The landscape at 14th and Wood streets in West Oakland has quite a story to tell about reclaiming a community’s future from industrial pollution.
Fourteenth Street, which runs through the downtown office district, ends at the sound wall bordering one of the busiest interchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearby, a historic train station that community activists fought to preserve from profit-driven redevelopment shows telltale signs of neglect: litter, broken windows, overgrown grass. The panoramic view of diesel trucks on the freeway framed by large gantry cranes at the Port of Oakland contrasts sharply with the new market-rate housing development next door.
The developer’s website offers a provocative vision for this newly rebranded area: “Once the end of the line for transcontinental rail passengers, Central Station will soon become a new kind of urban community: diverse, stimulating, and welcoming.” But environmental justice activists have a cautionary tale about the politics of infill redevelopment and smart growth that are ushering this neighborhood into a new era.
In a converted trucking facility across the street from the new housing development on 14th and Wood, a small but mighty community-based organization goes toe-to-toe with developers in the fight for the future of West Oakland.
History, Smart Growth, and Health
Margaret Gordon, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), has long been a key community voice in redevelopment planning for the properties outside her office window. “The community has been through two different planning processes with the City around the train station development, and now we are on our third process,” she says. “Now the people in that new development next to it have different ideas. All these new residents see is an abandoned building... they don’t know about the baggage wing in that train station where the Pullman Porters did all their organizing because that was the only place that African-Americans were allowed to do so. We had to fight the City to not allow developers to tear it down and to put local hiring in place to make sure that residents will benefit.”
Young Organizer Advocates for Transit POWER
By Christine Joy Ferrer
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Originally from Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, Yeashan Banks, 22, is an organizer for the Bayview Hunters Point Organizing Project at People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). For the last year or so, she’s also been advocating for free public transportation for youth. In 2010, Banks graduated from the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program with the Center for Third World Organizing and has volunteered for Congresswoman Barbara Lee and the Black Organizing Project and served as a Youth Researcher for the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative. She has also worked with Oakland’s Youth Uprising.
Christine Joy Ferrer: What motivates you to do the work that you do?
Yeashan Banks: POWER’s environmental justice project in [my neighborhood] is what first attracted me to the organization. The Bayview-Hunters Point toxic shipyard has been making folks in the neighborhood—specifically folks in my own family—sick for years. My grandfather worked at the shipyard and has asbestos-related lung problems.
Called La Pulga or “the flea” by the region’s Spanish-speaking communities, the San Jose Flea Market has been a South Bay community institution for more than 50 years. The 120-acre open air market is the largest in the nation and attracts over four million visitors annually. For Mexican, Central and South American, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and South Asian immigrants, it has provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity to incubate small businesses offering an unparalleled variety of affordable, culturally-specific goods and services.
In 2007, the Valley Transportation Authority in Santa Clara County released a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report on the planned 16-mile extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train line from Fremont to San Jose. Its northern most stop would be located on Berryessa Road right by the flea market. Shortly after the report’s release, the owners of the property where the flea market is located hired a consulting firm to draw up plans for an upscale mixed-use residential and commercial development. Then, without informing the vendors, the owners appealed to the San Jose City Council to change the site’s zoning designation to allow for development, and received it—given the potential for new housing stock along the BART extension corridor—thus paving the way for the flea market’s closure.
As the snow piles up around Lake Tahoe and tourists flock to the resorts, it makes for happy hotel and restaurant managers, casino and shop owners, but rising snow levels also means higher heating bills, more traffic, and a greater cost of living. For a tourist, the higher prices and traffic congestion are a temporary inconvenience—the price of visiting one of the most beautiful places in the world. For the low-income local community, the consequences are far more serious as the increase in wealth around the Tahoe basin has led to a flurry of developments and redevelopments, each pricier than the other.
Vail Resorts, owners of Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe and Vail Ski Resort in Eagle County, Colorado, see the development of ski villages as a means to increase business from skiers and snowboarders. The ski villages—patterned after old European resorts—try to recreate a certain alien mountain culture where visitors can stay, eat, play, and spend their money. More than a mere tourist trap, a ski village like Heavenly Mountain Village is fitted for an affluent tourist with its art galleries, chic coffee shop chains, brand-name ski stores, realty offices, and the occasional local high-end boutique or restaurant.
Fifty-five years to the month after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, people of color can sit wherever they want on the bus—when and if one arrives. Bus operators all over the country are slashing routes in response to deepening deficits. This loss of service denies people who depend on transit their civil rights in deep, daily, grinding, unmistakable ways.
Following a decade-long campaign, Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has won funding to rehabilitate a vital train line and run it on weekends again. But attempts to reverse cuts to bus services across the city’s south and west sides have failed, prompting activists to take their fight for increased funding to the national level.
“We saw that our local struggle to restore service to the Little Village community would not be successful if we did not push Congress to pitch in their fair share of funding and ensure that it is distributed equitably,” said Michael Pitula of LVEJO.
The feeling was pervasive enough to prompt the Labor/Community Strategy Center of Los Angeles to convene “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) in 2009. The national coalition of transportation justice groups aims to change federal funding priorities and regain the “private right of action” to enforce the Department of Transportation’s civil rights regulations.
“They [the MTC and CTC] came up with $70 million for a little bitty trip to the airport—so they can come up with money for AC Transit!” yelled Karen Smulevitz of United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County into her bullhorn over the street sounds of downtown Oakland. “Do you need that airport tram?” “No!” yelled the crowd. “Do you need the buses fixed and running?” “Yes!” they responded, louder still.
The rally on November 9 involved a growing coalition of East Bay organizations—Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), Genesis, Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)—working to meet the needs of folks who use public transit for basic survival. The newest member of this coalition is an emerging alliance of the East Bay’s bus riders organized by ACCE and assisted by groups already engaged in transportation work.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is facing new scrutiny of its civil rights practices stemming from its role in the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project. As the federally mandated planning organization for the San Francisco Bay Area, the MTC approves all new transportation projects and allocates federal, state, and local funding for new and existing services. Hence, it is responsible for ensuring that the agencies and projects it funds comply with federal civil rights laws.
Pedestrians and bicyclists fight for space on Oakland streets designed for diesel trucks in former industrial areas that are now among the few affordable places to live. Massive concrete structures jut out like exposed bones in a city where once-bustling African-American cultural and economic centers have been repeatedly destroyed by giant transportation projects.
One such project, the West Oakland aboveground Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) track built in the 1970s, loomed over jazz clubs that were forced to close when the constant noise of trains drowned out the music. The 7th Street corridor—once the stroll for legendary local blues heroes—is now a desolate strip in the shadow of the BART overpass.
Soon, East Oakland residents may see the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC)—a driverless, cable-pulled shuttle atop an elevated track—looming over their neighborhood. Designed by an Austrian architectural engineering firm known for its aerial ski lifts, the three-mile Connector would whisk passengers from the Oakland Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport parking lot.
Maxine Oliver-Benson shakes her head in disbelief over the price of the project—$484 million. “I won’t ever use it for anything—the majority of people in my community won’t ever use it,” says the activist and 19-year resident of East Oakland, staring moodily at the throngs of people heading to a game at the Oakland Coliseum on the overhead walkway that connects the BART station to the arena.