A few weeks ago I wrote a piece entitled From the Bottoms Up about the Village Bottoms neighborhood in West Oakland where a dedicated group of African American residents is rising from the ashes of urban blight. A history of ill-informed and discriminatory regional planning decisions cut the community off from the social and economic fabric of their wealthier neighbors, but this tribe of urban artists and visionaries is resurrecting itself based on the strengths of community development and cooperative economics.
On October 3rd, about 25 members of the community took a trip across the bay to collaborate with a group of architects, designers and urban planners through a charette at the West Coast Green Conference. During this session they laid out the community's vision for a thriving and sustainable African American Cultural District.
You may be surprised to see who turned out to be the most valuable architects and urban designers that afternoon.
From the conference program:
Summit: Creating Social and Sustainable Economic Development in West Oakland
At West Coast Green ‘08, a process of engagement with West Oakland leadership began with a design charrette. Since then a number of the ideas generated during the charrette have been realized. This year, we will go deeper, and create a conceptual plan for a piece of land at the center of the Village Bottom emerging village. In partnership with residents, you can come create the next evolution for this area.
First order of business: Get your tools ready
Let me set the stage for you: Too often in the past, the mechanisms for addressing social, economic, and environmental injustices (when it was addressed at all) have been geared toward "fixing" what's wrong or "making up for it" from the perspective of the perpetrators of the injustice. From British colonizers in India and Spanish missionaries in California to the urban renewal movement throughout the last century, the solutions proposed for the injustice have historically never led to true equality or a level playing field, but resulted in the perpetuation of the existing power structures. The patron realizes he's gone too far, then atones for his "sin" by becoming the benevolent guardian of his victim. Life and relationships might improve on the surface, but the underlying master/servant dynamic remains untouched, waiting to boil over again at the next opportunity.
This is why the Village Bottoms undertaking is such an inspiring example for all those of us who seek to break down these deep-seeded barriers and step out of the hamster wheel of history. It shows that despite the largeness of the task and past failures, true change can really happen when people from all different backgrounds come together on equal terms, listen to each other, and transcend old patterns to create a higher ground on which everybody wins.
Next, everyone spread around the tables, let the brainstorming begin
It became clear right away not only how passionate Bottoms dwellers are about their neighborhood, but how knowledgeable they are on complex issues ranging from real estate acquisition and business development to the effects of toxic brown-fields, high lead concentrations, illegal dumping and massive industrial activity. There seemed to be consensus that in order to implement the larger vision of transforming the entire neighborhood into a more healthy urban ecosystem, the businesses and institutions that have been opened in the past five years first need to be nurtured and supported.
It was truly inspiring to hear about the places they had already established through grassroots efforts, with very little funding:
The Black New World Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Nganga Diallo’s House of Common Sense, Cornelia Bell’s Black Bottom Gallery, Black Dot Cafe, Village Bottoms Farms and Soul Foods Co-op are local businesses that are in the process of creating 25 new jobs in the neighborhood. As noted on the Black New World website, "many of these businesses are being staffed by young adults who are receiving stipends from the green jobs stimulus money that came down through Mayor Ron Dellums’ Office from the Obama Administration, but more subsidy will be needed in the fall in order to retain these young adults." Maybe Van Jones could lobby for these funds from his former employer...
Or, if you're moved and inspired by the Village Bottoms, you can also personally help to sustain these grassroots efforts by becoming a Friend of the Black New World.
Next, the future. This was as brilliant and visionary as it was impassioned
Yup, that's me in the green checkered shirt in the bottom right photo. I was supposed to be the facilitator at my table, but you know what...it facilitated itself! Being a musician myself, I was really grooving on this -- it felt like a jam session! I was thinking that the world would look and feel so much more inspiring if there was an artist for every urban planner in charge of building our cities. Needless to say, there was a lot of talk about public art and murals (more than there already is) in the future Village Bottoms.
Another big topic was food and the importance it plays in building a healthy community. Up until recently there wasn't a single grocery store in all of West Oakland, but 53 liquor stores! You cannot build a support system on chips and beer and the community knows it. What was great to hear was how much the community members knew about soil science and urban farming, and how they have set up Village Bottoms Farm and Soul Food Co-op. It was expressed over and over that one of the top priorities in building a sustainable city has to be the designation of land for urban farming and educating community members on how to grow, prepare, and appreciate fresh local food.
And the winner is...EVERYBODY!
After three hours of brainstorming, each table presented a summary of the ideas that had transpired during the charette. Each group ended up with a slightly different focus...
...but all the pieces came together like a beautiful quilt.
I loved the metaphor of the Community University as applied to a neighborhood. Rooted in the values of learning and an understanding of cultural history, it would be built around the existing pillars of the Food Co-op, the Farm, the Cafe, and the Art Gallery, eventually adding other core services like a Health & Nutrition Center, Community Financial Development Institute, Childcare Center, and a much expanded farm. In between there would be parks and open spaces, including performance spaces and public art, all connected by bike trails and pedestrian walkways. Everybody agreed that Hwy 880 which borders the neighborhood and currently causes immense noise and pollution would be wrapped in a green canopy, maybe a bamboo forest. Similar to the remnants of the Berlin Wall, there would be a "Red Line to Remind" monument to remember injustices of the past.
We don't know if every single one of these dreams and visions will become a reality, but we do know that the wheels of change have been set in motion thanks to the persistence, dedication and creative spirit of a community determined to break the vicious cycles of the past. There are still many deals to be made and battles to be fought on the road to rebuilding the Village Bottoms in the image of its residents, but what we do know is that the idea of people standing up and reclaiming their land while inviting the rest of us to be part of and contribute to their cause is powerful and contagious. As one of the community architects at my table said: "Don't save us, work with us."
Help sustain the Village Bottoms by becoming a Friend of the Black New World
A big shoutout to Kirstin Miller, the indefatigable Executive Director of Ecocity Builders who has made these meetings of the minds possible.
EcoJustice series discuss environmental justice, or the disproportionate impacts on human health and environmental effects on minority communities. All people have a human right to clean, healthy and sustainable communities.
Almost 4 decades ago, the EPA was created partially in response to the public health problems caused in our country by environmental conditions, which included unhealthy air, polluted rivers, unsafe drinking water and waste disposal. Oftentimes, the answer has been to locate factories and other pollution-emitting facilities in poor, culturally diverse, or minority communities.
Please join EcoJustice hosts on Monday evenings at 7PM PDT. Please email us if you are interested in hosting.