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Condemned project housing reopens as art gallery

on June 12, 2013

Chipped paint, metal bars and boarded windows and doors are all that’s left of Greenside, a notorious housing complex in East Oakland that was condemned and shuttered 10 years ago. Now, Oakland native and internationally- renowned artist Ise Lyfe has returned to his hometown to convert the dilapidated buildings into a work of art.

Ise Lyfe, born Isaac Brown, will use the complex to showcase a multi-media exhibit, “Brighter Than Blight,” which opens June 21. “I see housing as a human right,” Brown said. “It’s really important to take the opportunity to tell the story, not only of this particular site but of folks growing up in public housing,”

Spoken word poems are posted on life-size canvasses. A photograph shows a man with short locks and tattered jeans, standing by a shopping basket full of trash bags. Brown even used the old metal security bars – designed more like jail cell bars than decorative frames for windows – in one installation.

“The story of East Oakland is typically told from a negative lens,” District 6 Councilwoman Desley Brooks said. “Ise Lyfe has brilliantly communicated the beauty, creativity, complexity, strength, humor and depth of the lives of the residents of Greenside.”

Brown and his brother, Michael Savannah, who is managing the project, grew up in the tough streets of East Oakland. Unwilling to become another statistic, Brown used theatre, literary, and visual arts to keep him off the streets. He has been featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series and has performed around the world, from Germany to Ghana. Unwilling to forget his hometown, however, Brown returned to propose the exhibit project to the Oakland Housing Authority.

“When we say ‘ghetto’ and ‘hood,’ we think, ‘black,’ Brown said. “With ‘Brighter than Blight’ I am saying we are brighter than the negative circumstances here.”

According to Savannah, the complex was “notorious” for drugs and violent crime as far back as the ‘70s and until it was closed in the ‘90s. “A lot of people have come from this place and survived the struggle of living in Oakland,” he said.

“This project is the first of its kind in the country between a local artist, a City Council office and a Public Housing Authority,” Councilwoman Brooks said.

Brooks and the Oakland Housing Authority backed the event, clearing the path for Brown and Savannah to obtain the property; “Brighter than Blight” received funding from Oakland’s Affordable Housing Initiative.

When the show opens June 21, more than 30 young people, many of whom are living in public housing complexes, will serve as guides, directing guests through the hour-long exhibit while sharing their narratives of growing up in the public housing system.

“Brighter than Blight” is a free event from 4-9 p.m., June 21-23 and June 28-30, located at Bancroft and 77th Avenue. It is unclear what will happen to Greenside after the exhibit, but Brown and Savannah are considering ways to expand the project. They are negotiating to have their work placed in museums and public housing complexes throughout the city.

Image: Ise Lyfe (right) and brother Michael Savannah open their unusual gallery next weekend. Photo courtesy of Ise Lyfe



1 Comment

  1. local loudmouth on June 17, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Good Luck to them, too bad SFMOMA is shut down for the next two years, how about the Oakland Museum?

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