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Chew on This: Community service on the street level

Ella Baker Center

Many of us wonder what we can do for the communities we live in. Sometimes we feel alienated, even from our neighbors, and just want to connect. Other times, we come together for the sake of safety. We join a neighborhood watch, or pay a visit to city hall. In this next story, we meet three residents of West Oakland who are finding new ways to clean up their communities -- literally. Reporter Charlie Mintz has the story from “Chew on This,” a new project coming to KALW this fall.

I’m driving through West Oakland with Amaka Agbo. She’s policy director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit that works with low-income communities of color. We’re headed for a street Agbo says shows a lot about the neighborhood, and the people who live there.

“Even despite lack of investment, and despite all the hardships that are hitting these communities, like foreclosures, and schools shutting down, lack of jobs, there's still a big effort to share resources, to share, to pull together, collectivize and support one another,” says Agbo.

Earlier this year, Agbo helped organize the Ella Baker Center’s annual Throwdown for the Town, an event where hundreds of Oakland residents volunteer for dozens of community improvement projects. A big one this year was street clean-up. Agbo and I are driving down Mandela Parkway in West Oakland.

Block after block, we see trash strewn on the street – mattresses, plastic bags, wood pallets –trash people have casually left behind. Then we get to the corner of 14th and Mandela and it’s different. It’s totally clean.

Lanese Martin leaves near Mandela Parkway. She says she was proud that the people cleaning up Mandela weren’t outsiders; they were neighbors like her.

“A lot were black men. So when people were walking past, it didn't look like some weird missionary thing. It looked like people taking pride and cleaning up their neighborhood,” says Martin.

Mandela Parkway is an important symbol of community solidarity in West Oakland. For more than four decades, this road was the site of the 880 freeway. When it opened in 1957, it bisected the neighborhood – and some say, destroyed it. So when the Loma Prieta Earthquake wrecked the overpass in 1989, community activists saw an opportunity. They successfully fought to relocate the rebuilt freeway to the edge of town, and in its place came the Mandela Parkway: two wide, one way streets separated in the middle by a well-landscaped median of grass and sidewalk. On it, cyclists pedal and families push strollers.

Lanese Martin says it matters that the parkway stays clean ­– it’s a way of letting people know that they deserve clean streets.

“While we were walking down the highway, and picking up garbage, people would stop by roll their cars down, they would say thank you, random people that were walking by would say thank you, maybe pick up a piece of paper or two,” says Martin. “It’s not that West Oakland don’t take pride in their space. You can feel when people are thinking less of your community, it kind of becomes internalized.”

The cleanup effort didn’t just stick to the main roads. It also took volunteers down side streets, like Chestnut, the site of a community garden operated by local food advocacy non-profit People’s Grocery.

Larry Davis is a West Oakland native, and a gardener at the People’s Grocery garden, located behind the California Hotel. The space was once a club featuring top black performers like Little Richard and Sam Cooke. Now it's a site for low-income housing. As I approah, I see homeless people pushing carts down nearby blocks, and a woman urinating on the base of a street sign.

“There is drugs in the area, there's low self-esteem in the area, because a lot of people are homeless, they don't have anything, so we try to get involved with folks around here to the point where you don't have to give up,” says Davis.

Building the Garden was one way to do that.

The garden is a lush spot with rows of collards and kale and squash. Outside, on the sidewalk, are recently installed planter boxes – that’s what people can stop by and harvest from. But the street around the boxes was still covered with trash. Davis says that made it less inviting.

“At night time it gets sort of dark back here, so they were starting to use it for a dump spot,” says Davis.

Jumoke Hinton Hodge works for People's Grocery, and helped with the street cleanup. She says the hotel’s residents hated the trash as much as anyone, but “at the same time, felt like it was kind of this futile effort, that nothing could ever change that environment.”

Standing in front of the garden, next to a planter box full of kale, Larry Davis explains how he and the other volunteers decided to attack the problem.

“We thought how can we get this cleaned up, so that's reason we started putting up art,” explains Larry Davis.

“They did these eight foot high portrait pieces, and we focused on local heroes, Mother Mary Wright is one of them, Huey P. Newton, and then we did one to Ella Baker, and of course one to Martin Luther King in honor of him as well,” says Jumoke Hinton.

Davis says the portraits lend the garden some history, “so when people would get ready to tag they'd say hold it, you know that's people that done stuff, let's take this somewhere else, this is meaningful.”

Community members say the problem hasn’t been solved. Not by a long shot. But in the area around the murals, and nearby, where People’s Grocery built planter boxes, the street is still clean – and it’s become a more inviting place to be. Hinton is especially proud of the Mary Wright mural.

“As we were painting that particular mural, residents came out from across the street. One kid came out, and he kept looking at this photo, and said that looks like my Grandma, and when they finished, they realized it was his grandma. So it was Mary Mother Mary Wright's grandson who lives actually across the street from the mural,” explains Hinton.

Mother Mary Wright was a longtime West Oakland resident, who started feeding the hungry back in the 70s, with the extra money from her social security checks. She founded a charity that fed almost 500 a people a day.

For Davis and Hinton, a clean street is a step toward a revitalized neighborhood, one where a grandson reconnects with a legacy of service, and a community can focus on health and sharing.

“Community service is kind of a bourgeois term,” says Lanese Martin, back on Mandela Parkway, “because it's survival for everyone else … The people of west Oakland work together and that's what I think is beautiful about it.”

Martin says West Oakland can’t fix its problems overnight, but that there’s strength in working on them together.  

Crosscurrents Oakland