B Love & Bridge of Hope, Then & Now
This episode, we reconnect with Traci ‘B-Love’ Bartlow, who runs a boutique hotel on the ground floor of her home in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood. She tells us how her life and her business have changed over the past few years. We also check back in at a day shelter that helps families in crisis in the St Louis neighborhood of The Ville. Director Kelli Braggs talks about how the organization is bearing up under the strain of the pandemic.
Aaron Henkin: From WYPR and PRX, it’s Out of the Blocks. I’m Aaron Henkin. You know, one of the beautiful twists and turns this podcast has taken over the years is that, at some point, we started taking the show on the road, traveling across the country and documenting neighborhoods in different cities in the U.S. A couple of years ago, we made our way to Oakland, California--specifically, a West Oakland neighborhood called the Lower Bottoms. I remember we’d meet people out there and tell them we were from Baltimore and they’d say, “Oh, the Oakland of the east coast.” The Lower Bottoms was full of really cool folks, including Traci Bartlow, AKA B-Love. B-Love had bought a house and turned the whole first floor of the house into a communal living apartment for young adventurous travelers.
Traci Bartlow: It’s kind of like a reality experience, but not like a series on television. It’s like the real deal.
AH: This episode, we’re gonna check back in with B-Love and hear how that reality experience is going today. We’re also gonna revisit a spot in North St. Louis--a neighborhood called The Ville--where community members have converted an old school into a day shelter called Bridge of Hope for locals who are experiencing homelessness.
Michael Robinson: They come in to receive hot showers, they come for breakfast, we have lunch as well on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. And a lot of them just come in for conversation.
AH: We’re gonna catch up with Bridge of Hope this episode as well and hear how they’re holding up and moving forward after the pandemic. That’s all coming up, right after this.
TB: 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? Y'all 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.
Malcolm: My name is Malcolm. 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?
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.”
AH: (2021) What’s it like to listen back to yourself at that moment in time?
TB: It feels good and I think about the guests that were here: Jamel, JT, Malcolm, Dominic, and just how amazing that experience was. These complete strangers coming together and then developing this friendship and this brotherhood.
AH: We met you, Traci, in 2019, and your whole first floor of your house was bustling and full of guests coming and going and I gotta say, over this past year, I’ve been wondering about you and how your enterprise has been bearing up under the strain of the pandemic. What’s this past year been like for you, entrepreneurially and personally?
TB: It’s been a struggle. There were times where there was maybe one guest that was there and it was someone that booked before the pandemic, so I allowed them to stay and it has been quite a scary experience just, you know, with the pandemic itself and how to keep the guests and myself safe. Closing down, to an extent, not accepting any reservations, and also just scary financially. Not being able to pay bills, you know, buy food, take care of all the necessities and responsibilities of being a property owner.
AH: Bring us up to the present. You know, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel at this point in terms of vaccination rates going up, positive rate numbers going down… Are guests coming back in? I mean, I’m talking to you, you’re still in your place, so you’re still there. Are you still operating the guest house right now?
TB: I’m still operating the guest house and this is the first time since before the pandemic that I’m at capacity. All the rooms are booked. I pride myself in keeping the space very clean and orderly before the pandemic and now, I’ve updated my sanitation protocols to make sure that everyone is safe. So, people are booking rooms and I’m preparing for my summer events. The last time you all were here, it was wonderful for you to come into the garden and to experience the garden events. And July 10 is the date we will open the doors. We’ll have fresh radiant bliss, we’ll have the new offering, which is the gallery experience, and so I’m premiering my photography archive.
AH: I remember when we visited you. My partner Wendel was going crazy when he saw your photos. He’s a photographer obviously and he saw what you had done as a photo documentarian. Say a little bit more about your photography board.
TB: Yes. I have an archive of images that I shot in the Bay Area in the 1990s and it was a very unique experience in that coming back home to my hometown after living in New York City for a number of years, traveling to other countries, and coming back home to my community and my family… I saw them through new eyes and I felt such love and pride and a connection, like, this is who I am. This is where I’m from and these are my people. And so, I started photographing them, so I have these beautiful portraits of my neighbors in East Oakland in the 1990s and I was able to parlay that experience to shooting for this burgeoning Bay Area hip hop music industry and so I have pictures of all these local artists who are now still at the top of their game in the music industry. So, it’s really exciting to see pictures of people like Sway and E-40 and Souls of Mischief and The Coup and Boots Riley, as well as many movers and shakers behind the scenes, and then also just the fans, just the audience. I love capturing pictures of people enjoying these different shows that would happen, so it was an exciting time to be in the Bay Area in hip hop culture in the 1990s, so I’ve captured the essence of that experience. So, here we are, almost thirty years later and I’m premiering this time capsule of photographs.
AH: It’s wild how a photograph turns into an artifact, isn’t it? With the passage of time. It’s like that with audio too, right?
TB: Yes, yes. It’s an artifact. I love that.
AH: Wendel and I were only there for a week, but as far as we’re concerned you throw the best backyard parties in Oakland. We had a blast at your party. I just remember getting to hang out and what a nice time it was. The music and the sunshine and all the beautiful plants in your yard, people just relaxing… It warms my heart to know that those parties are back in effect again.
AH: That’s awesome.
TB: We’re excited about it. I have a nice team of people that are also gearing up with me to make it happen.
AH: Before I let you go, let me just ask…. When you think about the trials and tribulations of the last year, fourteen months, or however long it’s been, how do you think you’ve changed as a person? You got any lessons you’ve taken away from this?
TB: I have so much more value in the little things. The pandemic has taught me to pay attention to what you do have and what is available and to put all of your energy and attention into what is present. During the pandemic, there were so many things that were not available but it was important to look at, “Well, this is what I do have, and this is how I can give it my time and my focus and my energy.” So, that was the biggest lesson for me that I came away with from the pandemic is to find out what’s essential. Pay attention to what is essential.
AH: B-Love, I’m glad to know you. I hope we get a chance to cross paths another time.
TB: Yes, thank you, Aaron, for including me and congratulations on ten years of doing this podcast. I wish you success in all your endeavors.
AH: Traci Bartlow, AKA B-Love. We originally met her in 2019 at her home in the West Oakland neighborhood of the Lower Bottoms. It’s Out of the Blocks. More in a moment.
Stephen Boda: My name is Stephen Boda. I’m the pastor here at Bridge of Hope.
MR: I’m Michael Robinson, and I’m pastor at Destiny Family Church.
SB: Pastor Mike and I are partners in this craziness.
MR: Sometimes, I have to remind him what color he is. [laughs] But he’s a white guy. He’s a little bit older than me. I’m a forty-four year old black male, and he is a fifty-five year old white male with a big, Santa Claus beard, with a heart of gold.
SB: We quickly identify that our mindsets we’re very—not just similar—but almost like we’re reading from the same book, and actually, we are!
MR: We believe in the concept of Matthew 25, that says that “when I was hungry, you fed me.”
SB: Alright, well, let me pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you for this morning. We thank you for this food, we thank you for the hands that prepared it. We pray that you would nourish our bodies, and nourish our souls as we talk with each other and hang out with each other. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.
Unknown Voice: We’ve got sausage, pork, turkey, eggs, cheese-tatters, pancakes.
MR: Well, we are here at a converted elementary school. It used to be Little William’s School, and even further back it was Little William’s School for Colored Children. We’ve converted this into our space. We have individuals who will come from around the corner. They live in vacant buildings, and they come in to receive hot showers, washer and dryer—we have washer and dryer here that they can use. They come for breakfast. We have lunch as well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. And a lot of them just come in for conversation.
Darrell Hamilton: Oh, I love these pancakes. That made the spot. Darrell Hamilton. In my neighborhood, I’m the go-to guy. I do a little bit of everything—roofing, drywall, plumbing, you know. I got a lot of skills. I don’t have any paperwork behind my name, but I got a lot of skills.
AH: Are you living a pretty stable life right now, economically?
DH: My life is not stable. I am next to homeless. No insurance. Every day is a struggle.
Virginia Savage: Every day is a challenge for me. I pray a lot, and I keep going. Virginia Savage. This is the sign in desk. We have a sheet here, they sign in and they check off anything that they need for the day. If they need a shower, I would give them a towel, face towels, soap, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste. If they need to do laundry, I would give them detergent. If they need to talk, they can sit right here and I would talk to them. I was just like everyone else that comes through this door. I was homeless and I was on drugs. And I stayed right across the street in a shell. I came and I met Pastor Steve here. Steve started pastoring me, praying for me, and I’ve been here ever since.
Anthony Jackson: My name is Anthony Jackson. I’m actually homeless at this point. But I do have a little employment that keeps me afloat. Actually, today I have a job that I’m going to go to doing some landscaping work and it’s probably going to be like, three or four hours to do. After that, I usually go to the library and look for other employment opportunities, and after that it’s on to bed and waiting for the next day.
AH: Where are you going to sleep tonight?
AJ: Oh, I sleep in my vehicle. There it is, the little blue Honda. I’ve had it for a couple years. This is a Honda Civic DX. It’s a 1991, so you can do the math. It’s what, twenty-six years old and I think it’s a very, very great vehicle, you know.
AH: How long have you been living in the car?
AJ: I’ve been living in this car for like, five weeks.
AH: (2021) We heard a lot of different voices in that segment from Bridge of Hope, but we did not hear the voice you’re about to hear now. There’s been a… I guess you could say a “changing of the guard” at Bridge of Hope. Let me have you introduce yourself, Kelli.
Kelli Braggs: Yes, I’m Kelli Braggs. I’m the new executive director. I was hired on last July to take over for Steve Boda. Stephen Boda is no longer with the organization but still very much supporting of the organization, so yeah, it’s great to be on here with you, Aaron.
AH: The organization is still up and running. Bridge of Hope is still doing what it does. But you came on in the middle--I guess, if my math is correct, my calendar math--in the middle of the pandemic. Talk to me about how you found your way to the position and what it was like to step into that job in the middle of a pandemic.
KB: You know what, this position has been, for me, nothing other than divine. I really call it a divine door that I believe God just opened for myself and for Bridge of Hope. I served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I have always had a heart for bridging missions and ministering and I was invited to come to Bridge of Hope and to see what was going on and see if that was a position that I thought that I might be interested in, and it absolutely is. It is and I’ve been there since.
AH: When we visited at Bridge of Hope, it very much was a physical communal gathering space. Communal meals, showers available for people, communal hangout rooms, TV rooms, rec rooms… Obviously, in the middle of a pandemic, you’re operating in a very different kind of way. Talk about what you could and couldn’t do as Bridge of Hope with COVID-19 happening all around you, and how that affected your population.
KB: Yeah, so for sure. So, one, when you’re homeless and there’s a pandemic going on, I’m not sure that it affects you the same way as everyone else. When everyone else was thinking about shutting down or changing their way of life, homeless people are simply trying to survive from day to day so it wasn’t really a big difference for them. They still needed the services. Bridge of Hope had to shut down for a couple of weeks just so that we could figure out how we could continue to serve this community in a safe way. One of the things we used to provide, we used to provide hot meals pre-COVID. That had to change. You know, we had to talk to volunteers about preparing brown bag lunches, but also how those were prepared, so making sure that was done in a safe manner and making sure that our staff knew how to provide services in a social distanced manner. We could not allow as many community members to come in. We had to really change up how we were doing everything. So, it was truly a transition both for staff and the community, but the needs didn’t change. As a matter of fact, they increased. People were losing their jobs at a higher speed and so we had to make sure that we were able to accommodate those people who now found themselves without places to live and without their basic needs. So, we saw a huge increase in need.
AH: Bring us up to the present, Kelli. Talk about how things are at Bridge of Hope today, how COVID numbers are trending in St. Louis, North St. Louis neighborhood of The Ville where you guys are, and what’s different, what’s the same, what’s getting back to “normal,” I guess, for Bridge of Hope.
KB: So, we have held a couple vaccination sites really trying to encourage the community and to just let them know so they’re informed about what the vaccines do. In Missouri right now, in the total state, we only have about 32% of people that are actually vaccinated, so that’s really low and it’s really hitting in our urban as well as our rural areas, where those low numbers are even lower. So, we had some people who wanted the vaccine, others who still don’t trust the vaccine, but yet we allow them to come in, we allow them to be served. We’re still wearing masks because we know that those numbers are low. So, when we’re in the building doing services, masks are still to be worn but what’s new is that now we’ve added some case management. So, we’re really working, Aaron, to make sure that community members are really actively taking their next steps. As Bridge of Hope has served over the last twenty plus years, where it’s done a really great job of meeting basic needs, now with the new mayoral change, the focus has been to make sure that we can provide both mental health, any type of substance treatment that’s needed because most of the people that come into our space, they have some type of mental illness or they’re struggling with some type of substance abuse. So, they’re really just trying to stabilize. We’re working to stabilize them so they can be prepared to hopefully go on and be trained in a skill or get job training so they can try to get employment.
AH: It’s good to get to meet you and it’s good to get to hear that Bridge of Hope is still strong, resilient, and obviously in good hands. I want to wish you the best of luck to you and everyone at Bridge of Hope in the months and years ahead.
KB: Thank you, Aaron. Thank you. It’s great to meet you. Thank you for having me on.
AH: Kelli Braggs is the executive director of Bridge of Hope. We first visited Bridge of Hope in the North St. Louis neighborhood of The Ville back in 2017. And that’s gonna wrap it up for this episode of Out of the Blocks, an original production of WYPR and PRX. Big thanks this episode to Traci Bartlow, B-Love, and to Kelli Braggs. Thanks also to my co-producer Wendel Patrick, who creates an original musical score for each episode of the show. Wendel also photographs the people you hear in this series and if you go to wypr.org/outoftheblocks, you can see then-and-now portraits of the folks we’re featuring on this final season of the show. Until next time, I’m Aaron Henkin. Thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is supported by PRX and produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, Patricia and Mark Joseph Shelter Foundation Inc., the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios online at bakerartist.org, and the Maryland State Arts Council at msac.org.