The Most Exciting Block in Oakland
A group of artists with a vision and a sense of community turn a strip of blight into a river of creativity.
Photos by Jenny Pfeiffer
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On a muggy September night, Taharka Chango, 22, clutched a microphone as he stood on 15th Street in downtown Oakland and prepared to rap out the first lyrics that flew into his imagination.
Chango, the enthusiastic co-creator of an arts-and-music collective The Oakland Mind, was surrounded by about 20 fellow youths that night, all of whom bobbed their heads in anticipation of his rhymes as a stand-up bassist and drummer looped a steady beat. Chango referenced the tight cluster of people gathered on the sidewalk and curb—“20 heads nodding and 40 hands clapping”—known as a “cypher.” Cyphers were popularized in East Coast cities in the late 1980s, when hip-hop kids gathered to freestyle rap and passed the microphone around for hours-long marathon sessions.
“As truth comes from his soul,” Chango rapped, “the Oakland Mind cypher is laced with gold/It spills into the street, but small enough to feel quaint/Follow the brick road that’s covered in gold paint.”
It was the kind of scene that make Oaklanders love their city. Creative. Homegrown. Authentic.
It may have even looked spontaneous, as if a throng of urban creative-types had just appeared on that stretch of 15th Street between Harrison and Webster—“the brick road that’s covered in gold paint”—to work on their rhymes, paint in sketch books, and sell handmade clothing.
But the cypher met on 15th Street as scheduled, just as it has every Thursday evening since the spring, when the rappers performed at a downtown music festival. After that gig, The Oakland Mind was invited to 15th Street by Judy Elkan, owner of Mary Weather, an art gallery/studio/clothing store that moved onto the block in early 2014. Elkan, in turn, opened Mary Weather shortly after another studio, Naming Gallery—a hybrid creative space that blossomed into an art gallery-clothing store-slash-free library hangout—opened its doors. And Naming Gallery, in turn, rented its 15th Street storefront only after an Oakland couple who sell botanic and organic body lotions bought the building out of bank-owned foreclosure.
In all, eight art galleries plus two barber shops have opened on the same 380-foot-long block of 15th Street within the past year, which has somewhat magically recast the strip from a barred-and-abandoned swath of urban blight into a growing river of creativity. If you’re a one-block-at-a-time-can-change-the-world type of person, then the rejuvenation of 15th Street can look like a solid piece of evidence.
“Being part of a community while it’s springing up is something magical,” said Elkan, owner of Mary Weather. “You see storefronts getting filled in and look out for your neighbors. You meet your neighbors, and you feel your community growing together as one—that’s a real community.”
So much of the story of 15th Street can be viewed as what’s so Oakland right now. Creative minds saw an opportunity to breathe life into ailing community? Check. And they jumped into it with their own sweat equity rather than wait for City Hall and tax incentives to lure them in? Check. Are they self-aware enough to consider their possible role in the thorny issue of gentrification? Double-check.