Fruitvale businesses and residents wary of city-sponsored tourism campaign
on October 28, 2016
A mural of blues, purples and yellows painted on a fence just a stone’s throw away from Fruitvale Station reads “Nuestros barrios no se venden.” You can’t sell our neighborhoods.
Louis Ramirez lives across from the mural; his cousin and other housing rights activists painted it. The 23-year-old says it is a reminder to his family and neighbors of their deep roots here, and of how those roots are being threatened as rental costs rise rapidly in Fruitvale.
The same residents who hold the mural’s message so close to their hearts—who are predominantly Latino and Southeast Asian descent—say they are wary of a city-sponsored tourism campaign that aims to showcase Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods. Fruitvale is the first to be featured.
The campaign, which is run by the city’s tourism and marketing arm, Visit Oakland, was launched in early October.
Some locals believe that business interests, not an effort to promote Fruitvale’s unique culture, motivate the campaign. Most of the tourism dollars will eventually be funneled to the top—namely developers—they say.
“The campaign was aimed to attract gentrifiers to the area and completely ignore the Latino community that have made Fruitvale the already vibrant neighborhood it is,” said Azucena Rasilla, who grew up in Fruitvale.
But the community reaction is not so easily parsed.
While residents and business owners worry that they will be pushed out if the area becomes an attractive destination to outsiders, others agree that more foot traffic could lead to Fruitvale gaining a reputation unassociated with crime.
“I hate when people put stereotypes on us and say that all this area has is gang violence,” said Ramirez, who works for Oakland Leaf Foundation, an educational nonprofit. “So I want things to get better. But I also want to keep living here.”
The campaign, called Oakland Spotlight, promotes Fruitvale’s restaurants, shops and cultural events, including its upcoming Día de los Muertos festival. It is a way to “explore and spread the economic impact of tourism across all of Oakland’s neighborhoods,” according to the Unity Council, the Fruitvale community development nonprofit that supports the campaign.
Unity Council CEO Chris Iglesias, who has been with the nonprofit since 2012 and before that worked for the city and county of San Francisco, said he understands the anxiety surrounding the campaign.
“Fruitvale is still a low-income community, a working class neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a cultural identity down here and people don’t want to lose that.”
Bu it’s time for people to see Fruitvale in a positive light, Iglesias said. When reporters interview him at the Día de los Muertos festival, he said, they spend a couple moments asking about the festivities and then jump to crime and public safety.
“In one breath they’re talking about killings, prostitution,” Iglesias said, later adding, “But even if we get some good press, it’s not like we’re going to get a flood of people down here.”
And some wonder if the area is not yet safe enough to welcome tourists.
“They need to make the environment safe before they invite tourists here,” said Paula Chicas, who peddles everything from sequined Mardis Gras masks to Disney-themed children’s backpacks at Maritza’s Fashion & Apparel at 3340 International Boulevard.
José Flores owns Bakery El Sol, which for nine years has sold Mexican pastries inside the Fruitvale Public Market. He echoed Chicas’ unease over crime. Market merchants need to work with police to make sure customers are safe, he said.
“We don’t want people scared to come here,” he said, adding that the tourism campaign is a good thing because it might make Fruitvale less intimidating.
Kevin Thibeault, owner of the corporate catering company Nybll, moved his kitchen to the corner of Fruitvale Avenue and San Leandro a year and a half ago. Thibeault said he chose the location because there was affordable industrial space there, and it is close to BART. But if Nybll needed a retail presence, he said, Fruitvale is not where it would be.
“If you look at retail businesses here, they’re geared toward a low-income populations that lives and works here,” Thibeault said. “This is a place people go through, not go to.”
But for those living and working in Fruitvale, it is clear that the culture is slowly shifting. Through it is still largely Latino, young families and developers have started to move in, especially near the BART station, residents say. Stories of evictions in Fruitvale are shared among neighbors.
Ramirez, the San Leandro Street resident, said he noticed a difference when he moved back home after college. Fences used to be wide open, neighbors would mingle in front yards and on sidewalks. Not so much anymore. The street is now more “calm and collected” since newcomers moved in, he said. And, in his opinion, a bit less vibrant.
Ramirez’s said his family’s monthly rent jumped from $1,500 to $2,500 over the past couple years. Abundio Ochoa, who has lived in the same apartment nearby for two decades, said he saw a similar spike: $700 to $1,400. Then, he said, he and his son were evicted. He’s going to try to find another place in Fruitvale, but doesn’t expect to get lucky.
“This area is going to be increasing in value, no matter what,” Ochoa said. “I’ve given up.”
And, there is a second worry—that once the crowds do come, they will want hipper shops, not those focused on the Latino market.
Flores said he has had many conversations with his landlord about making sure El Sol has a long-term place in the market as interest in the area—especially among those unfamiliar with the conchas and cuernos he sells—rises. As it stands, most of his customers are Latino. He hopes he will be able to attract any newcomers.
Jenny Canotal, owner of Cabalen Sweet and Savory—a business being promoted by the campaign—is not so sure her restaurant, with its simple interior and inexpensive Filipino and Middle Eastern sandwiches, would be a hipster’s cup of tea, either. She said her feelings on the campaign are neutral.
“If new people come in, move here,” Canotal said, “they may have different tastes.”
The original version of this story was edited to clarify Visit Oakland’s role in the tourism campaign.
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