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Neighbors working to create a sense of place in the Golden Gate District

on December 29, 2011

Takahiro Noguchi, an artist who lives in North Oakland’s Golden Gate District, is sitting outside Actual Café on San Pablo Avenue on a weekday morning, drinking coffee and talking about a concept called “placemaking” and just how community public art installations might play out in this neighborhood.

“It may not be the most appropriate strategy to have a sculpture in a public space because it might be that, as far as the needs of that community, a sculpture may not represent what that area would really like,” Noguchi says. “It could [instead] mean doing an oral history project, or something more functional that would actually be useful.”

“Like a community message board, at the minimum,” adds Veronica Ramirez, a graphic designer for the Sustainable Living Roadshow, who is seated across from Noguchi. “Where people can find out about who’s in the community.”

“There’s a lot of different strategies,” Noguchi agrees.

In some of his work, Noguchi has helped conceive and install community-based art projects and conducted cultural heritage research, including in India. He defines “placemaking” as “using art to create places of meaning and significance.” The idea, essentially, is to beautify a drab public space by installing community art pieces, thus creating a place in the neighborhood for people to gather. Or, as Noguchi put it in a grant proposal to begin a placemaking project in the Golden Gate, “Our goal is to instigate a locally rooted movement to reclaim urban spaces in Oakland.”

The people who live in the neighborhood will now get to decide just what they want placemaking to mean in the Golden Gate. In August, Noguchi and a group of neighbors and members of a PLACE for Sustainable Living secured an $8,000 grant from the Open Circle Foundation, an East Bay organization that supports projects that “link the arts, the natural world and local communities.”

In late December, inside the barn at PLACE on 64th Street just off San Pablo, the group unveiled its proposal to the public with a slideshow presentation and discussion at a meeting of the Golden Gate Community Alliance, a group of neighbors concerned with improving the area, which organizes events like community cleanup days.

The proposed Golden Gate placemaking project has two phases. The first is a participatory mapping project, which will identify what was once in the neighborhood (its history, as well its natural features, like hydrology, flora and fauna); what is now in the neighborhood (listings for businesses, churches, schools, arts, public spaces); and what people would like to see in the neighborhood in the future.

The mapping project will then be included in an online “information repository” people in the neighborhood can access, and give their input. Noguchi says the plan is to take information gleaned from the mapping phase and have artists and neighbors contribute their ideas on what sustainable public art should look like for their community.

A lot of the inspiration for the second phase comes from City Repair, a Portland, Oregon based group that aims to transform that area through “artistic and ecologically-friendly” placemaking. City Repair projects included a mobile teahouse that travelled to different Portland neighborhoods so people could meet and talk with their neighbors in the street, installing community gardens, and removing unnecessary concrete, replacing it with trees or urban farms.

The mapping phase is essential to the overall success of the project, Noguchi says, because by helping identify what is valuable and significant about an area, it helps build solidarity among those that live in the area. When conducting research for the grant proposal, Noguchi found that there was a disconnect between people who have lived in the neighborhood for years, and those who more recently moved in.

“Once you have that idea of significance, and what makes a place unique from other places around it and differentiates it based on its natural features, its traditions and its histories,” Noguchi says, “then you can basically leverage that for generating economic activity, or help people identify with that significance.”

Nicole Kayuk, the associate program officer at the East Bay Community Foundation and who serves on the Open Circle board, said the mapping portion of the project was key to securing the grant. Kayuk said Open Circle has supported other similar “living history” projects, like with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, where Open Circle helped fund an oral history exhibit with a video and map of Chinatown, and “Bubble Tea Chats” where members of the community gathered to share their stories of a small section of Chinatown, with the idea that information from the chats could then be used by city planners when redeveloping the area.

“It really provides this living history, where folks can engage and provide some of their own personal histories,” Kayuk said in a phone interview, “a story that makes up the community.”

Ramirez is among those working on the project with Noguchi. She is now based at PLACE after touring the country on the Sustainable Living Roadshow, which moves around the country hosting events that encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

Ramirez says that placemaking is a “huge passion” of hers. Last year, Ramirez, Noguchi and three other members of PLACE attended a conference on placemaking hosted by City Repair. “It was two weeks of intensive workshops,” Ramirez says. “You just get your hands into projects, learn about different neighborhoods.”

The area around PLACE will be the center of the Oakland project, Ramirez and Noguchi say. Ramirez is a member of a group of artists, urban farmers and technicians who started PLACE about a year ago, in what was once a concrete cutting yard that had been vacant for more than a year before that. Last year, volunteers worked for months to transform the place into an educational center and community gathering place that opened in May.

One of the new additions to the PLACE is a community garden, which is actually located right outside the property line, on land owned by the Glorious Kingdom Primitive Baptist Church. Through introductions from a neighbor, members from PLACE negotiated to use the lot as a garden in exchange for doing basic maintenance work for the church, like replacing light bulbs, cleaning gutters and painting. “Whatever they need that they basically weren’t able to do themselves,” Noguchi says.

Noguchi says that he hopes future partnerships with neighbors on the project are as successful as the one with the church. He says the group plans to reach out to everyone they can that lives or works in the neighborhood, including local schools and apartment complexes. “We’re giving back to the community, and helping to build these relationships and sustain economically as much as possible,” he says.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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