The stretch of Martin Luther King Way running from West Grand Avenue to 580 Freeway lies within one of Oakland’s deadliest neighborhoods, appropriately nicknamed “Ghost Town” by the local residents. Homeless encampments populate the long dark stretches under the freeway overpasses. Drugs and alcohol are rampant. Dotted with liquors store and abandoned buildings, the neighborhood accumulates the more litter than the majority of the city. Nearby San Pablo Ave is a haven for prostitution.
Against this backdrop sit a large number of foreclosed properties, which have led to a large amount of vacant and abandoned homes, which have in turn led to blight, which, also in turn, leads to squatting, drug use, and drug-related crime. In areas such as GhostTown, banks who own the titles to foreclosed homes routinely remain unaccountable for blight on those properties. Until recently, there has been little effort to collect the as-much-as $1,000-a-day fines banks are liable for in these cases. Meanwhile, the city department responsible for enforcing such fines, Building Services, has been implicated in nepotism, corruption, contract-fixing, and dereliction of duty, to the point where the City Administrator’s office is undertaking a complete revamp of the under-performing department (which generates as much as $20 million in annual revenue for the City of Oakland, according to the East Bay Express).
Not only has Oakland been hit harder than most by the national foreclosure crisis, but much of the city is “underwater” – meaning many homes are worth less now than what people paid for them years ago. Many neighborhoods are suffering from foreclosures and declining property values. Foreclosed, abandoned or vacant properties are magnets for blight and blight-related crimes such as vandalism or drug use, which drag down property values and the quality of life index even lower.
The foreclosure crisis has come about in large part because predatory lenders have targeted the poor, the elderly, and non-English speaking homeowners – many of them people of color. Foreclosures have hastened gentrification by displacing current Oakland residents – both home owners and renters (who are often evicted with little to no advance notice) – none more so than African Americans, whose population has dropped significantly over the past decade. This is a shame, since the African American contribution to Oakland’s culture is largely responsible for its uniqueness among America’s major cities.
Over the past five years, as the housing situation has gotten worse every year, CRP has worked in many of the neighborhoods most affected by foreclosures, including low-income areas of West and East Oakland, and the Fruitvale District. We believe these communities deserve to have dignity and not be victimized by greedy bankers, unfriendly regulations, and confusing legal statues which fall short of holding predatory lenders accountable for their actions.
CRP has made numerous efforts to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood for local residents. In 2010, the collective painted 5 murals, picked up trash, and named the area, centered on 25th and MLK, the Martin Luther King Cultural Corridor. In fall 2011, a plan was made to do a more comprehensive project, painting new works on the wood fence in a vacant lot suffering from extreme symptoms of urban blight, followed by a volunteer clean-up.
How extreme? The trash piled behind the building dwarfed the litter in the front. Vandals had struck a newly painted, yet still boarded up house, with bubble letters that reached over the windows. The entire lot was strewn with garbage ranging from moldy couches to fast food packaging. Local dope fiends gathered in the clutter to smoke their rocks out of sight during daylight hours. Amidst the rubble, a soggy abatement notice from the city of Oakland partially protruded limply from a pile near the fence.
CRP artists worked for several days on a mural upholding people’s land rights which drew a connection between the national foreclosure crisis and gentrification already beginning to creep through West Oakland.
Shortly before completing the mural, the artists were visited by two police officers. The owner of the fence complained, even though the mural faced the abandoned lot and not the man’s property; The muralists were ordered to paint over the mural in the morning or face arrest. Yet nothing would be done about the blighted lot, because that was a different owner’s responsibility. The next morning, the artists complied with the request and painted over the mural, leaving a message questioning the city’s abatement strategy in its wake. Ironically, yet predictably, within a day, the buffed wall was struck by graffiti-tagging vandals.
This experience exemplifies the city’s disjointed approach to blight reduction. Artists painting a mural in an abandoned lot to improve the neighborhood are ordered to stop while nothing is done to clean the enormous piles of trash and illegal drug use at the same location. That’s far from the “best practice” standards cities need to uphold.
CRP believes murals should be an integral part of any proactive and effective blight reduction strategy. Public art can help define the identity of the neighborhood and becomes a source of pride for residents. Murals give people something that they want to maintain. Given the proper support, murals can transform a community without pushing out its long-term residents while raising property values as much as 15-20% without the displacement of gentrification. CRP believes in a holistic strategy to abatement which includes surveys, murals, community clean-up, youth development, education, and block parties.
It’s time for a more intelligent, sensible, and effective approach to blight redu