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.
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The once-downtrodden street’s rise from blight has not gone unnoticed by the outside forces of the real estate market.
One of the first artists to move in last year was Casey Fay, who happened to be riding his bike down the street when he saw a “For Rent” sign on a storefront across the street from the White Building. Fay and his fiancé, Kelsey Burt, were in the market for a live-work gallery. As Oakland artists, Fay said it was fast becoming too expensive to pay both apartment rent and studio rent, so they sought out the two-story space on 15th Street.
“The landlord didn’t even ask us for a credit report,” Fay said, which again, is an arrangement that sounds so Oakland. “I asked if he wanted bank statements, and he was like, ‘Nah. We like you guys. Go for it.’ ”
Fay and Burt renovated the space, where they now live upstairs and show art in the SideQuest gallery downstairs. Fay said he spent the first few months chasing off graffiti kids in the middle of night and shoeing away passed-out boozehounds in his doorway.
He also built a square wooden bench around a tree on the sidewalk, where people could gather, have lunch, or just hang out. After a neighbor complained the new bench also attracted homeless to sleep overnight, Fay and a friend cut the bench at the four corners, attached wheels to the sides, and agreed to roll it indoors each night.
“Neighborhood people can still eat their lunch out there and enjoy the shade,” Fay said. “But at night, we moved it in. Problem solved.”
Those are the kinds of additions and solutions artists can bring to a neighborhood, and make it a better place to live. But just recently, Fay and Burt got another kind of notice from a neighbor. Their landlord, once so happy to rent, had decided it was a better time to sell. They were given the heads-up they may have to make new plans.
“No one wanted to live down here a year ago,” Fay said with some wonderment. “Now, I guess it’s desirable. That’s the way things work.”
Indeed, the block is set to see more change in the coming months. A new three-story condo building is going up on the corner of 15th and Webster streets. The developer is trenching an underground garage, so the once quiet one-way street will see more car traffic.
One of the longest tenants on 15th Street is barber Ricky Ramirez, 79, who used to cut Bruce Lee’s hair in the early 1960s. In his tiny, one-chair shop at the bottom of the White Building, Ramirez keeps a framed autographed portrait of Lee (signed to Ramirez) and a Green Hornet figurine the martial arts legend gave him.
Ramirez, who has lived downtown his entire adult life, has seen Oakland’s highs and lows, booms and busts, renaissances and relapses. Looking out his window, the view has changed, he said—and it’s definitely gotten younger out there.
Ramirez said he often gets invited to the parties by his friends on the street, but he always declines. He’s not a fan of the marijuana smell, and he doesn’t drink alcohol, he said, but he’s also not against those behaviors.
“Everybody says Oakland is this or that,” Ramirez said one day as he brushed hair clippings from a client’s shoulders. “They say it’s too violent and full of crime, but I’ve never been robbed or held up. They say the economy is bad, but I’ve never been out of work. They say it’s the next great thing, but I’ve never known it to be anything else but great.”
“Sometimes,” Ramirez said, “it may look different out there, like things have changed, but Oakland remains the same.”