Saying the diversity of Oakland is dizzying is to re-utter a truism. More than a hundred — I’ve even heard more than 150 — languages are spoken here, in the Star Wars shadow of our container port. Ethnic cultural orgs form like crystal deposits and scintillate from storefronts in every population knot. There’s a there here, but the who is harder.

As if to layer silliness on overkill, everyone goes out of their way to say that East Oakland is PARTICULARLY diverse, which is like saying that someone is unusually pregnant. East Oakland is all the more confusing to an East Bay newcomer like me because it divides into seemingly random districts, which further subdivide into neighborhoods, some of which comprise only five square blocks.

Appropriately enough, right at the intersection of two of these districts — Fruitvale and San Antonio — in who knows what neighborhood, you’ll find an outcropping of that peculiar Bay Area idealism that thinks art, politics, and multi-ethnicity are the magic three.

That’s the Eastside Arts Alliance, a nine-year-old political arts collective that promenades the Bay Area’s best impulses along a short block of International Boulevard. Melded from four Oakland orgs that came together to plan what is now the annual Malcolm X JazzArts Festival, the ESAA is intent on bringing together the numberless small communities of this particular Oakland street corner.

It took nearly ten years, five different locations, and a lot of fundraising know-how, but on New Year’s Eve 2006 they opened the doors on the Eastside Cultural Center, a building they (oh, that San Francisco dream!) own and have renovated to a quirky state of the art.

They rent residences upstairs for below-market rates (some of their tenants are teenage girls emancipated from the foster care system) and run programs below that include youth arts training, adult performance presentations, and family-oriented art classes. There’s a small sound production studio, a visual arts studio, video production, and a performance space with stage.

This org is the real deal, sacrificing some potential funding by keeping their treasure quiet, so as to give neighborhood folks a chance to define it as their own. The governing organization is run on the same principles that shape their mission, and communities of color have a full palette to paint from here.

The kids are coming in to dance, mc, and watch movies. The classrooms runneth over, featuring leadership and arts entrepreneurialism classes, so that time spent at the cultural center isn’t just about developing the artist, but also the community member, and the business-owner.

Of course, the mixing up of communities is slow. Staff collective member Elena Serrano told me that girls from different communities will take dance classes together, but boys tend to stick with their own groups, dividing along the lines of artistic disciplines. Will brushing elbows in the hallway make mural painters and beat samplers more neighborly? Stay tuned.

So what’s in all of this for you? Every Thursday night from 8:30 to 10 (and I mean every) is Holla Back, the ESAA’s open mic series. Second Fridays from 9 to 2 is a Freestyle Dance Party. Final Fridays from 7 to 9 are film screenings. The Malcolm X Jazz Festival will be on May 17th this year at San Antonio Park, and you can look forward to a collaboration between Amiri Baraka and David Murray to work itself out in the coming months. Check out their website for other programs.

The Eastside Cultural Center is located at 2277 International Boulevard in Oakland. For more information visit


Claire Light

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