Monday, April 9, 2012

San Pablo Avenue

The following essay was written for a collaborative Occupy Oakland poster that's part of a group art show now hanging in Rise Above Gallery.


San Pablo Avenue is an arterial that either begins or ends in downtown Oakland. It is one of the oldest existing roads in the East Bay, and was named Camino de la Contra Costa by Spanish colonists. In the pre-freeway US, it served as the fastest way to get up and down the opposite coast and was called the Lincoln Highway, and then US 40. Long-haul motorist amenities cropped up around this time, and portions of the street began to feel a bit like Vegas. You still see the leftover motels from these days: clustered just north of downtown are the Moor, the Twin Peaks, the Silver Dollar, the Isabella. Some of these are abandoned and others now serve as residential hotels. They’re so era-inappropriate, they look like they could vanish any day.


Despite the building of Interstates 880 and 980, San Pablo remains a street that is there to move cars, and thus a kind of terrifying place to be outside of one. It may no longer be a highway, but it’s still used to rapidly traverse long distances. It was built that way, and so it remains, despite the large volume of pedestrians who frequent the street.

The thing about the Interstate system is this: in order to compensate for the enormous divides it has caused in our cities—the increased distances and fortress-like walls—it should serve as a quarantine of sorts. It should free us from the drudging onslaught of traffic. A culture that cared about people would have recognized and dealt with this problem decades ago. But we’re not a culture that cares about people.

While it's important to make sure everyone can get where they need to go, freedom of automobility should not have such a negative impact on those who are in less of a hurry. In the early part of the 20th century, a streetcar ran between Richmond and Oakland on San Pablo. It soon suffered the sinister demise all US streetcar systems did. Years later, the 72 bus line was put in place after an MTC study found that it would be cheaper than installing light rail. 


Pedestrians on San Pablo tend to be marginalized—often because of poverty, addiction, physical and mental disabilities, and a dire lack of resources to deal with such issues. These problems are made worse by the street’s hostile landscape: “We don’t give a fuck about you” is (literally) driven home on a daily basis. This sentiment affects every sense and, because it’s mapped onto the environment, is swallowed whole. Intersections, which seem designed to kill those who try to cross them, amp up an already drastic culture of nihilism. People recklessly walk in front of traffic because of a) a complete failure of safe pedestrian crossings and b) low, low stakes for those navigating a landscape that continually reminds them of how little their lives are worth.

San Pablo’s deadly intersections are rampant. One example (which I wrote about in a Letter from Pedestrianica), is where Isabella crosses San Pablo. A recent Transportation for America report states that nearly 7,000 pedestrians have been killed in California in the last decade, the great majority of who were people of color and the elderly. San Pablo and 55th, in particular, has been named as an intersection where pedestrian safety is neglected. The more marginalized stretches of San Pablo further south, however, are less likely to receive such scrutiny, as those with any civic power would never physically encounter such spaces.


As the city of Oakland sinks millions of dollars into an incompetent and fascistic police force, thousands of citizens go without their basic needs fulfilled. The California Hotel, located at San Pablo and 35th, is notable historically for serving as venue for musical legends ranging from Billie Holiday to Sam Cooke, Little Richard to Mahalia Jackson. Today it serves as low-income housing, yet its tenants are in a constant state of uncertainty. The past few years have seen a labyrinthine series of shady financial disasters involving the city and several nonprofits, resulting in threats of building-wide evictions. This past month, the hotel’s storefront was boarded up with a sinister amount of expensive-looking wood. There are asbestos warnings posted, but no one spends this much simply to protect the public’s health—especially when the public is people walking up and down San Pablo. This wood looks like wood somebody bought expecting to make that money back thousand-fold. EBALDC, the development organization who owns the hotel, has already displaced the Howie Harp Multi-Service Center, a resource for the homeless formerly located on San Pablo and 18th. EBALDC’s development plans for the California Hotel claim that 25% of its units will be devoted to “low-income” housing.

Causa Justa, the group who helped organize the California Hotel’s tenants when they were threatened with eviction, has been kicked out of the building to make room for these renovations. They have since moved down the street to an abandoned church, a powder blue building with a rotted plywood ankh where its cross once was. This building is listed for sale with the following perk: COMPLETED ARCHITECTURAL DESIGNS AND ALL CITY-APPROVED PERMITS FOR A 6-STORY CONDO-RETAIL DEVELOPMENT WITH UNDERGROUND PARKING ARE AVAILABLE.

What good is housing when it’s always on the brink of being seized? About as good as a sidewalk that would rather you didn’t walk down it.


There are current efforts to re-imagine the uppermost part of Oakland’s San Pablo—53rd through 67th Street—as the San Pablo Arts District. The concept even has its own Wikipedia page. Any time a name is thrust upon a neighborhood like this, though, it’s really hard not to call bullshit. Some generalizations: Historical districts mean an erasure of embarrassing history. Arts districts mean an erasure of anything un-“art”ful. In other words, forget about the neglected and the trampled. Tramplings aren’t pretty and they don’t make money. They aren’t things you can put on a banner and hang from a streetlight.

Rather than create a destination, why not a place to exist? And exist with dignity. Somewhere that honors its history, that respects those who currently populate it and who make it what it is. Somewhere that makes sure each of its residents has a home, that when they leave that home, they know they’re in a place that gives two shits about them, and in case they don’t know, they can leave if they want to, they can get on a reliable train cheaply, and with ease. Somewhere that doesn’t desperately cater to yuppies in an attempt to become their playground. Because there are other ways of re-dreaming a neighborhood besides simply banishing blight.


The longstanding businesses up and down San Pablo need to be respected, despite their lack of boutique-able appeal: Scend's, the Oaks Club, the Bank Club and Wally’s Cafe, Victory Furniture, Seng Son Marble Granite, and others. Many of these businesses are owned by people of color with deep-reaching roots in the East Bay. They may not get the glossy attention and city backing that ventures like the weirdly named Popuphood do, but the only meaningful way to revive San Pablo is a plan that doesn’t ensure their obsolescence. Oakland, rather than force-feeding condos or jewelry stores, needs to make sure its citizens’ basic needs are met. The arts will flourish organically once the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid are put in place.

San Pablo Avenue consists of neighborhoods, not playgrounds. And despite its blight, the street is not a wasteland. Rather, it’s full of life; the cars that zoom on through are the deadest, dullest part of the whole equation. Why throw ourselves in front of them to make them stop? 

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