23rd Avenue art space members rally to buy their own building
on April 23, 2018
On the corner of 23rd Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland, there’s a colorful mural painted on the side of a building with the phrase “CULTURE IS A WEAPON” written in bold letters. In the center of the mural is an image of a raised fist in front of flames, surrounded by portraits of Black Panther party members, musicians, farmworkers and indigenous people. While the mural is surrounded by fences on all sides, its size and color make it a landmark in the San Antonio neighborhood bordering Fruitvale. The cultural lineage that inspired this mural is still thriving, not only in the city’s art but in its community spaces, especially in the building
on which the mural is painted.
On an overcast afternoon in February, young people are sitting around a table covered with art supplies including glitter pens, stamps, color pencils and watercolors. They are at a monthly “maker day” hosted by Peacock Rebellion, a performing arts group led by queer and trans artists that is based in the building. A young woman is sewing flowers on a t-shirt that says “Man-up”—“subverting masculinity” she later quips. Others are decorating cards on the theme of “self-love,” and at a table nearby, a local artist who goes by “Queen Sen Sen” is leading a block print demonstration. The prints include outlines of naked bodies, famous faces of Black artists like Nina Simone, and a vulva-shaped flower.
Devi Peacock, who uses the pronoun they, is sitting at the table, wearing a gray sweater and blue-rimmed glasses. They are tired after last night’s event, “Tender Fest,” a dance festival they helped organize at the performance space across the street. Peacock is the founder of Peacock Rebellion, the newest group to move into the building in 2016. The building is also home to a bike shop, a martial arts studio, a community garden, and residents who live in the apartments upstairs. Amidst the garden’s slightly overgrown plants, raised beds, and a chicken coop, three volunteers finish up a monthly workday with the group Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL), a gardening collective based in the building.
While Peacock seems very much at home in this space, at this time last year, the group was reeling after getting the news about a possible eviction. In January, 2017, their landlord announced plans to sell the building, which some of the groups have called home since the late 1990s. Displacement has become a common threat for Bay Area nonprofits, which struggle with rising rents and a lack of affordable spaces. So the groups on 23rd Avenue came together to raise the funds needed to buy their building.
“I think our community desperately needed a win,” says Eri Oura, a member of Cycles of Change, which operates a bike shop in the building. Now, the groups are hoping to maintain the community they have cultivated over the years by creating a new collective ownership arrangement that could be a model for other nonprofit groups facing displacement.
All of the groups in the 23rd Avenue building are collectively run by primarily queer and trans people of color. The oldest—Cycles of Change—just celebrated its 20th anniversary. “Quite frankly, I just don’t think there’s very many spaces like ours with a big plot of land in the back,” says Oura, who is wearing a black hoodie with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter written in yellow on the front. Oura has a fundraising and organizing background, which came in handy after the residents got the email from their landlord last January explaining her intention of selling the building. But because the landlord supported their work, she offered them the right of first refusal.
The landlord’s decision came just a month after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which resulted in 36 deaths and started a conversation about the safety of DIY art spaces in Oakland. Oura recalls that immediately after the fire, their landlord took the building tenants out in the garden to practice using the fire extinguisher.
None of the groups in the building wanted to leave the neighborhood, both because of their connection to the community and the difficulty of finding affordable space in the Bay Area, especially for grassroots arts organizations. “I hear from a lot of nonprofits in Oakland, rents are going up 50 or 100 percent, year over year,” says Peacock. “Some are pushed out to Richmond, East Palo Alto, Hayward. Some groups can’t even afford to do that.”
Peacock and Oura say the neighborhood is on the cusp of gentrification. But, Peacock says, referring to the area’s largely Asian and Latino population, “This is still a working class neighborhood made up of predominantly people of color—we have to fight for that.”
After the initial shock and tears that came with the news of a potential eviction, the groups shifted into action. “The calls started right away,” Peacock says. One of those calls was to Steve King, executive director at the Oakland Community Land Trust (OAK CLT). The land trust was formed in 2009 with a mission to purchase and maintain land and housing for low-income residents in Oakland. While the land trust was initially a response to the foreclosure crisis, King says that in response to the wave of displacements, OAK CLT realized it needed to expand its mission. “We think it’s an incredibly powerful tool for community self-determination—one of the reasons we’ve broadened our conception of what community land trusts can do in Oakland,” says King.
While the 23rd Avenue groups spoke with a few different land trusts in the Bay Area, they ultimately partnered with OAK CLT because it is based in Oakland and supportive of the groups’ goal of collective ownership. “That was a big part of us feeling confident in moving forward,” says Oura.
Moving forward meant raising a down payment of $75,000, to be paid to the landlord by May 1, 2017. The groups launched an online crowdfunding campaign called #Liberate23rdAve early that March. By the end of April, they had achieved their goal, with close to 600 donors contributing to their cause, and ultimately raising over $90,000.
Both Peacock and Oura were surprised at how viral the campaign went. “I was like, ‘Damn, people really care,’” Oura says. They reflect on the moment, attributing it to a mix of frustration about displacement, a feeling of loss after the Ghost Ship fire, and the genuine connection many people had with the groups. “The timing of it all really got people to tune in,” Oura says.
A few days later, the groups made an offer of $1.5 million for the building. “That day—it was so stressful. It wasn’t long before she got back to us, but it felt like forever,” says Peacock. The next day they received good news—the landlord had accepted their offer.
After the groups arranged for an environmental assessment and secured additional loans, the building’s title of ownership was transferred in November to the Oakland Community Land Trust. The groups’ members finally had a moment to take a breath, but they soon received a reminder of the work that was to come: “A couple hours after the sale went through, one of the sinks broke,” Peacock says, laughing. “But it was a beautiful problem to have, because it was our problem now.”
On a recent Saturday morning at the building, the bike shop run by Cycles of Change is alive with kids and adults working on their bikes. The space exudes a sense of contained chaos—bikes, tools, crates of used parts, and tires are everywhere. Some neighborhood kids are at the “community bike stand,” where they joke around with each other and fix up their bikes for a “ride out” they are planning the next day. Andrea Sakr, age 20, is running the shop this morning. She is a former student in the “Earn-a-Bike” program, through which she built her own bike because she couldn’t afford to buy one. She gently chides the kids for their language, telling them how much money would owe the shop’s hypothetical cuss jar—if it had one.
Sakr teaches bike safety classes with Phoenix Mangrum, another member of Cycles of Change, who is almost 70 years old and resides in the building. Because the shop is collectively run, both Sakr and Mangrum have a say in how the space operates. “Most of us are familiar with hierarchical leadership where the buck stops with one person,” says Mangrum. “Here there is no executive director—the boss is the group that you’re responsible to.” Mangrum has been a member of bike and food co-ops throughout his life, so he was drawn to the values the group puts forth: “consensus decision making, diversity, and anti-gentrification,” he says.
Now, the challenge is to translate these values into a larger self-governance structure that all the individual groups can collectively ascribe to. Towards that end, they are working with the Oakland Community Land Trust to develop a collective ownership model. They hold monthly stakeholder meetings with the land trust, where they work in sub-committees on topics like building repairs and finance.
One ownership model they are considering is a “limited equity cooperative,” which means that the tenants form a co-op and legally own the building, while leasing the commercial space to community organizations. In their own iteration of this model, the 23rd Avenue groups would form two co-ops—one for residential tenants and one for the commercial tenants—and would create an agreement between the two.
“It’s very new in Oakland and that’s part of the challenge—convincing everyone else: tangential partners and funders and policy makers, that this is a viable model,” says King of OAK CLT. Another challenge is the legal structure, which comes down to what will be feasible under California law. “There are strict regulatory issues around condo-izing buildings,” says King.
One advantage of the limited equity cooperative model is that it has restricted resale values as well as income limits for potential members. This means it can offer greater affordability than other shared equity housing models.
While the groups at 23rd Avenue don’t have many residential/commercial hybrid models to emulate, one project called Columbus United in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood has been a starting point. In 2011, through a partnership with the San Francisco Community Land Trust, the residents formed a limited-equity housing cooperative and were able to purchase the building and set up permanently affordable housing. The collaboration was the first time a community land trust partnered with a housing cooperative explicitly to prevent the eviction of current residents.
Another option is that the land trust remains the long-term owner of the land, while the group devises a structure through which the residents will manage the building. “We refer to it as stewardship,” says King. “Devi and Eri recognize their time is transitory in that building. They have this long view and want to ensure the building always serves groups with similar values.”
Leo Orleans, another resident of the building and a member of SOL, says that after buying the building, they are able to approach their work with a sense of endurance. As a volunteer-run organization, SOL had struggled with creating consistent programming throughout the year. Now that the groups collectively own the building, Orleans says, “We can invest time and resources into projects that will sustain and actually last.”
After almost a year of fundraising and negotiations, the new year brought the groups a chance to reflect and bring their community together. In January, they organized a community celebration at the East Side Arts Alliance—a black-box theater space—across the street from their building. At the event, Peacock and Oura addressed an audience of friends, community members, and collaborators. “A year and five days ago, I was scared,” Peacock said to the crowd, referring to the moment they learned the building would be up for sale. “What we are doing felt impossible,” Peacock continued, pausing as they teared up. “This was a campaign led mostly by queer and trans people of color.”
The audience clapped, and other collective members including Mangrum and Orleans, shared their gratitude. Afterwards, as they prepared the stage for a performance, Peacock moved the mic stand to the corner. “I’m just going to put this over here … to prevent any liability,” Peacock said with a wry smile. “We don’t have insurance for that yet.”
Beyond the material challenges of collective ownership, Peacock and Oura hope to prioritize the longer-term sustainability of the neighborhood. For Peacock Rebellion, a young organization that recently began gaining momentum with local funders, Peacock is worried about what the art organization’s presence could mean for the neighborhood. “That’s a constant fear for me—that we will be used to sell houses because people will see it as an up and coming ‘arts district,’” Peacock says. To better serve the community, they are launching a series of “listening circles” with community members, particularly Black trans people.
As the community celebration came to an end, Peacock led people outside from the East Side Arts Alliance to the 23rd Avenue building, where two native Ohlone women were closing out the event with a blessing and performance. Wearing long black and white skirts, denim jackets, and bead necklaces, they sang songs in their native language, and the smoke from a burning sage stick formed a hazy film around them. A BART train rushed past on the tracks behind the building, momentarily drowning out their singing, as the sun set.
As the crowd began to disperse, Peacock reminded folks to grab a packet of seeds on their way out as a thank-you gift. “Insert metaphor about seeds here,” Peacock said, laughing. “It’s been a long year.”
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