What we can learn from West Oakland

The Bay Area seems a near-requisite stop on one’s settlement journey on the West Coast. I spent, nay, lived six memorable years in Fog City before uprooting to the Emerald City. During my tenure, I visited West Oakland twice. Just twice. The last stop on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) before going into the tunnel, West Oakland is, for lack of a better term, a slum, a place avoided by those who do not live there. That said, my two visits to West Oakland were some of the more memorable days I experienced in the Bay Area.

VillageBottomsStreetperspective_compressed

Source: ecocitybuilders.org

In 2009, I volunteered with Ecocity Builders, an Oakland-based nonprofit whose mission is to “reshape cities for the long-term health of human and natural systems.” The organization is “concerned with city design, planning, building, and operations in an integral way and in relation to the surrounding environment and natural resources of the region.”

For the better part of a year, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with the West Oakland Urban Villages Project.

A group of young, ambitious visionaries and community organizers collaborated to develop a “comprehensive and integrated approach” to redeveloping the dilapidated West Oakland district. In reality, this project transcended mere redevelopment. Organized by musicians, poets, and other artists, this project aimed to re-instill a sense of culture long lost among the debris of a forgotten district. Where developers saw a waste of space, the artists saw an opportunity to create.

“Only an artist could look at a scrap yard and see a future cultural district.”

A confluence of culture. (Source: ecocitybuilders.org)

A confluence of culture. (Source: ecocitybuilders.org)

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The vision.
(Source: ecocitybuilders.org)

For two rainy Saturdays, I worked with the group to rehabilitate a scrap yard and turn it into an urban farm. The community energy was both astounding and inspiring. Some of us organized the scraps into upcycling potential: concrete crumbles for a future walkway, rusted metal for future decoration, bald discarded tires for future planter boxes. Others painted the fencing, whether in monochrome or as a vivid mural–only the personal form of expression mattered. Every piece of the scrap yard had potential, and most importantly the people involved saw the potential, believed in it, and wanted to make a difference.

When I look back on my experience with the project, I see the alchemy of this course. Public awareness. Recycling and reuse. Sustainable and integrative urban development. Creativity. Transformation. Delight. I think these senses of culture and community ownership play key roles in the future of our sustainable urban areas. Without them we lack a strong voice and an unwavering vision; with them we have the support and collective ambition to create.

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