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West Oakland, Lower Bottoms, Part 1: Self-Determination

West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood is home to the historical headquarters of the Black Panther Party. It’s also one train stop away from San Francisco, and escalating real-estate prices are quickly changing the character of the neighborhood.  This episode, we meet locals who find themselves living at the intersection of heritage and gentrification.

Special thanks this episode to field producer Ariana Proehl, KQED, and The National Endowment for the Arts.

Helpful links to folks in this episode:

Refa One

Senay Alkebu-Lan

Bikes 4 Life

Ayodele Nzinga

B Love's Guest House

Ariana Proehl


Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, in collaboration with KQED, it’s Out of the Blocks: one neighborhood, everybody’s story.

We’re the first thought when you come from San Francisco, so we’re, you know, closest you can get to downtown San Francisco where all these tech companies are at. And so now, all these places that once were neglected are now in big demand.

I am literally one venue fee-raise or one house-raise away from having to rethink what it means to be an artist who is site-specific and has earned their bones in the city of Oakland.

This is definitely a sacred space for me.

From producers Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, with field producer Ariana Proehl, Out of the Blocks: West Oakland, Lower Bottoms—right after this.

Senay: My name is Senay, and I’m also known as Refa One. I’m a local organizer, activist and muralist here in West Oakland, and we’re standing in front of a commemorative mural dedicated to the Black Panther Party, rank and file, as well as Huey P. Newton. This is ground-zero for where the Black Panther Party was born. Literally the first headquarters was three blocks from here, and this is one of the epicenters of Black Power in the nation.

Senay Jr.: I’m Senay Jr.. I’m 21 years old and I worked on this mural. Painting the panther, I think, was my most important contribution.

S: My son and myself are what is known as Panther Cubs. Not only are we born from Black Panther Party members, but we also continue the tradition of fighting for the black self-determination of our community. Both of my parents were Panthers, so one could say I was radicalized from the jump.

S Jr.: My dad also did politicize me from day one. I was always aware that there were global forces that kind of changed the conditions for people who look like me, and understanding my greatness, my potential for greatness, and that I’m worthy of life and worthy of care and worthy of love.

S: The Black Panther Party came on the cuffs of organizations like Nation of Islam, the Garvey Movement. And so there was already momentum in this country for black self-determination. There was a war waged against Black Power and the Black Power Movement, as well as the Black Panther Party, to beat it down into submission or nonexistence. And we look at certain conditions in our community in Oakland—the homeless crisis that exists right now is deplorable. It did not exist at this level when the Black Panther Party started, yet the Black Panther Party was addressing people having proper food and shelter and education at that time.

S Jr.: Really, when I think about the time they lived in, I’m most impressed by their bravery. You know, a lot of the Panthers were around my age and some even younger, and when I think about myself and my peers and the sacrifices that they were ready to make, I think that there’s a little bit of work to do for us to measure up and, you know, move forward to what they were able to accomplish. 

S: We don’t just plant a seed so we can eat the fruit. We plant a seed so the fruit will be there for generations. I’m very proud that he has taken up the banner to continue spreading these messages of truth and love to the black community, because we live in a time of extreme cowardice and apathy. Not one point on the Black Panthers’ ten-point platform has been resolved. We’d be remiss if we thought—who’s that fools name that was in office?—Nixon was any better than Donald Trump. I mean, if you put them two dudes together, Nixon don’t look as bad. So, we have a Donald Trump fifty years later. So, there hasn’t been any progress made in regards of power in the black community. We want power. Even this wall, this mural here, this Panther mural, we had to seize this space. This is a toxic business that’s here, run by people from outside of our community, selling us toxic food and alcohol. But the community belongs to us.

Aaron Henkin: Huey P. Newton’s face looks out from this mural at the intersection of 14th and Peralta Street. What do you think he’d say if he saw this intersection of today that his image is looking out on?

S: He would probably say the message that we put right here in the middle. He would give us the command to organize and serve the people. The people are struggling, and if the people are struggling, your work is cut out for you. And if you’re struggling along with your people to help make their life better, then you’re betraying the people.

Ayodele Nzinga: I think that one of the things that intrigues people about me is I say things that other people just think. I don’t get it. I think there’s much more value in telling the truth. So… “When you live in rooms where shoe strings dangle, tripping you up in the race to get in, to get out, to get. Where windows stay broken even though they paint it shut. The rats always return, four and two-legged. You get tired. The water says, ‘Don’t get weary.’ Tired is a coat we can set aside to find joy in random beauty. Amaryllis through broken windows in brick houses, like brick house women with ‘forever’ tattooed in their eyes. Still beautiful, like still water. Dangerous depths. Dangling shoe-strings on worn-out shoes don’t signify worth. Worth is defined in floating with your eyes opened, seeing, knowing, and going on. Floating, back on the water, face to the heavens, ‘Is that all you got?’ Resolve. The sun is going to rise. Why not be the tide? Sometimes it’s got to be right because it can’t be wrong all the time. Dangling shoe-strings on worn-out shoes. Cars that don’t go in reverse. Dreams in boxes delivered broken, missing parts, without batteries. Deep water blues. Sing loudly in brash defiance. You will not kill me today. Laid my troubles on the water, watched them sink as the sun rose. Walked into the water, walked out clean.” Hello, my name is Ayodele Nzinga and I am the founding director of the Lower Bottom Playaz, Oakland’s oldest North American-African theatre company. There’s an African proverb that says “to fall down is to go forward faster.” We have a habit of falling forward. We are actually downtown Oakland, on Broadway—what theatre company doesn’t want to be downtown on Broadway?—as a result of being displaced from West Oakland, where my practice was originally situated. We started the August Wilson Century Cycle project there. We are the only theatre to have ever done the entire American Century Cycle in chronological order, and we started that work right there. That space went dark in 2013, right in the middle of the Century Cycle. It would have been a reasonable time for us to have rolled up our carpets and said we had done good service and just quit. Instead, we became the first troupe to ever do a full-length theatrical piece in the African-American Museum & Library at Oakland, where we did Fences. And on Thanksgiving Day, we wrapped an audience around the block in front of the museum. We came out of that and understood that this space we’re in, the Flight Deck, was looking for different local troupes to join this artistic experiment about venue-sharing. We were fortunate to become a part of this experiment that is sort of about ready to implode on itself because there is so much development downtown and so much property changing hands and the national model is to build a high-rise with retail space on the bottom, and this is prime real estate we’re sitting in. We may or may not be able to stay in this venue as a theatre company. And then, in 2016, I lost the luxury, the privilege of being solely an artist because the ability to stay in Oakland was even more tenuous. It wasn’t just about a venue; it was about personal living space. I live in one of those unregulated old Victorians down in West Oakland. No rent control. So, I am literally one venue fee-raise or house-raise away from having to rethink what it means to be an artist who is site-specific and has earned their bones in the city of Oakland. August Wilson talks about, “the wind’s always blowing, opportunity’s always there, yes, but can you make it blow for you?” Everybody’s always born with a purpose. Whatever you call “God” whispers in your ear right before you take your first breath. I remember what was whispered in my ear. I am living my purpose. I wanna be the light that somebody finds. I wanna be the fuse that sparks that light in the future so it’s always there, and if it’s there, there’s hope.

Tony Coleman: Bike-shop bikes, they are quality. So, this bike right here for instance, you could buy this bike right now, say if we sold this for, like, $200. A year from now, two years from now, if you was, like, moving and you needed to sell, you could put this on Craigslist and get $200 for it. They hold their value.

AH: So, it looks like you’ve got about a couple dozen bikes refurbished, shined-up and ready for resale here. You’ve got some tires for sale behind you, and then on the other side, you’ve got your repair shop.

TC: Yeah, I’ve got the repair shop. We do, you know, wheels, truing, adjusting the hub, flat fix, brake-adjustment, de-railer.

AH: You’ve got a lot of spare parts over here.

TC: Yeah, because we get a lot of bikes donated and used bikes, so then we have to end up having, you know, a lot of bins for them because then we don’t want to throw away components on them because they may be useful still. Hi, my name is Tony Coleman. We’re here at One Fam’s Bikes 4 Life, here in West Oakland. We knew we wanted to build a social enterprise, meaning we wanted to have a non-profit that we also had a business in, and it just so happens at the time that one of our youth were very popular in riding in packs, and they were all fixing up their bikes in a certain way and they were calling them scraper bikes off of, like, you see in every hood they fix up these old cars and they put these big ol’ rims on them, right? You know, because these are the cars they could afford. So, they would fix those things up. So, this was the youngsters’ way of doing that with bikes. And in doing so, they had this kind of swag and they were rolling all throughout the neighborhoods, and they would get through the intersection and be doing figure-eights, and while traffic is just held up looking at all these youngsters—and you know, this is all black and brown youth just doing their thing. And this is a trip because black and brown youth are just so creative and so, like, they take what they have and are able to make it look cool. Well, me as an organizer, I also see that that is a base and I’m thinking about, “Well, how can I get this base to also be a part of some of the things that we’re working on to affect change?” And we actually did. At first, we had a campaign called Ban the Box, and that was to eliminate the box that was on applications stating if you’ve been convicted of a felony or not. And so, we had an action downtown at City Hall, and we had all the bikes circle City Hall, and, like, we had this action and we actually got some wins on that. So, my idea at that point was just to have a space for them to fix their bikes, so I could have access to them and be able to organize and have them doing different things related to these bikes, but also for change, right? And in doing so, the demand turned us into business owners overnight, selling affordable and used bikes. You know, we depended heavily on volunteers and still do to this day. The only difference is that with our volunteers, we split the ticket as far as the mechanics. So, if a tune-up comes in for a hundred dollars, they get fifty, we get fifty, so it’s almost like a day-labor gig. But it’s still volunteers. We don’t have nobody on salary, we don’t have that kind of capacity yet. You know, I don’t go home at 5:00 and commute out of the community. No, I’m here because this is a mission from God that put me on this path when I got out of prison, to not go back and to be able to raise my kids, and I raised them to be grown. You know what I mean? So, I’m still dealing with everything. You know, I’m still, you know… “Oh, so-and-so got shot around the corner!” or, you know, a young lady is, you know, like she just told her parents that she’s pregnant and got kicked out, or… All that doesn’t just happen from nine to five. And here we are ten years. 

TC: We’re on 7th and Paralta. I’m on historic 7th Street. This was the jazz and blues mecca in the African-American community for many years. 

AH: We can hear behind you the sound of the… In Baltimore, we call it the Light Rail. What do you call it here?

TC: Well, that’s kind of, like, the demise of the jazz and blues district, and when they put that in in the 70s, that’s kind of what, like, killed the street right here. It was promised at the time that it was going to only be temporary and that at some point it was going to go underground, like they have it in San Francisco, but that has never happened.

AH: This is an elevated public transport train. What’s it called, the BART?

TC: Yeah, BART. Bay Area Rapid Transit. We’re the first stop when you come from San Francisco, so you know, we’re the closest you can get to downtown San Francisco where all these tech companies are at. And so now, all these places that once were neglected are now in big demand and crack houses are going for, you know, a million dollars. This area, matter of fact, last year, it was at 1 million, it’s at 1.5 million now. And we’re not against the, like, diversity and things being improved. We’re just against it at the cost of pushing people out. A lot of them are third-generationers. You know, they’ve been here all their life, and those that are not home-owners are now forced to move out because they can’t afford the rent and people that are moving in, you know, are happy. You know, I know that they’re probably not aware that they’re replacing someone that’s been here and was kind of a messed of thing or situation. In some ways, they probably shouldn’t feel guilty for it, but it’s just messed up, man. It’s just a messed-up situation, and we’re smack-dab in the middle of it as this bike shop because we’re a community organization and we invite everybody to the table. 

Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks: West Oakland, Lower Bottoms. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.

Traci Bartlow: My name is Traci Bartlow. People call me B-Love and we are here at B-Love’s Guest House in West Oakland.

AH: You live upstairs, but many people reside and work down here on the first floor.

TB: Yes, that’s right. Many people are down here on the first floor of the guest house, so it’s very interesting as a homeowner. I thought I was gonna have one tenant, but it’s such a unique space and how things all came together, it just made perfect sense to open up the space to the community. What’s happening y’all? Ya’ll doing good? I wanna introduce you to Aaron. He’s one of the producers with this radio podcast.

Dominic: So, my name’s Dominic. I’m in Oakland right now studying for the cannabis industry.

Jamel Trice: So, my name is Jamel Trice, but everybody calls me JT. I came out here to work for a rideshare. 

Malcom: My name is Malcom. I’m from New York City, and I’m out here this summer interning at Slack.

D: Staying here at Traci’s place has been an absolute treasure. Friendly, communal, and it’s luscious space to lounge around in.

JT: I found out about Traci through the Interwebs and it’s really been just a sanctuary for pretty much anybody, and there’s a lot of love here.

M: It’s kind of like a family down here. We’ve all been here throughout the summer, we’ve all gotten really close, we laugh, we talk. 

TB: You three are complete strangers, and you have found such a connection with each other. Like, sometimes I’m upstairs and ya’ll be, like, talking and having a good time, laughing, you know, into the night and it’s just really, really a cool connection that the three of them have had together. It’s kind of like a reality experience but not like a series on television, it’s like the real deal of how you’re building and growing and creating community with each other.

JT: Traci is, like, she’s a sister that’s literally living her dreams and everybody’s here to follow their dreams and their passions. And she inspires us. Not only inspires us, but gives us a safe haven to be in.

AH: This is sort of a rotating cast of characters down here, yeah?

TB: Yes.

AH: I mean, how long have you been doing this? How many people do you think have come in and out of this door?

TB: I would say thousands. I started business in 2008. All the rooms are occupied, so I can’t show you any of the bedrooms, but here’s my sanctuary! We’re in the garden, and it is so sunny today. It feels like it’s about, maybe, 74 degrees. No clouds in the sky. Yeah, this is definitely a sacred space for me, and we can walk this way… This one is an orange tree, this is a passion fruit vine, we have corn here, I have some strawberries… This is sugarcane, and it just took off.

AH: Yeah, it looks like it’s happy to be here. The shoots are about ten, twelve feet high.

TB: [laughs] Yes! Yes, they are, as well as the corn. The corn is having a contest with the sugarcane as to who’s gonna be taller and it looks like the sugarcane has won. I was born and raised in Oakland. I got a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center when I was nineteen, and I moved to New York and studied there and worked at dance companies and did traveling and performing, and then I moved back home. I just had a desire of wanting to have a home here in Oakland, the place that I was born and raised. And the finances were not for me to cover the entire mortgage on my own, so just had to figure something out and… When I was a child—and even as a teenager—my mother did domestic work, and she put us to work. So, learning about housekeeping was something I learned as a teenager. So, when I decided, like, “Oh, I can have a guest house,” or I was thinking a bed and breakfast, I knew how turn over the room and prepare for the next person. So, it’s one of the things that came together where it’s like, “Oh, here’s a skill I know. I can put it into action.”

AH: And now you’re doing it for yourself and your own enterprise and your own guests.

TB: Yes! I am happily doing it for myself and my guests and all the incredible people that come through to the guest house and… One of my guests that actually just checked out two days ago, she said, “I felt like I was held.” So, and how it’s important to have space held for you, she said, “I felt how this space was held for me in coming here.”

Kari Miller: There’s beauty in waking up, and there’s pain in waking up. My name’s Kari Miller, and I live on 10th Street in Lower Bottoms of Oakland. I grew up in Indiana. Our family was a part of the German Baptist faith, which is a very strict, rule-based religion. Very cult-like, in my opinion. And then my dad started asking questions and stuff wasn’t feeling right anymore, and so when I was five, we left but, you know, a lot of that mentality is still very prevalent in your life. So, it took a while to shift from that to being accepting of girls wearing jeans and going to public school, or whatever the things are that are kind of worldly. We had gotten out of that and kind of wanted to get away more so we moved to Washington state and I finished high school there, went to college, and then kind of started studying meditation and ended up in Costa Rica. Travelled around Costa Rica for a while and just kind of got in touch with who I was, got pregnant, and it wasn’t a good relationship. I have some unresolved childhood sexual trauma, and I think it kind of manifested in this relationship. You know, he was really, like, pushy and so I just kind of went into that and it led to me getting pregnant and that was the catalyst to getting out of that relationship and realizing how it was unhealthy. So, I came back to the U.S. but then I was pregnant, not wanting to raise a child, really not even wanting to be pregnant, but I did a lot of meditating and I knew that I had to carry the baby, and that was my personal path. And that was actually just last year. I looked into open adoption, where you actually still stay in touch with the child and be a part of that, and I found a family on the agency page that I was I like, “These are the people, these are the ones that I want to raise my child.” But it was gonna be a while before I was gonna be able to meet them, and then I went to the Folk Life Festival in Seattle, which is a big, cultural family festival, and actually from the picture I had seen, I knew what they looked like and at the festival I saw them. They were there from Oregon and I just walked up to them and started letting them know that I had wanted them to possibly be the parents of my child and we just hit it off and it was easy to understand each other. I went and lived with them, and then I gave birth in their house with the two moms and now, almost a year later, it’s awesome. I get to see him grow up. You know, I’m going there in couple weeks and I’ll stay at their place, and we’ll have… You know, I expanded my family and I brought their family and my family together, so it’s quite a… I’m really glad it’s over because it was really hard. It was a hard year. So, I met my partner last fall and it was a big catalyst for both of us as well. I was trying to get out of Oregon. She was looking for a shift in her life and she got a promotion down here. We were just searching for places, and then this came through and it’s just been exactly what I want in a neighborhood. People are outside and they talk to each other. I’m helping a neighbor over here with the block party that’s on Tuesday, and the garden that’s over here, and there’s just, like, a lot of emphasis on meeting new people and talking about race, you know? Like, that is… That’s a really special thing when you can have two people of different colors, talking about race in an open, honest way. One neighbor, you know, we were talking and I kind of… It was near Juneteenth and I apologized for my ancestors behavior and then I kind of said, you know, I’m sorry about gentrification and that I’m a part of it, and he said, “We don’t mind,”—him and his family or friends—“when other people move in. It’s that sometimes they don’t wanna become a part of the community and they don’t reach out, they don’t say hi, they just sort of stay to themselves.” And I do see that, and I think that it is important to become a part of the community because it makes you understand how other people operate and the reasons that they operate in that way. Then, you’re able to catch those sort-of racist thoughts or ideas or beliefs about how people should behave or what they should do, because some cultures bring certain things with them and you can’t just pick and choose or say, “I don’t like this thing,” or look down on a certain type of behavior when you don’t understand that there’s maybe a mechanism behind it. Leo! Come here, Leo! So, this is Leo. He’s a long-haired German shepherd, and he was adopted last fall in Oregon—when we still lived in Oregon—and he is our big lion. When we walk with him, people stop their cars and are like, “What kind of dog is that? He’s so beautiful!” So, it’s pretty cool. He’s really good with kids, so there’s a whole bunch of neighbor-kids over here that every time we walk by, they all wanna walk him or they’ll come to our door and knock, and it’s really cool. He’s got such an awesome temperament. He’s very protective but he’s also calm. He plays with the kids, he plays well with other dogs. So, it’s been fun having him here and you feel safe.

AH: So, you’ve been on both sides of an adoption within the same year.

CM: [laughs] That is right, yeah! That’s absolutely right. I’ve been on both sides of an adoption, for sure. Yeah.

Gertrude Bush: We’re at 14th Street and Willow, here in West Oakland, California. My name in Gertrude Bush, I’m 77 years old and I’ve been here, I’ve gone to school here, I’ve married here, I’ve divorced here, and I’ve lived practically all of my life here. When I was at Prescott School, which is over off of Campbell Street, I was in the 6th grade and about to graduate. And so, during the course of being at the school, boys used to pick on me because I was really skinny and I had long hair. So, I was one of these Olive Oyl—you know, Popeye’s Olive Oyl—girls. Real thin, and hairy. So, these boys decided they wanted to beat me up, and I’m like, “Okay, I’ve taken this harassment and all year and all the time I’ve been here, and I’ve had enough of it and I’m gonna fight back.” So, I agreed. I said, “Okay, what we do is we’ll meet after school on the school grounds,” and I’m hoping that they’ll forget and they’ll leave. But they didn’t. So, I got out of class real quick and I was out there looking, you know, and then pretty much what happened was here they come! My strategy was to take the first one down by taking my fist and balling it up and knocking the you-know-what out of the biggest one, which I did. Yes, I did! I knocked him down, okay? After that, they never bothered me.

AH: You’ve been here since 1944. You came as a little girl. You’ve seen a huge chapter of history here in West Oakland.

GB: I’ve seen a change. When we came here—like, a lot of people think that black people were here—well, they were. They were here, and they were coming in for the war, you know, the jobs and so forth, and the other people were moving out. A lot of my friends at that time were Italian, Portuguese, Indian… Then, after a while, more blacks moved in and it became completely black and then, you know, everything began to change but I think I had a pretty happy childhood. I mean, I learned how to have an English high tea with my Portuguese friend with her dolls at her house. I belonged to a Girl Scout troop at Parks Chapel Church and, you know, we didn’t have a lot of money so we kept out of my backyard. Because we couldn’t afford to go the Girl Scout camp over in San Mateo. You know, we just didn’t have a lot of money. Then, of course, I went away and…because I was a young woman and I went away, you know? I went away to school and I went away… I bought a home in Modesto and AT&T transferred me to Atlanta because I worked in San Francisco. But I came back. I came back because my parents passed away. So, I came back to their house, I came back to the area, and I think the first day that I was back, I was sweeping along the street because I’m not used to all the trash that we have along the street. That just not was part of my era. So, I’m sweeping along the street and I had one young girl, young black girl, she says to me, “I don’t know why you sweeping. Don’t you know you live in the ghetto?” And I even had some confrontations with some of the younger women because I’d see them doing things and one of them, she told me, she said, “Well, you’re in my business!” I said, “Well, baby, I’m watching you because I’m afraid for you. You’re out late at night, walking down the middle of Willow Street, you’re drunk, you’re high... And so naturally, I’m looking to make sure that you’re okay.” I’m not out to harm anybody, you know? I’m not hateful or anything like that. I’m just out to enjoy you as you and you as you, and maybe I’ll learn something from you if I listen! And that’s always been my motto. Try to learn something new every day.

Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to Out of the Blocks from radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick. Special thanks to field producer Ariana Proehl and KQED. You can podcast this series and check out photos online at wypr.org/outoftheblocks. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith who shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is West Oakland, Lower Bottoms signing off.

Aaron creates and produces original radio programs and podcasts for WYPR. His current project is The Maryland Curiosity Bureau. Aaron's neighborhood documentary series, Out of the Blocks, earned the 2018 national Edward R Murrow Award. His past work includes the long-running weekly cultural program, The Signal, and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series, Tapestry of the Times. Aaron's stories have aired nationally on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.