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Bishop J.E. Watkins of Jack London Square Chapel, which holds services in Liberty Hall, speaks at Tuesday's press conference. Photo by Charles Berkowitz.

Tenants rally against eviction of church, nonprofits from Garvey Building in West Oakland

on December 18, 2012

A coalition of tenants and concerned community members seeking to stave off the eviction of a church and its programs from a historic West Oakland building held a press conference Tuesday morning at which speakers called the property an important neighborhood gathering point, and urged the city to help the Jack London Square Chapel Church and its media education and community outreach programs remain in the building.

The Garvey Building, also known as Liberty Hall, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989. The building, a gray Victorian with black, red and white trim, is spacious inside with high ceilings. It sits on the corner of 8th and Chester Streets near the West Oakland BART station.

Citi Holdings is the building’s current owner. Citi Holdings, created in 2009, is a subsidiary of financial services company CitiGroup. The Garvey Building is currently on the market; a “For Sale” sign hangs on the building on Chester Street.

Bishop J.E. Watkins of the Jack London Square chapel said that his church signed a ten-year lease on the building three and a half years ago. When Citi Holdings bought the building, Watkins said, it determined that the lease—an original copy of which could not be found by the church or the previous realtor—was invalid.

Citi Holdings then began renting the building to Watkins, his church and its programs on a month-to-month basis, he said. Watkins said that his church hoped to buy the building at market value, which he said is around $300,000, but that Citi Holdings declined.

Shake Anderson, media liaison for the coalition, said that Citi Holdings has asked the tenants to vacate on February 2, during Black History month.

Danielle Romero, the head of Citi’s Institutional Clients Group, said that the company is “trying to resolve the matter.” But as of press time, she was unable to provide further information about the eviction or about financial matters relating to the Garvey Building.

A representative from Harbor Bay Realty, the Alameda firm selling the property, did not respond to an interview request on Tuesday. Laurence H. Steffan, the attorney representing Citi Holdings, also declined to comment.

The Garvey Building holds special significance in the historically black West Oakland neighborhood. Marcus Garvey founded the Black Star Line shipping line in 1919, which he hoped people of African descent in the Americas would use to return to Africa. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, a group dedicated to self-reliance and pride among African Americans, had a post in the building. Garvey would sleep in the building when he stayed in Oakland.

“This location, this building, is where everything culminates. It’s always been like that,” said Watkins, whose congregation meets in the building. “This is a piece of your history, this is a piece of American history.” Watkins called Garvey “Martin Luther King’s predecessor,” citing both men’s message of economic empowerment.

The building has also been home to the Black Pullman Porters, was a USO outpost during World War II, and was the site of West Oakland’s first dollar store.

Among Jack London Square Chapel’s programs housed in the building is Overcomers With Hope, a media education non-profit that teaches at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 to create TV and digital arts programs. The building also houses the Community Information/Resource Center, also run by the church, which provides computer training and information about job postings.

“This building right now is under siege,” said Ayori Selassie, who runs an organization that fosters entrepreneurship. Selassie spoke first at the press conference held inside a room that houses both an Overcomers With Hope TV studio and the Jack London Square Chapel’s services and Bible study.

William Hammons, executive director of Overcomers With Hope, spoke about his organization’s work. He said that in more than three years in the building, students had produced programming that was aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as news and movie reviews. Other organizations in the building provide technology training and information about job openings. “We view this building as part of our reparations,” Hammons said.

Overcomers With Hope staff said it has lost $170,000 in grants from the city to restore the building, since the group’s lease was not renewed. They also said that a move would require the organization to relocate more than $1 million in audio/visual equipment.

The Garvey Building and its United Negro Improvement Association sign are a “source of pride” for Timothy Killings, who attended the event. Killings, the president of Laney College’s Black Student Union, carries a red, black and green key chain in the shape of Africa, with a quote from Marcus Garvey on it: “First be true to thy self, and you can be false to no one.”

Killings said that the foreclosure signals a newly-gentrified West Oakland. “They call it urban renewal, but they’re not renewing it for people of color,” he said. Killings, who learns about job openings from the building’s information center, said, “I hope that the city listens to them today.”

Bishop Watkins said that he hopes to lobby the city to take over the building and support it financially. On Tuesday afternoon, he added that Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s office had encouraged him to call the Citi Foundation and explore the possibility of the foundation donating the building to the current tenants.

But if the eviction goes through, Watkins said, “We’ll just have to move. Our services will continue.”

Organizers say they will bring their message to Tuesday night’s City Council meeting and spread their word online. Selassie has set up a petition that asks Citi Holdings to “to sell the property at a fair market value with an affordable scheduled payment plan.” The petition had 503 supporters as of Tuesday afternoon.

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