By JR Valrey
One of the most exciting things locally, to happen during the Covid pandemic is the explosion of activity at Liberation Park, at East Oakland’s Eastmont Mall; a farmers market has been launched, a drive-in movie theater has been created, and a roller skating rink is coming this summer. Starting in May, the Akoma Market will be every weekend, where local vendors sell what they offer, but until then the market is twice a month. East Oakland has been ignored for decades, but Carolyn Johnson and her team are creating a new day. East Oakland hasn’t enjoyed a drive-in or skating rink for decades. The old drive-in movie theater near the Coliseum has been closed since the late 90’s, while the old Skating Rink on E14th closed in the 80’s, and the one at Foothill Square closed in the early 90’s.
It is good to see East Oakland go through a renaissance and become rejuvenated for its current residents, instead of taking heed from San Francisco, who is rejuvenating, then relentlessly gentrifying the historically prominent Black neighborhoods of Fillmore and Hunter’s Point.
Black Cultural Zone Executive Director Carolyn Johnson sat down to give us some insight into the history and all of the innovative things happening in East Oakland’s Black Cultural Zone, this spring and summer.
JR Valrey: When and how was the Black Cultural Zone organized? What’s the story behind it?
Carolyn Johnson: In 2013-2014, the City of Oakland and the Oakland Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative (OSNI) Collaborative led by community partners like Allen Temple Baptist Church, CJJC, East Bay Asian Youth Center, EastSide Arts Alliance (ESAA), TransForm, and current leaders of Just Cities (formerly Dellums Institute for Social Justice/Just Cities), organized over 50 community and faith-based organizations, public agencies, national CDFIs, foundations, and banks to harness our collective power for the Corridor’s revitalization. The OSNI Collaborative secured written commitments of resources for the Corridor’s economic and workforce development, housing, public safety, education, and resident engagement revitalization, totaling over $850 million in investments over the next ten years. A major priority that came out of this Collaborative was the development of a Black Culture Zone (BCZ) in recognition of the disparate impact that decades of disinvestment in legacy Black communities like East Oakland and what the growing displacement trend portended for the Black community.
From 2014-2017, the vision for the Black Culture Zone grew organically from a reflection on historical power movements and the on the ground knowledge gleaned from decades of collective community service. The East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative (Collaborative), led by EastSide Arts Alliance (ESAA) and represented by Elena Serrano and Greg Morozumi, was formed. Funded by NEA Our Town and ArtPlace America grants, ESAA’s Oakland is Proud project produced cultural plazas in strategic areas on International Blvd and generated a community dialogue around the vision for a Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland. The historic Safeway building at 5701 International Blvd was identified as the ideal space for creating the Hub for the Black Cultural Zone that would be a physical eco-system center Black art and cultural preservation.
2019: June – December
The Following are notable activities and achievements and activities that occurred during this period:
- In June 2019, the Collaborative retained an Executive Director: Carolyn (CJ) Johnson .
- Collaborative Retreat; During our July 2019 Strategic Planning retreat the Collaborative Partners created its Purpose Statement and formalized categories of Collaborative Members as Partners, Allies, Supporters and/or Friends.
- In August, the Collaborative had a successful Block Party in the heart of East Oakland featuring local artists, food vendors, retailers and bringing together 200 community residents and partners.
- In September, the Collaborative
- organized a Steering Committee to chart the path for our Community Development Corporation and Development Entity. This planning session was facilitated by Dr. Diane Johnson and supported by a host of community members. This session allowed us to chart the path towards establishing a nonprofit community development corporation including the development of summary plans for the CDC.
In November, the Collaborative
- incorporated the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation as a California Nonprofit and applied for a Federal Tax Exemption.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the different projects and events that use the Black Cultural Zone?
Carolyn Johnson: The East Oakland Black Cultural Zone is the 50 block area from High Street up to the border of the City of San Leandro.
At Liberation Park, we hold the AKOMA Market on 1st and 3rd Sundays; a monthly Drive in (or with summer coming walk up) Outdoor Movie; beginning April 2021 — 4th Sunday Outdoor Play Day; and outdoor Liberation Education Pilot will start in April and fully launch with daily educational offerings in the Summer. We make Liberation Park available for community events which honor our mission and vision –
Liberation Park Experience
The elements of the Liberation Park Experience includes:
- Safety: Safety Ambassadors are always on site to provide support, identify and reduce hazards and safety risks and de-escalate any potentially volatile situation and incidents
- Sustenance: It is important to provide quality food to participants
- Strong Economy: We prioritize East Oakland and BIPOC vendors for all expenditures and to highlight at all events
- Smiles: We have CREW and Community Ambassadors whose role are friendly and aim to support our guests in having an enjoyable experience.
Our vision is for a robust and vibrant renaissance in legacy Black communities; vibrant, thriving Black Arts, Cultural and Commercial areas in a thriving economy; an ecosystem anchored by Black Arts, Culture and Commerce; and collective power that assures our inalienable human right to love, health, wellness, belonging, power, safety and self- determination.
The mission of the Black Cultural Zone CDC is to unapologetically center Black arts, culture and economics as we collectively design, resource, transform and build collective power for our communities.
The long-term impact of the CDC’s Vision and Mission is the disruption of the community & economic development model where only limited benefits have accrued to the most vulnerable communities in our country, particularly legacy Black communities like East Oakland. As a Member: Partner and lead facilitator for the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative, we will support the collective generation, within the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone of
- Ten or more Catalyst Hubs anchoring neighborhoods where there are no unsheltered residents.
- A mix of housing types for a range of income levels.
- A thriving Black arts scene anchored by restaurants, retailers & service providers. There will be a network of health, wellness, education & other support for a quality life.
- Hubs anchored in a community trust for generations to come.
- A strong economy where entrepreneurs & business owners thrive as the dollar circulates here for increasingly longer periods of time and local employment opportunities for residents abound.
- There are cooperatively owned businesses & housing where the employees & residents have a stake.
- Walking the neighborhood you will see business owners, artists, entrepreneurs, teachers, professionals, and first responders who live here.
- In communities like Oakland, we will connect with our Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other cultural communities to build coalitions where we can thrive – together. It will be a community where all have a vested interest.
JR Valrey: With East Oakland fighting for its life against gentrification, how does the Black Cultural Zone affirm the historic Black community’s position in the area?
Carolyn Johnson: The purpose of the Black Cultural Zone CDC (the “CDC”), a California nonprofit corporation founded in 2019, is to “innovate, incubate, inform and elevate community driven projects that allow our people and culture to “THRIVE”.
- Innovate: to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products
- Incubate: to maintain at optimal environmental conditions for growth and development.
- Inform: to communicate knowledge
- Elevate: to lift something up, to promote, or to boost
The CDC works on behalf of and with the Black Community with a focus on current and legacy East Oakland residents, businesses, entrepreneurs, organizations and artists. Our work, however, is of benefit to the larger Oakland community particularly those most at risk of displacement here in Oakland. The barrier we face is the rising cost of living amidst stagnant or declining community wealth for legacy and current community members. The barriers to wealth building are tied to disproportionate levels of high unemployment, high underemployment, low business ownership and limited economic opportunity. This suppression reflects decades of public/private disinvestment and other systemic and institutional barriers.
We focus on East Oakland because it is one of the last Bay Area frontiers in the struggle for retaining Black communities. It has been “discovered” and its neighborhoods are considered today’s “hottest” Bay Area real estate markets.
In order to hold place for Black residents and businesses in East Oakland, we mirror the focus of the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative and center Black arts and culture and implement strategies in the areas of place keeping and building a strong economy which will improve the quality of life for all residents.
JR Valrey: What are some of the elements of “old” Oakland that you want to bring into the new era through the Black Cultural Zone?
Carolyn Johnson: Community. Strong Black cultural and actual presence. Hope. Before crack, the path was clear, we had hope and there were opportunities.
JR Valrey: What are some of the events that have already been organized in the space?
Carolyn Johnson: Rallies, dance events; outdoor movies; outdoor market; hot food/PPE distribution; health and wellness activities: Yoga, Tai Chi; play days.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the upcoming skating rink that you are bringing to the Black Cultural Zone? When is it coming?
Carolyn Johnson: By June 2021, we will install an outdoor activity hub at Liberation Park where residents and visitors can enjoy outdoor cultural and wellness activities. The heart of this proposed outdoor activity center is an outdoor roller skating rink and media center.
Roller Skating Rink: Let Freedom “Roll”: Roller skating is a fun activity offering great health benefits:
- Easy on the joints: An aerobic roller skating workout has the same benefit as the same amount of time spent jogging, only without the joint damage.
- Great as a cross training exercise: Roller skating is equivalent to jogging in terms of health benefits and caloric consumption, reduction of body fat, and leg strength development.
- Calorie burning (fat burning): The calorie-burning benefits of roller skating add up quickly; you can burn between 300 and 600 calories if you skate for a full hour.
- Good for mood: Between the music, lights, sunlight, social aspect, health benefits and fun, roller skating is one of the most fun workouts!
- Works the arms and legs: According to GetRolling.com, roller skating helps build strength, especially in the muscles of the lower body.
- Great for improving balance, agility and coordination: Coordinating balance and leg movement improves coordination.
- Strengthen the heart: The American Heart Association recognizes roller skating as an effective aerobic exercise that helps strengthen the heart.
- Improve endurance: In addition to increasing muscle strength, roller skating can help increase muscle endurance.
- Social: Roller-skating is a social activity that can be done with friends. Being social is an important part of health.
Aside from being a few hours of fun with friends and family, watching films can also be a form of therapy. Apart from the obvious, escaping our own lives and problems for a short time, there are many documented benefits to watching movies including healing and growth, emotional release, to learn about yourself, catharsis — laughing or crying. Our goal is to have a monthly film series highlighting films and one or more local/Independent film festivals.
JR Valrey: How has the City responded to the Black Cultural Zone? Have they been of assistance?
Carolyn Johnson: We have received tremendous support from the City of Oakland — managers, staff and elected officials: Financial, human and strategic support and resources.
JR Valrey: What is the film, “East Oakland Rising About”, and how is it connected to the Black Cultural Zone?
Carolyn Johnson: This documentary “East Oakland Rising: Win the Fight, Protect the Win” highlights the stories of everyday people coming together to build relationships and trust, knowledge and understanding, and collective determination to fight environmental racism, unfair housing policies, and gentrification in East Oakland, CA, one of the last predominantly-African American communities left in the city. It showcases the historic ten-year journey of East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (EOBHC) and offers a valuable blueprint for how to build power and policy wins for the next generation.
JR Valrey: How can people see the schedule of what is happening at the Black Cultural Zone in the spring and summer?
Carolyn Johnson: On our website: blackculturalzone.org
JR Valrey: How can people contact you?
Carolyn Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org