere, but for us to start, I don’t think we could’ve started anywhere else. We needed the help of the community on every level.
Photo: David Jerrett
Why this neighborhood?
Meyers: Payam and I know from working [at Nomad] that there’s [always been] this sense of community [here]. We would meet a lot of people in that café who lived around here. But as far as this strip, maybe you didn’t feel the sense of community as much because there weren’t as many spaces where you would come and see a bunch of people who might be your neighbors.
Imani: There is an overwhelming excitement for things to come to this neighborhood because we have actually been kind of without things for a while. This neighborhood has a lot of people who live in it so it’s a big community that’s already been here. And it’s working on that level quite well, but we’ve always lacked restaurants or convenience.
Meyers: Having more community hubs is really important, having more common spaces where people can meet each other. I watch people every day just start talking to someone. And the next time they come in, they’re friends. And they’re hanging out. It’s kinda nice to see.
About starting a new business in a transitioning neighborhood:
Meyers: I think it’s a lot of subtle things and it’s a lot about attitude and the way you go into it. I think there’s a tendency, in situations or places like this where a new business might be interested in opening, to just sort of barge in because they can pay their rent. It’s like “I have ownership of this whole space. And I belong in this neighborhood because I can pay the rent. I don’t need to get to know or try to engage with anyone. ” And it can feel really disrespectful, I think, for people who have lived there for a long time.
Imani: Most people seem to be pretty excited about [the new businesses]. There are a bunch of storefronts that were just empty for a long time. The overwhelming push from a lot of people who were from here is [that it] needs to get back on its feet. I think the biggest thing is building owners in the neighborhood selecting the right businesses that integrate with the neighborhood, not just letting entities come in that are just totally out of left field. If [our landlord] wanted to, he could’ve let a Starbucks come in here. He chose the neighborhood café that had developed organically.
About police presence:
Meyers: One way to do it better I think, is actually engaging with people instead of just sort of making problems go away. For instance, all the merchants got this survey asking questions like, “How can things be better?” It sounded like it was angling toward “Do you want us to bring more police here so that you feel safer?” I think that’s just not the way to do it. Just talk to people. It doesn’t fix anything to have the police come in and haul someone away.
Imani: I feel like the police involvement is something that none of us ever really want to resort to for any reason. And I feel like we’re only really talking about the outliers, certain people that you kinda always have to deal with in the sense that they’re causing a disturbance. You can’t just try to make anyone go away. It’s everybody’s neighborhood, so it’s a matter of just being here with integrity.
How can we maintain the good while we keep changing?
Imani: This community has such a history of activism and progressive thinking. It is a nice blend of old school Berkeley-ites and new good energy. I think a lot of the newcomers can become allies to the cause of the neighborhood. I get a sense that the history is still here and I don’t think it’s gonna go anywhere. It used to have a history of prosperity and I think it’s gonna come back to it in a healthy way.
This neighborhood is too strong. There’s gonna be a little bit of push and pull, but I don’t think it’s gonna be pushed around too much.
To meet more Alcatraz Avenue neighbors, check out the rest of the series!