Oakland’s G Street, which runs along a 10-block corridor in-between 82nd and 93rd Avenues, could be a metaphor for a typical flatland neighborhood in the “Deep East.” Decades ago, it housed middle-class, blue-collar residents, mostly African American and Latino, and a mix of industrial businesses and small retailers, like the Supreme butcher shop, which once sold “poultry, fish and chicken parts.” But the 80s and 90s weren’t kind to G Street; the neighborhood fell into disrepair, and became a prime example of urban blight. Like many inner-city regions, the crack epidemic hit G Street hard. Blue-collar jobs dried up; Later came the foreclosures.
In 2014, G Street looks, for all intents and purposes, like a stereotypical ghetto. Its wide throughways and lack of stop signs means that cars often speed down it like it’s a racetrack. The “Supreme” sign has become rusted and weathered. Neighboring houses are in various states of disrepair. Broken windows greet visitors, offering little welcome. Illegal dumping has reached epidemic proportions; sidewalks are literally filled with trash and litter, from empty glass bottles to used condom wrappers, to a dead dog wrapped in a blanket and left to rot. Graffiti tags and hasty throw-ups are in plentiful evidence, painted on walls behind barbed-wire fences and adding expressiveness if not artistry to an otherwise bleak tableau. About the only signs of life are the A&B towing facility, which auctions cars impounded by the City of Oakland, and another towing business, guarded by a very vocal German Shepard. And the neighborhood residents who quietly drop by a boarded-up house next to the Supreme shop on foot or bicycle, go inside for a few minutes, then return the way they came, most likely with contraband in hand. Another business, Lowlo’s Complete Auto Repair, leaks industrial pollutants into a nearby storm drain.
According to Enviroscreen 2.0, a pollution map developed by the state EPA, G Street—located in census tract 6001409500—registered high scores for Diesel, Toxic Releases, Cleanup Sites, Groundwater Threats, and Hazardous Waste. Enviroscreen ranks the area as among the top 15-20% in all of California for environmental hazards, and it comes as no surprise the area registered a 100 score for Asthma, an 88 for Poverty, and a 93 for Unemployment. This pollution and health burden is borne disproportionately by ethnic populations; the area is 67% Latino, 23% African American, 6% Asian, and only 2% white.
In spite of all the negatives, there is still hope for G Street. Recently Urban Releaf joined with concerned neighbors and community organizations for the G Street Transformation Project. Partners included the Block by Block Organizing Committee D7, Hope Collaborative, NIMBY, Hydraspike by Marduk Productions, the Cosmopolitan Church, the City of Oakland’s Public Works Department, and local volunteers. The goal was to plant trees, pick up trash, and begin the hard work of transforming a neighborhood from an eyesore to a place of pride.
The morning of Saturday, October 25, brings some much needed rain to the Bay Area. But in the aftermath of an overnight sprinkling of precipitation, G Street looks dark and foreboding, even at 9 am. Storm clouds dot the sky, ready to expel wet projectiles from cumulus masses. At this early hour, the street is quiet. A lone Block By Block volunteer begins the work of picking up trash, slowly and methodically stabbing at discarded stuff left on the streets – important baby steps in the transformation process of a community reclaiming a neighborhood. A few more volunteers arrive; a portable table is set up, and some snacks and juice drinks are set out on it. Michael Snook, the proprietor of NIMBY, a DIY art space which houses many Burning Man-type artists located at 83rd and G, rolls up in a forklift with his dog Noodle, transporting a porta-potty and some shovels for today’s tree-planting.
In short succession, two trucks branded with the Urban Releaf logo arrive, carrying the trees for the planting, stakes, and equipment, followed shortly by a van transporting two probation officers and several juveniles from the Weekend Training Academy—a program where youngsters who have fallen afoul of the legal system can avoid jail time by doing community service hours. There are also female volunteers, one a newish resident of Oakland residing in Rockridge; the other a longtime Oaklander who currently lives in Jack London district. Rounding out the crew is Kourosh Hessam, CEO and Founder of Marduk Productions, inventor of a patent-pending series of ceramic planters, and several more Block by Block members.
Urban Releaf’s ED, Kemba Shakur, gathers the volunteers together for a brief pow-wow. The objective is to plant ten trees along G Street and nearby streets over the next couple of hours. The work is slow and methodical at first. Even with the recent showers, the ground is still hard-packed, baked to a nearly impervious state by years of direct sunlight with no shade. Hessam and the two volunteers bravely start digging at one location, as the WTA kids fan out into three groups and begin the chore of digging as well, somewhat less enthusiastically. Intermittent drizzles fill the air. Snook goes back to get another pick, as the shovels prove ineffective in loosening up the rugged inner-city soil.
About an hour in, the skies open up and sheets of rain cascade down. The probation officers direct the WTA kids to go back to the van to wait out the rain; meanwhile Hessam and the volunteers keep digging. Not long after that, the sun comes out, this time to stay. Around the same time, the first tree goes into the ground. Urban Releaf tree stewards Jamal and Akeem Davis oversee the proceedings, telling the planters to rotate the tree so it grows out in the correct orientation. After the tree is in the ground, they pound stakes next to it and affix a tie. The final action is the placement of an Urban Releaf sticker on one of the stakes, identifying the tree as one of 17,000 planted by the Oakland-based urban forestry organization.
The next few trees seem to go in a little easier, as this process is repeated over and over again. Small plants are planted next to some of the trees, making an aesthetic and symbolic statement. Eventually, the planters figure out that the groundwater from the rain can be used to loosen up the dirt. The WTA kids become a little less attitudinal once they see the fruits of their labors. Seeing a pool of contaminated groundwater seeping out of Lowlo’s, Urban Releaf Project Manager Kevin Jefferson plants a tree in the middle of the pool, where it will serve as a sponge and dampen the unrestricted flow of pollutants from the industrial brownfield into the storm drain.
The planting proceeds along as the sun gets warmer and the street temperature rises. More and more trees go into the ground. Meanwhile, the Block by Block team has separated piles of trash and laid them out on the sidewalk to be bagged. The environment already looks brighter, although there are still reminders that the location is the Deep East: a muscle car, most likely driven by a neighborhood resident, cruises back and forth a few times, observing the proceedings. At one point, the car drives down 86th Ave., into the intersection, and proceeds to do some donuts, making tight circles, tires squealing. It’s a welcome to the ghetto, as rapper Spice 1 might say.
Undaunted, the tree planters finish up the last few trees. Small children watch from behind living room windows as trees are planted on their lawn. The WTA kids have become fully engaged with the process by now; though they probably won’t admit it, they’ve been instilled with a sense of accomplishment. They’ve helped to make a positive contribution to a neighborhood which needs love. As they pile back into the van, they slap hands with the Urban Releaf crew. Their supervisor, Martinez, tells Shakur to inform him of future tree plantings. He’s always got kids available for volunteer work, he says. Shakur agrees, then takes a few photos with one of the NIMBY artists who helped out.
It will take much more effort to fully transform G Street. Cleaning up the dumping is a Sisyphan task, for one thing. But the trees send a strong message that G Street has not been forsaken, that somebody cares. The planting shows what’s possible when community members and volunteers come together for the betterment of their neighborhood. There’s much more work to be done, but this is a start.