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Hannah Street in Dogtown, West Oakland

Healed from the drug epidemic, Dogtown now fears the gentrification virus

on October 3, 2016

Hannah Street in West Oakland’s Dogtown neighborhood is nearly deserted on a Sunday morning. Apart from the constant white noise coming from the MacArthur Maze that marks the border with Emeryville, the only sign of life emanates from the community church on the corner of 34th Street.

Inside, the topic of the morning is about the desire of people wanting to be made new. “In the light of these elections, we think that political service will make us new,” says Dr. Philip Stevenson, the superintendent of the Wesleyan Church’s Pacific Southwest District and that week’s guest.

“Amen,” says a woman sitting in front.

“But the new person in charge will not make us new. Let God transform you,” Stevenson adds.

The talk of change and renewal reflects not only what many seek in the church, but has been on the top of the agenda for Dogtown’s community since the 1980s. In recent years the West Oakland neighborhood has had some success. However, cleaner streets came with a price tag.

Home values have gone up 12.6 percent over the past year alone, according to Zillow, and the median house value is now $537,500, already higher than the average house value in Oakland. Here as elsewhere in West Oakland, Dogtown is starting to attract more affluent buyers, and its lower-income families are leaving. Hannah Street, which runs for two blocks with the MacArthur freeway bordering it on the north and Peralta Street to the south, offers a small window into that change.

The church has been an important actor for transformation, not only on a personal level, but for the community as a whole. “We got to a point where we said ‘No more,’” says Dr. Lawrence VanHook, the lead pastor who opened the community church six years ago. “It used to be a crack house, so there was quite a lot of work that had to be done. First, we took down the bars off the window to demonstrate our vulnerability.”

It demonstrated to residents, he says, that they meant well and came in peace. The church also organized street clean ups and started providing meals to the homeless population. Life there got better. Since 2009, West Oakland has seen drug arrests drop by 65 percent, according to figures from the Oakland Police Department.

Even today when some worry about gentrification, others remember too well what they still see as a bigger problem: drugs.

Juanita Jones, who lives in the middle of Hannah Street—the same house where she was born 72 years ago—believes that most people were pushed out of their houses “because of stupid decisions,” and not gentrification.

“These houses were foreclosed when people decided to put their money in drugs rather than paying their mortgage,” she says, while pointing out three houses across the street. Those, she said, “used to be drug houses back in the days. And no one wants to go back to those days.”

Neither does Jackson Lord, who has been living across the street from the long-time Dogtown resident for three weeks. Lord moved from San Francisco’s Mission District to West Oakland because he wanted to be closer to his job in Alameda. “But also, West Oakland is more affordable and way more diverse and interesting than ‘Yuppieville,’” says Lord about the Mission, where he lived for eight years.

The 32-year-old says that he’s mindful of the fact that as someone with a “good salary,” he could be seen as an agent of change. “Essentially I’m a gentrifier. I’m aware of that, but I’ll do my best to give back to the neighborhood and the community,” says Lord.

But even by trying to give back, one can be accused of trying to strip the neighborhood of its character. “We have been blamed for gentrification,” says Rodney Spencer, executive director of City Slicker Farms. A green patch of land, in the otherwise neighborhood of empty lots, lies on the southern end of Hannah Street, on the corner with Peralta Street. The non-profit organization aims to “provide the community of West Oakland with healthy produce,” he says.

City Slicker Farms opened up its first privately-owned urban farm in June. “We work with homeless people and drug addicts, and people associate us with bringing in that problem that they work hard to push out,” says Spencer. “At the same time, most of our volunteers are white, so we get blamed for perpetuating the gentrification in the neighborhood. You can’t win for losing.”

Spencer is skeptical about the changes in Dogtown. “For some, it has become worse. There’s still theft, domestic violence, and youth violence. People with a high income have their own community and the poor are still disenfranchised,” he says.

Meanwhile, back at the community church, Pastor VanHook doesn’t want to “sing songs of cry and desperations,” he says.

“I still think there’s a sense of community here. Migration is a pattern and will continue to evolve neighborhoods,” VanHook says. He believes that with the right attitude from both old neighbors and newcomers, Dogtown can continue to have a thriving community. “If we value each other, the community will survive,” he says.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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