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A communal approach to neighborhood improvement

East Bay Express

Antonio Vasquez is chopping up a slab of pork right off a pig's leg. The whole place smells like roasted pork and corn tortillas. According to Vasquez, Jalisco’s owner, the resaturant is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. In January 1967, his dad opened the doors to Jalisco Restaurant. Vasquez has worked at Jalisco all of his life with his five sisters and two brothers.

“When my father was here, everybody was always, always in a good mood – customers, my family,” Vasquez remembers.

Everybody, says Vasquez, knew each other by name.

“I remember it being a really close relationship with the customer themselves,” Vasquez says, “getting to know them by name, remembering their order.”

These close relationships extend far beyond the restaurant itself. Over the years, Vasquez developed a real sense of pride in his neighborhood.

“I love my location. The customers are fantastic,” says Vasquez. “I have seen them have children, and their children are coming in, and those children grow up and it’s really nice to be able to talk to them and seeing the whole family thing. They dated, they got married, they had their children, and their children come in and they know what to order.”

Recently, however, the streets in San Antonio have become more dangerous. Some businesses are closing their doors. Vacant buildings are becoming more common, and crime is way up. Last year, major crime increased nearly 24 percent and 126 people were murdered in Oakland. Other crimes, like burglary, rose by 42 percent last year.

“We have graffiti. We have prostitution,” Vasquez said. “That has been an issue I would say in the past eight to 10 years.”

The neighborhood, Vasquez says, just looks worse than it used to. Illegal trash dumping is rampant.

“People tend to pick San Antonio district to come and unload their trucks with garbage, mattresses, batteries, clothes you name it,” Vasquez says. “It’s a health issue. It attracts dogs, animals, pets, rats…”

Vasquez and other business owners aren't the only people to witness this decline. The East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) has seen it, too. EBAYC is a non-profit founded in 1976 to help families and small business owners in Oakland. Lately, they've been working directly with people like Vasquez for their Listening Campaign.

EBAYC's Xavier Sibaja and others have been going around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking residents what's not working for them.

“Whatever comes to their mind, whatever they say, we take notes on that,” Sibaja explains.

EBAYC works with residents to solve these problems, like at a recent community meeting the neighbors were organizing. Residents in San Antonio, like Vasquez, are optimistic about the project even though there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Before EBAYC, I don't think there were any neighborhood meetings. Before EBAYC, everybody was kind of independent,” Sibaja said. “I don’t think people around here talked to their neighbors.”

Now they are talking, organizing, and coming together to find solutions to make their neighborhood safer and stronger. 

Moriah McKnight is a reporter at Mills College.