By Beth Lederer
“Alice Street” is a triumphant documentary interweaving stories of diversity, creativity, resistance, and activism. Within the different communities in Oakland a beautiful, vivid, and artistic mural of the lives and cultures emerge.
Spencer Wilkinson, the film maker, weaved many stories together between the past, present and future. The muralists, Desi Mundo and Pancho Pescador, meticulously weaved together two main cultures from Hotel Oakland(Chinese) and The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts (Afro-Diasporic) into the mural .
The documentary started with a lamp post showing the intersection of 14th and Alice Street. A woman poetically rejoices and gives homage to all the different groups that have intersected there.
“Drums from every part of Africa housed here, an intersection of traditions, ancient rhythms, culture keepers and urban oracles, past, present, future, Oakland street playing, turf dancing, hieroglyphics reimagined, folks from every walk of life, from Oaktown, to tech Oakland, ground zero for gentrification,this is corner of 14th.”
This introduction is also a prelude to all the different beats and rhythms that are played through the documentary that makes Oakland so unique and special.
Mundo founded the Community Renovation Project which is responsible for collaborating with neighborhood groups in painting murals that represent the culture and diversity within communities.
After many years of successes, the CRP was ready for a new challenge, a larger mural that would be of high profile. The CRP approached the City council and the City Council responded by choosing the parking lot of 14th and Alice.
Oakland was already gentrifying at an alarming rate and the CRP wanted the mural to be representative of the vibrant cultural community that already existed there.
It took careful planning and thought to decide what should be painted on this huge mural of four walls. The muralists wanted to use the mural as a way to fight back against gentrification.They decided on depicting the two cultures from the adjacent buildings. The mural displayed portraits of African drummers and dancers from the Malonga Center and the Elderly Chinese from Hotel Oakland. These Culture keepers have both contributed vitally to Oakland’s history.
During the interviews for the design for the mural, the older Chinese residents of Hotel Oakland wanted to show their great strength and success they have mustered as a community, and not only to be defined by the descrimination they faced.
The residents of Hotel Oakland wanted to have some representation of themes that showed a thriving community; some examples presented were images of the former Mayor Jean Quan, Chinese martial arts (kung fu) and Lion dancing.
The Malonga Center has such a huge cultural importance connecting the African diaspora in Oakland. Michael Lange, former facility director and dancer, commented in Alice Street “this building really was the heartbeat of Oakland, African dancing and drumming was all here.”
“Alice Street” portrayed Jerry Brown, the former Mayor of Oakland as clueless, lacking basic awareness and out of touch with all the cultural institutions housed within the former Alice Arts Center. In 2003, Brown planned to evict all the cultural institutions and tenants residing in the building. According to City officials,that year, 50,000 people participated in African dance or drumming.
It was a huge win for the artists. The artists emerged victorious after their protests, marching, dancing and drumming to City Hall.
Malonga was one of the strong leaders who politically led the fight and unfortunately he was shot during this period. A steadfast activist, he was a local hero and the name of the building was petitioned to change in his honor.
As the mural is being painted the film weaves back and forth through time. One story which was so important to be told was Ruth Beckford’s about 7th street and her beautiful memories of so many black owned businesses like hotels, nightclubs, furniture stores, and cafes.
When Black GI’s came home from WWII they weren’t able to buy homes in any neighborhood, They were redlined and only allowed to buy in specific neighborhoods. When BART was built their neighborhood was changed and so many successful Black businesses were destroyed.
In response to today’s gentrification, tenants are not against new stores and services moving in though they are against displacement and want consideration for the culture that is already there.
Wilkinson successfully interweaved personal stories from the Chinese and Black Communities.
These testimonies were so poignant and gave a real voice to the communities;. It shows how how government policies in the past were discriminatory.
The dedication of the muralists to this project is outstanding. On the last wall Pescador speaks to how difficult the work was and how they had to push themselves.
Each portrait had to be so precise and it was the muralists responsibility to the community to represent the picture with real life accuracy. There were meetings both at the Malanga Center and Hotel Oakland to capture what the community felt was historically important.
“Universal Language,” was successfully completed in 2015 and upon completion the neighborhood celebrated joyously with a huge block party. Only three months later Mundo found out that a luxury apartment building with 16 floors and 126 units was designated to be built in the parking lot that would fully block the mural.
Oakland artists protested to keep Oakland creative. At the Build Downtown Planning meeting in 2016 artists were not invited to participate. This was a catalyst for change and then coalitions were formed between the Black and Chinese communities.
They filed an appeal with the building department, following the same route as the protest in 2003, dancing and marching all the way to City Hall.
Oakland achieved a huge win in response to both filing the appeal and building coalitions that led to winning the Community Benefits Agreement. Four huge developers agreed to pay 20 million dollars in Community Benefits Agreements, build 90 affordable homes, 13,000 sq. ft proposed retail space, as well as $500,000 to combat displacement, create retail and public art advisory boards, and increase neighborhood participation in development decisions.
Wilkinson weaved together the history of the communities as the mural was being built and the stories of resistance and ensuing activism as the mural was obscured by the luxury high rise.
A few remarkable topics that stood out in the documentary showed how Oakland’s culture, artistic scene and resistance were portrayed in such a positive light. Wilkinson showed the fighting spirit of the coalitions that formed and how the developers were forced to learn they can’t just come into a neighborhood and displace peoples and their cultures without public outcry.
Other themes to appreciate from “Alice Street” is Oakland as a highly sought out place where old, new gentrification, and community benefits agreement coexist.
“Universal Language”has had a lasting impact in Oakland and had the capacity to bring people from different ways of life together, to find their voices and demand more equitable development.
Almost simultaneously upon the release of “Alice Street”, Mundo’s new gigantic mural “AscenDance” which pays homage to “Universal Language” was completed and now can be viewed at its new location on the 6-story, 900 foot wall of the Greenlining Institute.