Opening ceremonies of the Alice Street Mural Project, August 2014

A Darktown/Chinatown Brawl? A Councilmember Responds

June 13, 2017

Those of you with good memories will recall that a week or so ago, I wrote of my concerns about a possible ethnic-based territorial fight between Oakland’s Chinese-American and African-American communities over Oakland City Councilmember Lynette McElhaney’s proposed new downtown Oakland Black arts and business district (“Is There A Darktown/Chinatown Brawl In The Making In Oakland?” CounterPoints May 26, 2017. That potential fight was threatening to break out because some ambiguous language coming out of Ms. McElhaney’s office left it unclear where Oakland’s Chinatown district ended and her Black cultural district was supposed to begin. I thought that having created the potential problem, it was within Ms. McElhaney’s power to step in and try to clear things up between the two communities.

Ms. McElhaney, apparently, believes somewhat differently about the matter.

Longtime Oakland political and environmental activist James Vann was thoughtful enough to pass my column along to Ms. McElhaney, and got the following from her in reply.

“...there has always been referenced that the 4 block boundary as defined by the Culture Keepers excluded China Town,” Ms. McElhaney wrote to Mr. Vann, in reference to my assertion that the “excluding Chinatown” clause had only recently occurred in the Black cultural district boundary line description, and was not in the official description that was approved by the Oakland City Council last year.

“Contrary to what Jesse asserts,” Ms. McElhaney continued, “the Black Artists and Chinatown coalition have coordinated together and the mutual histories are reflected in the Alice Street mural.

“This essay does not resonate with the organizers or the coalitions that have been negotiating community benefits for both districts. To my knowledge Jesse has not been a part of those discussions and to publicly put this out in this manner could actually produce previously unknown stress and dissension.

“Lastly, while the Black Cultural District overlays the BAMBD; it is not the same precisely. This too was a decision of the stakeholders. We will continue to advocate for and support the creation of a district that highlights, celebrates and nurtures Black artists, entrepreneurs, social movements and political leaders.”

What Ms. McElhaney left out of her reply to Mr. Vann is as important as what she included.
She never says what she considers to be the exact street boundary going in the direction of Jack London Square where the Black cultural district ends, nor does she explain exactly what street she believes Chinatown begins, so that the public could have a clear idea of what streets the Black cultural district should be excluded from when her staff says it should be excluded from Chinatown.

Giving those exact street boundary definitions would have gone a long way towards clearing up the confusion I wrote about.

One could make a good argument that 10th Street is where Oakland’s Chinatown begins. While Chinese and Chinese-American businesses have something of a presence along 11th and 12th streets going north, 10th is where the last City of Oakland official street signs appear in both English and Chinese characters, and the increasingly-scattered Chinese and Chinese-American businesses north of 10th have more the feel of a typically ethnically-integrated Oakland business district rather than one dedicated exclusively to Chinese Americans.

If that remained true, the Black cultural district would not intrude upon the territory of Chinatown, since the southern boundary of the Black district would be either 10th Street or 12th Street, depending upon which way the boundary lines spelled out by by Ms. McElhaney’s staff are interpreted.

But that only accounts for the current northern Chinatown boundary, not what that boundary could be in the future.
It’s quite possible, for example, that Chinese and Chinese-American businesses could soon become more prevalent along 11th and 12th streets and even further north. At that point, the definition of what streets the Black cultural district had to avoid to “exclude” being in Chinatown would become a serious matter of dispute between the two district. So leaving out her exact street definition of the Black cultural district and Chinatown boundaries is a critical omission.

But let’s move away from what Ms. McElhaney didn’t say in her email to Mr. Vann to what she actually did say.
“Contrary to what Jesse asserts,” Ms. McElhaney wrote, “the Black Artists and Chinatown coalition have coordinated together and the mutual histories are reflected in the Alice Street mural.”

The Alice Street Mural Project, located on buildings in a parking lot across the street from the Malonga Casquelord Center, is one of Oakland’s cultural gems, an example of a collection of multicultural, multi-ethnic Oakland artists and muralists coming together in a spirit of mutual respect to put up a work of art celebrating Oakland’s much-celebrated cultural diversity.

The problem with Ms. McElhaney using this in her rebuttal to my column is that I never asserted in that column that such a multicultural artistic collaboration could not take place in Oakland, or had never taken place.
My concern in the original Darktown/Chinatown Brawl column was that when two ethnicities believe that they have exclusive rights of a single territory in which to highlight the accomplishments of their respective ethnicities, the potential for conflict between those two ethnicities is great. That condition did not exist when the Alice Street Mural Project was being created.

Although the Mural Project is clearly within the current boundaries of Ms. McElhaney’s Black Arts and Cultural District, those boundaries were not officially ratified by the Oakland City Council until January of 2016, a year and a half after the completion of the Mural Project. Alice Street and 14th Street are also far removed from any other community officially or unofficially designated as the “territory” of a particular Oakland ethnicity. In addition, the Alice Street Mural Project was specifically designed to portray a cooperative integration of Oakland’s many cultures and ethnicities, and accomplished that goal well. Under those circumstances, any inter-ethnic rivalry and conflict over “exclusive territory” was not bloody likely to happen, as our British friends might say.

But there is an upcoming mural project not far from Alice and 14th where the African-American/Chinese-American conflict I worried about is already simmering, and that surrounds Carmel Partners proposed development of a high-rise residential and commercial building at the current site of the Merchants Parking Garage on Franklin Street between 13th and 14th.

During the time earlier this year when Carmel Partners was seeking approval for the proposed development before the Oakland Planning Commission, a coalition representing the Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD)—a community group led by Oakland Black cultural activists Marvin X, Ayodele Nzinga, and Eric Arnold that split with Councilmember McElhaney over the development of her Black cultural district but continued to do business in that district’s original name—and the Chinatown Coalition for Equitable Development (CCED) negotiated a series of “community benefits” from the developers.

The full results of those negotiations have remained a secret, but representatives of the community BAMBD later told some Black Oakland artists and arts community representatives that one of the “community benefits” won by the BAMBD/CCED coalition from Carmel Partners was two sets of ethnically-based murals on the outside of the Merchants Parking location development. The murals on the 14th Street side of the building would highlight African-American themes, the BAMBD representatives said, while the murals on the 13th Street side would highlight Asian-American themes.

This led to some of the Black artists and arts community representatives to wonder—a little testily—why exclusively Asian-American themed murals are being placed in the middle of an area that only recently was designated by the Oakland City Council as territory set out to highlight African-American, African, and African-Diasporan culture.

The important thing to point out at this particular point is not to argue whether the BAMBD/CCED coalition had the “right” to negotiate a “community benefits” package with Carmel Partners, or that Oakland Asian-Americans have the “right” to put up an Asian-American themed on a 13th Street building, but that the confusion over where the Black cultural district ends and Oakland Chinatown begins has already begun to cause some bad feelings between members of two of Oakland’s most important ethnicities, and has the potential to get worse.

In her reply to Mr. Vann, Ms. McElhaney wrote “to publicly put this out in this manner”—meaning to write of a potential Darktown/Chinatown conflict as I did in my original column—“could actually produce previously unknown stress and dissension.”

Respectfully, Ms. McElhaney, no. When one sees some dry leaves and rags smoldering in a corner with the potential to ignite, shouting “fire!” does not actually make the fire happen. It does, however, alert the Fire Department to a potential danger that could be put out, if the Fire Department is paying attention, and doing its job.

And keeping quiet and walking away and pretending there is no problem does not make the problem go away.
So I reiterate the call I made in my original column for Ms. McElhaney’s office to step in and mediate the situation in order to help eliminate any possible bad blood the misdrawing of their Black cultural and business district lines may have accidentally caused between Oakland’s African-American and Chinese American communities. And if there is no such bad blood, as Ms. McElhaney now asserts, then nothing has been lost in the process.

As for that “community benefits” package deal negotiated with Carmel Partners...there’s some other strange stuff going on about that, but that’s the subject of another column, for another day.


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at
Writing Pages Of J. Douglas Allen-Taylor