The Fine Art of Rebuiding West Oakland

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Oakland has seen a black exodus fueled by crime and rising housing costs. An African-American artist hopes to reverse the trend with a cultural district in a rundown part of town. Critics say his efforts aren't practical.


Now on Fridays in the NPR Business Report we talk about your money. And today we'll find out how one entrepreneur is spending his money to try to revive a city neighborhood. Oakland, California was once synonymous with black power and culture. But whether due to crime or the high cost of housing, the city has seen an ongoing exodus of African-American families.

Now one young African-American artist hopes to reverse that trend by creating a thriving black cultural district in what's currently a decrepit part of town. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: Thirty-four-year-old Marcel Diallo is a slight and soft-spoken man with big dreams, and he'll share them with anyone who takes a walk through his rundown West Oakland neighborhood.

Mr. MARCEL DIALLO (Artist): Things, they are a-changing down here.

GONZALES: It's a motley zone of dilapidated Victorians, empty lots and warehouses. Diallo points at one lot he purchased a few years back when it was home to an auto wrecking yard. And he says it takes an artist to foresee a…

Mr. DIALLO: Café, boutique, bookstore, art galleries and studios.

GONZALES: All of which will be black owned and operated, says Diallo, just as they were back in the day when West Oakland was a vibrant black middle class enclave. Around the corner, Diallo stops in front of an aging Victorian to check in with his partner, Birin Tiladi(ph).

Mr. BIRIN TILADI (Mr. Diallo's Partner): The thing about this now is it's a historical renovation as well. It's been owned by Captain William Shorey who was the first black sea captain on the Pacific. And we're going to introduce a lot of nautical features to the house to try and get back some of that feeling of William Shorey.

GONZALES: It's all part of Diallo's plan to revive this neighborhood as a black culture district, which he's named the Village Bottoms. But Diallo is quick to say such a district isn't just for African-Americans.

Mr. DIALLO: I mean I go to Chinatown to experience China. I go to the Fruitvale so much to experience the Chicano/Latino vibe that's there. Same thing when it comes to a black cultural area. You want to come to get some authentic soul food? You want to come here some authentic blues? Authentic African drumming? Then, you know, there should be a place that you can come feel that.

GONZALES: A few years back Diallo was a struggling poet and musician. He organized a collective of black artists and scraped together just enough money to slowly buy distressed properties here. Diallo says they wanted to own anything and save the neighborhood from developers and speculators.

Some long-time black homeowners here are struggling to hold on. As Diallo strolls through the neighborhood, one of his neighbors, Laneice Pinkard(ph), rushes over to introduce herself.

Ms. LANEICE PINKARD (Neighbor of Mr. Diallo): Good to meet you. Oh wonderful. Good to meet you. Glad - yeah, tell me what you're doing.

GONZALES: Diallo sketches out his vision of a neighborhood revitalized by the arts and Pinkard is beaming.

Ms. PINKARD: It's the antidote to gentrification - what you're doing is the antidote to gentrification, which is why I'm here.

GONZALES: There is a palpable sense that rising home prices and crime are taking their toll on black Oakland. In 1980, African-Americans comprised nearly half of Oakland's population. Today they number about a third. According to Census Bureau estimates, whites outnumber blacks in Oakland for the first time in a generation.

Dwight Dickerson, a housing specialist in Oakland, says Diallo has staked out a tough task.

Mr. DWIGHT DICKERSON (Housing Specialist): The folks that we are losing are working folks, people with means and resources. And it's the poor and the people who don't have the means are stuck there and are left with the burdens and that's the challenge.

GONZALES: But Diallo has his critics too, and some housing activists view him with suspicion after Diallo allied himself with a developer who is bringing market-rate condos to the neighborhood.

Ms. RISHI AWATRAMANI (Just Cause): I haven't heard Marcel talk too much about the importance of affordable housing.

GONZALES: Rishi Awatramani is a spokesman for Just Cause, an advocacy group for low-income tenants.

Ms. AWATRAMANI: You know, the reality is that I think it's like 80 percent of West Oakland are renters. We have to think about how to provide housing for low-income renters. Without that emphasis, then we sort of lose what that real need is in the neighborhood around housing.

GONZALES: But Diallo says his focus is on home ownership and he'll judge his success on whether he can help African-American families, including his own, in West Oakland.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

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