A Tale Of Two Visions: Oakland's Downtown Black Business And Arts District

Celebrating City Council creation of the Oakland Black Arts Movement and Business District

Bottom row left to right: Council President Lynette McElhaney, Marvin X, Duane Deterville; Middle row: Gerry Garzon (Oakland Public Library), Tureeda Mikell, Jaenal Peterson, Aries Jordan, David McKelvey, Eric Murphy (Joyce Gordon Gallery); Back row: Eric Arnold, Kwesi Wilkerson, Charles Johnson, Alicia Parker (Oakland Planning Department), Shomari Carter (Supervisor Keith Carson's Office) (photo courtesy The Oakland Post)

January 26, 2017

The last time we were all together, we talked about the possibilities raised by a City of Oakland proposal to create a Black business and arts district in the city’s downtown area. Let’s talk, today, about where that proposal currently stands, and how it got to this point.

According to Oakland Third District Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, whose district contains the city’s downtown area, she the genesis of this idea goes back four years.

“As you know, I had begun working on this vision when I first took office in 2013,” she wrote in an email to longtime Oakland poet and cultural activist Marvin X Jackmon in June of last year. At that time, Ms. McElhaney’s proposed name was the Black Arts, Tech and Business District, which she later admitted was “too long.” “When I met you [in 2014,” Ms. McElhaney continued in her email to Marvin X, “I thought it beneficial to combine the vision for [my proposed district] with your vision of a Black Arts Movement district. After completing my initial research we convened a series of meetings in the Fall of 2015 that led to the successful unanimous decision to name the district.”

Those meetings—which involved a loose collection of local cultural and movement activists which McElhaney’s office formed and named the “Black Culture Keepers Advisory Group”—initially settled on a name for the district of the Black Business and Arts District.

At the same time Ms. McElhaney’s Black Culture Keepers Advisory Group was meeting to begin the creation of the Oakland district, the State of California was working on plans to provide additional support for the creation and operation of such cultural districts throughout the state.

In the fall of 2015, the state legislature passed and the governor signed AB 189, a bill that expanded the ability of cultural districts—such as the one Ms. McElhaney and her advisory group were proposing for Oakland—to apply for official state recognition from the California Arts Council, after which the Arts Council would “provide technical assistance” to these districts as well as "solicit and receive gifts, donations, bequests, grants of funds, or any other revenues, from public or private sources” on their behalf.

Here’s where the story gets a little complicated and, um, Oaklandish, so wake up the ones in the back who have begun to nod off, and follow close.

As Ms. McElhaney indicated in her June, 2016 email to Marvin X, Marvin had already been working on a proposal for a “Black Arts Movement” district in Oakland even before he merged his efforts with Ms. McElhaney’s. Sometime towards the latter part of 2015, Marvin X and some of his allies and supporters began a lobbying effort to get Ms. McElhaney to change the name of her effort to include the “Black Arts Movement” name.

The use of the term “Black Arts Movement” was intended for the new Oakland district to be directly connected to and associated with the important and influential revolutionary African-American cultural movement that ushered in the Black Power era fifty years ago.

According to a January, 2016 article in The Oakland Post shortly after “Black Arts Movement” officially became part of the Oakland district’s name, “The inclusion of ‘Black Arts Movement’ in the name draws direct connections to the national and global movement for Black empowerment centered on artistic expression. Oakland’s own Marvin X Jackmon, an author, playwright and lecturer, was a co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, who has championed the institutionalization of support for Black cultural and business activities over the past 10 years.” (“McElhaney Advances Legislation Protecting Black Arts Movement and Businesses” January 8, 2016)

According to the online article “The Black Arts Movement 1965-1975)” by then-University of Washington student Hannah Foster published online at BlackPast.org, “The Black Arts Movement was the name given to a group of politically motivated black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians, and writers who emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement. The poet Imamu Amiri Baraka is widely considered to be the father of the Black Arts Movement, which began in 1965 and ended in 1975. ... [They] called for the creation of poetry, novels, visual arts, and theater to reflect pride in black history and culture. This new emphasis was an affirmation of the autonomy of black artists to create black art for black people as a means to awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.”

(To correct the record, it needs to be noted that the article was mistaken in asserting that the Black Arts Movement emerged “in the wake of the Black Power Movement” rather than as a prelude to the rise of Black Power. The Black Power Movement did not begin until the famous Mississippi March Against Fear in the summer of 1966, while the article itself indicates the Black Arts Movement began a year earlier. That’s important to know because, like many cultural movements, the Black Arts Movement helped to change the mindset of many young African-Americans through dance, poetry, theater, and song, who then used that altered attitude and world view to create the Black Power movement. A few years before he was co-found the Black Panther Party, for example, Bobby Seale was reciting revolutionary Black Arts Movement-created poetry in cafes and coffee shops in Berkeley and North Oakland. In this case, as is usually the case, art both preceded and precipitated action.)

Anyways, according to noted African-American literary and historical scholar Kalamu Ya Salaam, the San Francisco Bay Area was one of the major centers of the original Black Arts Movement.

The Bay Area was one of “the two major locations of Black Arts' ideological leadership, particularly for literary work,” Ya Salaam wrote in a 1995 essay reprinted in Modern American Poetry (“Historical Overviews of the Black Arts Movement”). “[One of] the only major Black Arts literary publications to come out of New York [was] Black Dialogue, which had actually started in San Francisco (1964-1968).

Describing the origins of the Bay Area branch of the movement, Ya Salaam wrote that “in 1967 LeRoi Jones [later to become known as Amiri Baraka] ... met Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver and worked with a number of the founding members of the Black Panthers. Additionally, Askia [Muhammad] Touré was a visiting professor at San Francisco State and was to become a leading (and longlasting) poet as well as, arguably, the most influential poet-professor in the Black Arts movement. Playwright Ed Bullins and poet Marvin X had established Black Arts West, and Dingane Joe Goncalves had founded the Journal of Black Poetry (1966). This grouping of Ed Bullins, Dingane Joe Goncalves, LeRoi Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Askia M. Touré, and Marvin X became a major nucleus of Black Arts leadership” in the Bay Area.

From this history, one might be able to draw their own conclusions as to why Marvin X and his supporters felt it important to have the newly-forming Oakland Black business and arts district to include the “Black Arts Movement” name.

Marvin X himself gave his own reason, writing in a generally-released email in December of 2015 shortly after BAM was included in the district name that “Oakland's Black Arts Movement District serves as the model of a national and international/Pan African artistic movement. Those who think BAM is something from the past are simply lost and turned out on the way to grandmother's house... They need to get a healing and come into the present era. After all, we are yet free and thus the mission of BAM continues until freedom is won.”

In any event, the lobbying campaign that brought about the district name change was both intense and, at times, accusatory against Ms. McElhaney.

In December 11, 2015 while the lobbying campaign was still going on, Marvin X wrote in an email to Ms. McElhaney, for example, “Lynette, when can you say Black Arts Movement District? Didn't we vote on the name? Is there a psycholinguistic crisis among politicians? Prez Obama can't say ISIS or Islamic terrorists. BAM and the The Black Liberation Movement are one and should be honored as such, especially on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Maybe we should call it The BAM/BLM District so people can understand we are celebrating the Black Radical Tradition, not Negro art, culture and economics.”

McElhaney’s Black Culture Keepers Advisory Group eventually changed the proposed name of the downtown Black business and arts district to the Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD), and it was under that name that the Oakland City Council unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing the creation of the district in January of 2016. That Council ordinance set up the district’s boundaries as a four-block corridor on either side of 14th Street from the western shore of Lake Merritt to the 980 freeway “to highlight, celebrate, preserve and support the contributions of Oakland’s Black artists and business owners.”

And there, on the city level, at least, the BAMBD all but disappeared from public view.

Normally in American-style government, once a legislative body such as the Oakland City Council approves a measure, it goes to the executive branch—in this case the Oakland mayor’s and city administrator’s offices—for implementation. A recent call to the city administrator’s office about the current status of the BAMBD, however, oddly resulted in a referral back to Councilmember McElhaney for any information on how the district was being set up. A followup call to Ms. McElhaney’s office resulted in the information that the 3rd District councilmember’s office was, indeed, taking the responsibility to develop a plan for implementing the Black Arts Movement and Business District, a representative for the office saying that severe staff cuts in the city’s Cultural Affairs Department (from 20 fulltime staff members down to two fulltime and one part-time) had made it a practical impossibility for the city administrator to do any work on the project.

McElhaney staff representative added that the Councilmember’s office is actively working on the implementation BAMBD, and in an email to Marvin X in November of last year (reproduced below in this column), Ms. McElhaney herself gave some examples of what specific steps were being taken. But the fact remains that a year after the Council authorized the creation of the BAMBD, there is, as yet, no tangible, physical evidence that subsequent city efforts at any level have moved the project significantly forward into something the general public can see and touch.

At the same time that action on the part of the city appeared to be moving at a snail’s pace, at least as far as the public could observe, Marvin X and his followers were going like gangbusters on the BAMBD implementation front, to use a phrase common in my parents’ time.

Almost immediately following Council creation of the BAMBD, a broad collection of Black Oakland political and cultural leaders and activists led by Marvin X and Lower Bottom Playaz theater group founding director Ayodele Nzinga—assisted somewhat in the background by Oakland Post publisher Paul Cobb—created an organization under the name “Oakland Black Arts Movement and Business District”—the same name as that of the city-authorized cultural district—and, in that name, have spent the last year busily trying to implement their vision of the BAMBD.

Under the BAMBD name, the Marvin X/Nzinga/Cobb group created an online and print newsletter, held several “town hall” type meetings both within the downtown boundaries of the district and in other parts of Oakland to promote interest in and implementation of the BAMBD, and have even conducted negotiations with developers with upcoming real estate projects in the downtown area in order to extract community benefits specifically for the BAMBD. Whether the developers intend any benefits granted to go to the Black citizens version of the BAMBD or the city-authorized version of the BAMBD is currently unknown.

First issue of the "community" BAMBD newsletter

And if that sounds like it might be confusing—having both an independent, self-authorized citizens’ group and an official city district simultaneously using the same name—it actually was and is confusing, and promises to be even more confusing if and when the official city district of that name actually gets off the ground.

Meanwhile, that alliance between Councilmember McElhaney and the “Black People’s branch” of the BAMBD (as opposed to the official, city-sponsored BAMBD)—which had begun to unravel during the activists’ lobbying campaign to change the district’s name—widened into a complete breach.

By the time of last year’s Council elections in November, in which Ms. McElhaney was up for re-election, Marvin X wrote in a generally-circulated email message a few days before the election, “I wish I could love President of the Oakland City Council, Lynette McElhaney, but she ain't right. She deals in duplicity and political chicanery, Machiavellian conundrums and circumlocution. If she were beauty and truth, she would be a goddess of the first order. We do not support her re-election as Oakland City Councilwoman. She has not disclosed the BAMBD budget under her control, she has not displayed the BAMBD banner nor has she pushed through policy changes that will allow BAMBD vendors on the street in our district as vendors on the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco, to say nothing of the East Coast.”

And in July of this year, Marvin X published an article in the Oakland Post in which he criticized Ms. McElhaney’s efforts once the Council had authorized the BAMBD. “After the Oakland City Council made official the Black Arts Movement Business District (BAMBD) along the 14th Street corridor several months ago, not much has happened. The requested Universal African flag has yet to fly as a banner in the district. The requested vendors are not yet authorized to sell on or in the BAMBD. City Council President Lynette McElhaney pushed the legislation through but has had other priorities since then, including the upcoming elections.”

In reply to his November public email, Ms. McElhaney wrote back to Marvin X late last year:

 “I am saddened by your message and disappointed that you chose to provide misinformation to your readers rather than contact me or my staff directly to address your concerns. Be that as it may, here is a reminder of where we are on the process and timeline that I've presented to my Black Culture Keepers work group:

“There is no established budget for the District. ... My staff is researching concepts from around the country that we will share with the Black Culture Keepers group. ... As of now there are no funding sources that are under Council control for any project and there is not one established for the BAMBD. ... The street vendor proposal is included in the downtown specific planning process.

“In addition to the issues you cited, the Black Culture Keepers made two specific projects priority; namely the rehabilitation of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Performing Arts ($5-$10 Million for full restoration and upgrade to the theater plus upgrades to the residential units and offices) and the expansion of hours and programming at the African American Museum and Library. Both of those efforts are underway and we've worked diligently to secure funding commitments from developers that are bringing projects to the corridor.

“Lastly, we have made strong commitments to the businesses in the District to work with them to expand their participation in Visit Oakland and to assess additional supports for building improvements, loans and grants to support their businesses.”

So that has left us with two entities—the City of Oakland (represented in this case by Councilmember McElhaney) and a group of Black cultural activists—using the same name, Oakland Black Arts Movement and Business District, supposedly working for the same goal—the creation of a Black business and arts district in downtown Oakland—but openly feuding and working at cross-purposes against each other.

Typical Oakland, some might say. But it’s not as hopeless as it sounds. Unfortunately, we’ve run out of both time and room, for now.

Next time we talk, however, some thoughts and ideas and suggestions on how we might work our way out of this little difficulty and get ourselves (back) on the road to implementing the grand vision of a downtown Oakland Black business and arts district as it should be.


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at safero@earthlink.net
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