MLK parklet becomes the seed for a neighborhood’s dreams

The 2014 rendition of Longfellow neighbours' improvised lemonade stand

The 2014 rendition of Longfellow neighbours' improvised lemonade stand "parklet" on Oakland's MLK Way.

One sunny September morning in 2013, two women rolled out a piece of AstroTurf onto the pavement and down the length of a metered parking spot, right in front of a restaurant called the MLK Cafe. They brought out three round metal tables and about a dozen metal chairs from the cafe and placed them on the faux grass. They strung yellow balloons in the surrounding trees and drew hopscotch courses on the sidewalk.

Then the women, Yuri Jewett and Leslie Cleaver Wood, set onto the AstroTurf a small wooden table, draped with a dainty lemon-patterned tablecloth. On top of the table they positioned a vat of fresh lemonade, and a sign that read: Free Organic Lemonade (made with lemons from local backyard trees).

This particular stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the main street running through the Longfellow neighborhood, is a tough one, notorious for criminal activity. It boasts many liquor stores and churches, and few to no restaurants, grocery stores or retail shops. “Longfellow does not have a centrally located outdoor green space for neighbors to get out of their house, meet each other and build positive community,” said Jewett, who uses her background in urban planning and landscape architecture as part of her work with the local residents’ group, the Longfellow Community Association (LCA).

And on this day, the space they had been seeking emerged. It was a huge success. From random passersby coming and going from BART, to families with young kids, to city councilmember Dan Kalb, people sat around the tables, met new neighbors, sipped lemonade, ate delicious food from the cafe, worked on their computers in the sunshine, mingled on the AstroTurf, and enjoyed each other’s company.

“A parklet may not be much,” said Hastings Hart, who moved to the Longfellow neighborhood in 2010 and belongs both to the LCA and to the local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council. “But every little thing helps, especially things that we can do ourselves, instead of waiting on the authorities,” he said.

Hart said that in just four and half years of living here, he’s heard about 20 drive-by shootings within blocks of his Longfellow home. He’s witnessed burglaries, open drug deals while a child waited in the car, and a man staring through his front door at night – whom Hart then chased down the street, barefoot, in his pajamas. “I’ve never behaved like that in my life,” Hart said. Neighbors making a tiny recreation spot from one parking space, Hart said,  “helps our community to feel like we have some control over our streets, no matter how small.”

So for one day last month, once again as part of an international event called PARK(ing) Day, LCA members and MLK Cafe staffers rebuilt their temporary parklet for a second round, creating an open-air space for neighbors to unite. “Hosting PARK(ing) Day these last two years showed us how much this is needed,” said Jewett, who believes creating more green space in the MLK corridor would help revive it—even if the green is AstroTurf. That’s why, along with other LCA members and the owner of MLK Cafe, Jewett is hoping the city will let them keep their small street space green.

“We are on track to throw our hat in the rings for this next round of permanent parklets,” Jewett said. Oakland has released funding for a designated number of permanent parklets over the past few years, and there’s hope that eventually parklets will be dotted throughout the city’s urban landscape.

PARK(ing) Day originated in San Francisco in 2005, when workers from Rebar Art and Design Studio converted a downtown parking space into a temporary public park- fitted with sod, a picnic bench and a tree- for two hours, the amount of time allotted by the money they fed the meter. “The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space… and to improve the quality of urban human habitat,”states the event’s website.

A photo of Rebar’s initial parklet spread rapidly across the web, and PARK(ing) day became a multi-city event in which artists, activists, designers and neighborhood residents create one-day public parklets every third Friday of September, often with themes – free health clinics, urban farms, political seminars, free bike repair shops, even a wedding ceremony, according to www.parkingday.org.

Dan Kalb (back), a big supporter of the LCA and their greening efforts in the neighborhood, came to join the fun at the parklet outside MLK Cafe in 2013. Photo courtesy of Yuri Jewett

Dan Kalb (back), a big supporter of the LCA and their greening efforts in the Longfellow neighborhood, came to join the fun at the parklet outside MLK Cafe in 2013.
Photo courtesy of Yuri Jewett

“These parklets create a space for people to interact in a place where they wouldn’t necessarily interact,” Wood said. “And, in an unsafe area, it puts more eyes on the street.”

Wood, who is president of the LCA, which she co-founded, said she’s lived in the neighborhood for nine years. She remembered when crime was higher around her corner of 40th and Market, where her duplex was broken into three times. The rise in break-ins and muggings around BART led her to stop walking to and from BART alone at night, and increase her home security. “You just have to be more vigilant, on high alert, be careful with iPhones – they call it ‘Apple Picking,’” Wood said. “You put more energy into thinking where you’re going and what you’re taking with you, it can be very stressful. But you adapt to it and take different measures. Ultimately we know so many people here and we feel pretty safe.”

Wood, who often walks to Emeryville or Temescal to shop and dine, says she hopes the MLK corridor can also have these amenities again. She said this was a thriving middle class neighborhood for a long time, a long time ago. “The Readers Digest version,” she said, is the freeway expansion divided the neighborhood up. The freeway went right through the heart of downtown, where the retail district was on MLK Way, “and once that happened there was the crack epidemic and the poverty that followed,”  Wood said. “All these years later, it’s just starting to recover,” she said.

Driving up and down the street you can still see empty storefronts of days passed, and they’re slowly coming back, Wood said, like Birdland Jazz, which now has live music every weekend. Things keep popping up in old spots, and new ones are coming too.

“The whole community is working to get cleaned up, to get better everyday,” said Asmerom Ghebremicael, a restaurateur and resident of Longfellow. “They want to be able to sit and enjoy the day like everyone else. We deserve this too, no?”

Ghebremicael, or AG, as he is affectionately known around the neighborhood, said he has witnessed this hard-hit stretch of MLK Way transform from what he called “the worst area,” to a place where people want to be—at least that’s his hope after opening in 2010 his eponymous MLK Cafe, the first full bar and restaurant in the MLK corridor.

An Eritrean immigrant, AG ran an African Restaurant, Massawa, in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco for ten years, until he was bought out. Shortly thereafter, he opened MLK Cafe in the Longfellow neighborhood, at the bottom of a new high-rise built in a lot that previously had “drugs, prostitution, everything,” AG said. “It was a mess.” He viewed the challenge with optimism, and set out to use this venue to change the neighborhood vibe, or lack thereof.

His idea was simple – give people a safe and clean place to congregate, in a space that once had nothing, and a community will develop – and it did.

His cafe seems to have had a profound effect on the neighborhood. It’s provided the community residents with a place to hang out outside of their homes; watch sports, listen to live jazz and blues, meet new people, use the cafe’s Wi-Fi, and to indulge in good food (it’s the only eatery on the stretch open after 4pm.)

Compared to this time last year in North Oakland, robberies are down 47 percent, and shootings are down 26 percent, according to Hastings Hart.

Before Hastings Hart, an independent software developer, moved to Longfellow, he lived not far away in Oakland, which he says he thought had prepared him to deal with crime. “But it was still a shock the first time I heard gunshots fired right outside my front door,” Hart said.  That sound still brings him, he said, “the same primal reaction of fear and rage. Until you’ve heard somebody shoot a gun in front of your house, knowing how easily a stray bullet could hit your wife or child standing in their bedroom, you can’t really know what it’s like.”

While Longfellow can certainly be a place of unease for its residents, there seems to be a general consensus that somehow it is exactly this unrest that makes the community richer, and what keeps them here rather than running to reside elsewhere. “It’s unique,” Wood said. “We’re all kind of united in this bond and this love of the neighborhood.”

She said their neighborhood does something called “porch beers,”- a different person hosts every Friday night and neighbors flock to that person’s porch to drink, hang out and play games. “Part of it,” Wood said, “is in response to the upticks in crime that’s happened, part of it is people who are moving here really want to get to know the people that are already here. There’s a very strong sense of community and togetherness in this neighborhood.” In a complicated neighborhood with such diversity of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and different experiences, they’ve found harmony through shared experiences. “I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve known so many people and become so close with so many people in such close proximity,” she said.

As such, the parklet isn’t just about not having places to gather; it’s about just not having places to gather outside of their residential streets and each other’s homes. “Precisely because of the dangers,” Hart said, “we’ve never known so many of our neighbors, never given so much of our time to our community, and never worked so hard to be optimistic about the future of our city.”

A late afternoon stroll down the commercially  barren stretch of MLK Way (at MacArthur Blvd.)

A late afternoon stroll down the commercially barren stretch of MLK Way

The LCA was developed in 2009, with a vision similar to that of AG’s. The members are all local residents whose goal is to enrich this diverse neighborhood by cleaning it up – physically and morally. Through “guerrilla gardening”- which refurbished the 40th street median, by planting trees, holding meetings, hosting events, and cultivating an attractive, safe, welcoming and warm community for its residents to flourish in.

AG and the LCA working together to create this parklet for their community is an obvious fit for one another. AG makes the lemonade for them and restocks it throughout the day. He includes the parklet as a part of the restaurant for the day, and his wait-staff take orders and serve the parklet’s visitors food out on the street. The idea of a lemonade stand as their focus was developed because a lot of people in the area have lemon trees in their backyard. “So we actually forage lemons in the neighborhood,” Jewett said. “This particular batch came from 52nd street, 43rd street, and 41st street.”

After this year’s PARK(ing) Day, the City of Oakland announced that they would release funds to build 15 more parklets to be scattered throughout the city.

The LCA has already been successful in adopting the only park in their neighborhood, Linden Park, which lies on the northwest corner of the neighborhood boundary. “It was terrible,” Jewett said. “Basically, it had a little play structure and the safety surfacing was damaged significantly.” They partnered with the city in 2010 and raised money to renovate it, and now four years later, it’s under construction and will be done in mid-November. “That was a really big win for us,” Jewett said.

The emergence of these businesses and parklets has already and will continue to change Longfellow significantly, and every change is one more essential piece in this small human campaign against alienation and crime.

When an area is taken care of, criminals realize that area is cared for and that’s not where they want to be, Wood said. “It’s the broken window theory,” Wood said, “if something is broken and not fixed right away it looks like people don’t care about that area, so that’s where the crime settles in.”

In the case study, “Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” by Frances E. Kuo and William C. Sullivan, results showed that areas with more trees and grass had less reported crimes, and residents living in buildings with “greener” milieus reported lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent behavior.

AG is applying to make his parklet permanent, and the LCA is helping make this happen, as they are hoping to fill the MLK corridor with as many parklets as possible.“I believe that parklets help public safety because they’re one more thing that helps get people back in the streets,” Hart said.

AG envisions his permanent parklet to be made from metal and antique wood, with bike racks and flowers adorning the outside. “If they told us we could have it today or tomorrow, we have the techniques to build it in two or three days,” AG said.

The words of Maine-born poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow painted at the corner of 45th and Martin Luther King Jr. Way

The words of Maine-born poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow painted at the corner of 45th and Martin Luther King Jr. Way

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