Is There A Darktown/Chinatown Brawl In The Making In Oakland?

May 26, 2017

They’re moving the lines around the downtown districts
Who the hell knows, honey, where they’ll fall?
If they don’t settle soon who gets which streets
Gonna be a Darktown/Chinatown Brawl

The question of the day is what, exactly, are the official geographical boundaries of Oakland’s proposed downtown-area Black Cultural Arts and Business District (BCABD)? While I once thought I knew, but now I find myself completely confused on the subject.

As many of you already know, the BCABD was the creation of Oakland City District 3 Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who brought the idea of the district into being for the stated purpose of nurturing and highlighting the cultural and business efforts of African-Americans, Africans, and African Diasporans (the Caribbean, Brazil, et. al) within the confines of downtown Oakland. The district was approved by the Oakland City Council early in 2016 under the name Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD). Ms. McElhaney’s office later unofficially changed the name to BCABD, but it’s the same district, with the same goals and makeup.

That brings us back to the question of the what are the geographical boundaries of the district, by whatever name it is called. Because those boundaries seem to change depending upon which document from Ms. McElhaney’s office you look at.

Oakland City Council Resolution No. 85958 of January 7, 2016, which officially established the McElhaney-created district, set the boundaries as “the 14th Street corridor on or within four blocks of 14th Street from Lake Merritt to 1-880 defined as from Oak Street to Frontage Road.” Presumably, since the district was Ms. McElhaney’s idea, it was her office which wrong the boundary language that made it into the Council Resolution.

Although that seems plain enough at first glance, a more careful view of the Resolution Black district boundaries reveals something of an ambiguity. In saying “within four blocks of 14th Street,” did the resolution language mean this to mean within four blocks totally—that is, so that the district would run north to south from 12th Street to 16th Street—or within four blocks on each side of 14th Street—meaning from 10th Street to 20th Street. That’s a big difference, but one that wasn’t made plain in the original resolution language. And, unfortunately, no map accompanied the Council Resolution, so the question remained officially unanswered.

Ms. McElhaney’s office appeared to try to clear up that ambiguity when they applied last month for a pilot project grant for the proposed Black downtown district from the California Arts Council.

That application referred back to the Arts Council back to Resolution 85958—and the ambiguous boundary language therein, but it also included an added description of the district boundaries that differed in language from the Resolution boundaries: “14th Street from Lake Merritt on the East to Frontage Road on the West, and approximately four blocks North and South.”

While this last language is still a little vague, a reasonable explanation of “four blocks North and South” would mean four blocks total, that is, 12th Street to 16th Street, since someone intending boundary from 10th Street to 20th would be more likely to say “four blocks North and four blocks South.”

But then, in a May 17th email sent out to residents, businesses, and arts activists asking for statements of support for the proposed Black downtown cultural and business district, Ms. McElhaney’s staff produced a new description of the district boundaries that threw the situation back into confusion. That new description put the Black district boundaries as “14th Street from Frontage to the Lake, 4 blocks on either side, excluding Chinatown.”

Which would mean, if you were following this whole series of descriptions closely, that Ms. McElhaney’s office is back to the 10th Street to 20th Street (4 blocks on either side of 14th Street) north/south Black district boundaries.
All of this confusion could have been easily cleared up by Ms. McElhaney’s office either producing a map of the proposed district, or a description that gave the names of the boundary streets rather than the whole “four blocks” thing, but for some reason, they have chosen to do neither so far.

In any event it wasn’t the “four block” clarification but the “excluding Chinatown” part of the Ms. McElhaney’s new district boundary description that got my attention.

The first point to make is that there is no indication that anyone from Ms. McElhaney’s office—or anyone in any responsible position advocating the creation of a Black downtown Oakland cultural and arts district, for that matter—ever intended for the boundaries of the Black district to overlap over into the boundaries of Chinatown. It would be both undesirable as well as politically and physically impossible to do so.

One can only surmise, then, that any possible incursion by the proposed Black downtown district into the Chinatown district was inadvertent and that, when the folks in McElhaney’s office discovered the problem more than a year after they drew the lines that created the district, they inserted the “excluding Chinatown” clause in the Black district’s geographical description in order to correct their error.

The problem is, you can’t change the boundaries of an official city-created district by slipping a new description into an email. The proper way to correct it would have been for Ms. McElhaney to draw up language amending the original Resolution and taking the Black district out of Chinatown, and then return to the Oakland City Council, admit the drafting mistake, and ask the Council to officially make the change. It is highly doubtful that anyone on the Council would object. By not doing so, there remain several different iterations of the Black district boundaries, which is bound to cause some measure of confusion if and when the district becomes more than something on paper.

But there is a second—and even more critical—problem surrounding the McElhaney office’s new “excluding Chinatown” description of the Black downtown district boundaries. If the southern side of the Black district is intended to stop where the northern side of Chinatown begins, what, exactly, is the street where the northern boundary of Chinatown begins?

Not as easy a question to answer as one might think. That’s because there do not appear to be any permanent, legal, city-sanctioned boundary lines for Chinatown. While the heart of Chinatown appears to have remained in one location for many years, the outer boundaries appear to have contracted and expanded from time to time, and one working definition of Oakland Chinatown might be that Chinatown is located anywhere that Chinatown happens to be located at any given period of time.

Currently, in fact, there are indications from business, political, and community leaders in Chinatown that economic and other pressures are pushing the northern boundaries of the district slowly towards midtown, which they have every right to do, and that rather than 12th Street marking the place where Chinatown begins, for example, we may sometime in the near future be looking at 14th Street as the frontier.

If that happens, it has the potential of setting up a nasty, race-based turf fight between Chinatown and the Black businesses and leaders trying to create a Black cultural and business district in the same downtown area.

There are also indications that preliminary sparring in that potential turf battle may already have begun over at least one downtown development property.

Although the folks in Councilmember McElhaney’s office are far too young to have created the tensions between Oakland’s Black and Chinese American communities, their fumbling of the boundaries of their proposed new Black downtown district—and their fumbling attempts to correct their initial drafting error—has contributed to the potential heightening of those tensions. Where Ms. McElhaney’s office has erred, they also have the power to correct, and can do so in a way that brings the Chinatown and Black Oakland communities together in a spirit of deténte, at the very least, and a spirit of cooperation, at the best, and prevent what might end up being a Darktown/Chinatown brawl that some in Oakland may want, but few in Oakland need.

Let’s hope they step up to the plate.


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at
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