Sunday, January 15, 2017
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor on Oakland's Black Arts District
A CounterPoints Column by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Suppose, just for the sake of discussion, that the City of Oakland decided to end its “benign neglect” of its rapidly-diminishing Black population and, instead, partnered with its Black citizens in an effort to help rebuild the economic foundation of that population, to highlight Black Oaklanders' history and many accomplishments within the city, and to give a needed boost to Oakland’s image and finances.
And suppose, again for the sake of discussion, that the population the city targeted in this speculative initiative included not only Oakland’s African-Americans but also its Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Brazilians, and all other descendant populations from throughout the African Diaspora, all of whom have played or are playing an important role in creating the rich fabric of Oakland life.
What, do you imagine, might such an initiative look like?
Imagine for a moment that Oakland decided to set aside a special district in its downtown area designated specifically to highlight and promote African-American, African, and African-descendant arts, economics, and entertainment, similar to how the popular and highly-successful Chinatown and the Fruitvale district currently do for the city’s Chinese and Latino residents, respectively.
Imagine, further, that rather than restricting itself to one vision of Black life, the city allowed such a district to breathe such as what happens in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, where a large number of disparate businesses and attractions and entertainments can all exist together and thrive under the broad banner of New Orleans culture.
Imagine that such a Black arts, business, and entertainment district became the location for a series of new and permanent public exhibits highlighting Oakland’s Black past, present, and future: exhibit sites dedicated to the Black Panther Party, for example, which attracted scores of residents and new visitors to the various 50th anniversary celebration events recently held in the city—to the Pullman porters and waiters, who formed the West Coast headquarters of the nation’s first African-American labor union and helped build Oakland’s Black middle class only a generation out of slavery—to Oakland’s homegrown Black sports figures such as light heavyweight world champion boxer John Henry Lewis, basketball legend Bill Russell, baseball star Frank Robinson, baseball labor pioneer Curt Flood, and world champion sprinter Jim Hines down through football great Marshawn Lynch and current boxing champion Andre Ward—to its incredibly rich Black music history from gospel to the blues to rhythm and blues through rap and hip hop—to its Black and African dance history and heritage from Ruth Beckford and Malonga Casquelord and its tap and jitterbug heritage down through current Afro-Caribbean-Brazilian groups such as SambaFunk! and African dance groups such as Dimensions Dance Theater, Diamano Coura, Fua Dia Congo and its ever-expanding collection of creative innovators such as turf dancers.
Imagine Black-themed murals throughout the downtown Oakland area, and—instead of the eyesore of so many vacant storefront windows in that area—filling those windows up with art, posters, and photographs highlighting Oakland’s Black and African presence and heritage.
Imagine visitors walking through massive arches spanning 14th street—similar to what we currently have in the Laurel District—set up over the entrance gateways to such a Black arts, business, and entertainment district at its western and eastern ends—the African-American Museum at Castro Street and the Lake Merritt Park gateway, respectively—as well as directly over the heart of both the city and the district at 14th and Broadway. Imagine such visitors walking or driving or tour-busing down 14th or through the side streets of the district, guided through the various points of interests by city-printed maps and interactive, gps-guided smartphone apps, or by city- or organization-sponsored tour guides.
Imagine a Black-themed downtown Oakland district becoming the glue that finally pulls together several nearby but currently-divided Oakland areas of public attraction: the newly-refurbished western end of Lake Merritt, the restaurants and other amenities of the uptown district, Chinatown, old Oakland, and Jack London Square.
Imagine downtown Oakland suddenly becoming a destination for Oakland residents for shopping and entertainment throughout the daytime and evening hours and the weekend, not simply to work in and then vacate at the 5 o’clock hour. Imagine retail businesses beginning to see downtown Oakland as a preferred location because of the increasing foot traffic, instead of as a pariah to be shunned. Imagine all of this coming about in large part because of the creation and presence of a Black-themed downtown district.
Imagine a partnership between a downtown Oakland Black-oriented historic district and the highly-successful, nationally-acclaimed Rosie The Riveter National Park and Visitors Center, which has helped bring acclaim and positive national attention to the City of Richmond, California, and which can certainly help do the same for Oakland.
Imagine such a district becoming the catalyst for a major round of Oakland festivals—music, dance, and literary—making the city one of the national centers for such gatherings.
Imagine the number of Black organizational conventions such a district would attract—the sororities and fraternities, the civil rights organizations, the professional and business associations, the educational and sports associations—because Oakland has long been considered one of the centers of innovative Black life and can provide a Black experience that is impossible to duplicate in most other areas of the country. All of these groups have money to spend, and could most certainly be induced by the presence of a downtown-area Black arts, business, and entertainment district to come and spend their convention money in Oakland.
Imagine the jobs and the tax benefits to the city that would accrue based upon the smart development of such a Black-themed downtown district, the proverbial rising tide that lifts all of Oakland’s boats.
Imagine that the institutional foundation of such a Black-themed arts, business, and entertainment district already exists within Oakland’s downtown core, with the presence in that area of such public and private institutions as Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, Joyce Gordon’s Gallery, the Oakland Museum, the Oakland Main Library, the Malonga Casquelord Center, the African-American Museum and Library, Laney College, and the soon-to-be-refurbished Kaiser Convention Center, all of which—to one degree or another—have been promoting Black and African culture in Oakland for years.
And now imagine, finally, that the Oakland City Council already took the step to set up such a district months ago, with city officials now working on the details, and that the State of California is ready to step in with state funding and to help generate private funding for such an effort.
Well, you don’t have to imagine the last part because actually, it’s already happened.
All that’s left is for us to fill in the details and get to work implementing the vision.
I’ll tell you more about it, next time we talk, with some ideas on how we—all of us—can help get this exciting proposed project from being merely a grand vision to becoming a great reality.