Students stage “guerrilla art” exhibit as part of East 12th public land debate

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On November 20, the chain link fence that surrounds the contentious public land on East 12th was covered with panels of murals painted by students from Coliseum College Prep high school in East Oakland. In the late autumn darkness, the students and East 12th Coalition members, among others, were illuminated in floodlights as they showcased the artwork and unveiled their final “wishlist plan” to the city government. The plan is a proposal for the land’s use, based on community input gathered in August by the coalition, a group formed by Oakland residents who are concerned about the sale and development of the public parcel of land located on the Lake Merritt channel.

Earlier this spring, Oakland residents discovered that the city government had entered into a tentative deal to sell the land to a private developer, UrbanCore, which proposed building a high-rise tower of market-rate housing. Residents of the Eastlake neighborhood and people from around Oakland protested the proposed deal, and negotiations between the city and the developer halted. The city put out a new call for proposals, soliciting the public for designs. The East 12th Coalition put forth a design proposing a six-story building with commercial space on the bottom floor. Ninety-eight of the units were slated as affordable housing. Space around the building was charted for public use, with a community micro-farm, edible garden and open landscape that connects with the walkway along the Lake Merritt channel.

The newest phase of protest over the land was the “guerilla art” exhibited by students from Coliseum College Prep. The art makes statements about gentrification and displacement in Oakland as the rental market heats up. The art underscores the East 12th parcel’s place in the debate over gentrification, and as an example of the public outcry for the city government to address Oaklanders’ concerns. For example, one panel showed the words “Don’t close Oakland” and was illustrated by an image of a zipper closing over the city, with the names of tech companies’ brands on the notches of the zipper.

Katie Loncke, one of the primary organizers for the East 12th Coalition, underscored how the student artwork coincided with the group’s submission of their final proposal to the city. Both the artwork and the proposal aim to address gentrification in their own way: The plan offers an avenue of affordable housing along Lake Merritt, and the art provides commentary on rising rents from the perspective of people in the city. Loncke described being blown away by the students’ political astuteness and clever artwork. She said she was thrilled to “quite literally bring their voices into the space,” referring to the both the students’ speeches and artwork.

Martha Lopez, a junior at the school, performed a spoken word piece at the event. She has been writing poetry and spoken word pieces since she was in sixth grade. “On Friday when I gave the speech, it gave me the opportunity to actually say something, because many youth are put down. They don’t say anything because people think we’re too young to express ourselves,” Lopez said.

“We need to have affordable housing,” she continued. “Having to pay $3,000 for affordable housing isn’t fair for us.”

Becca Rozo-Marsh, one of the teachers at Coliseum College Prep, said that students who are studying social justice will be creating artwork as part of their schoolwork. “Throughout our whole year, it’s going be different art projects. The theme of poverty and the issue of poverty is going to unify all of them. This one focused specifically on displacement and housing as one aspect of how low-income people are affected,” she said.

The city government staff who have been reviewing public proposals concerning the East 12th parcel are scheduled to report to the city council on December 8. Loncke noted that the meeting could be postponed until January 5 due to the holidays.

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