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Eight More Stories of an Oakland Block As It Gentrifies

The story of 30th Street as told by its current and former residents.

722 30th Street is the former home of Hezekiah Allen, who was pressured to leave—and then replaced by Tanya Retherford at more than triple the rent.


Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Here, residents of one West Oakland block discuss its transformation as newcomers arrive and original residents leave—or are pushed out. Read the main story here.

, 70
722 30th St.
Here from 2005 to 2017; moved to Fruitvale in August 2017

The notice from the landlord arrived on Hezekiah Allen’s door on August 31, 2016. “We appreciate your residency at 722 30th Street over the past few years,” it began, politely enough. There was a problem, however. The landlord wasn’t receiving a “fair return” on his investment, and the solution, documented by an inscrutable spreadsheet that cited capitalization rates of other Oakland properties, was to raise Allen’s monthly rent from $856.98 to $2,183.81. “The new rent,” the landlord wrote, “is still about 10% below the market value.”

“Market value?” Allen scoffs. “I didn’t care what the market value was. That’s on you, not me.” Then, as now, Allen’s main source of income was Social Security, three quarters of which already went straight to his landlord. In any case, what the market could bear was irrelevant: His building was rent-controlled. Allen challenged the increase with the city, and it was blocked.

Allen’s landlord, Justin Wallway, had snapped up the duplex in foreclosure in 2008 for $120,000. He bought two other buildings on Allen’s block for cheap, and last year he tried to remove all three from rent control, citing a loophole for buildings that have undergone substantial rehabilitation. It’s a strategy he has used with more than a dozen buildings he owns in Oakland. Thus far, on this block at least, the city has stopped each attempt, ruling that Wallway had failed to get permits for much of the work he claimed to have done and had kept shoddy records. Last November, partly in response to the landlord’s aggressive tactics, the city council issued a temporary moratorium on the loophole, citing the city’s affordable housing crisis. (Wallway did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails.)

Allen had moved in to the top floor of the duplex in 2005 after spending two years homeless. “I got in and started painting again,” he says. “Just paint, paint, paint, paint, paint.” In the 1980s, Allen had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and exhibited numerous times in San Francisco, including a show at Grace Cathedral, for which he bolted shut 500 Bibles. (“I don’t know why I did that,” he says with a chuckle.)

One morning, after he had successfully fought off the rent increase, Allen woke up to banging noises outside. “Workers were tearing up my back porch,” he says. No one had notified him. A member of the crew said they were supposed to knock down the entire back wall—the wall of Allen’s kitchen. “That was of course a way to get me out by force.” 

As the construction continued at the back of his unit, Allen decided to make a deal with Wallway. Last August, he left his 1,500-square-foot apartment for a single room in an SRO building five miles away, in Fruitvale, that Wallway also owns. Allen negotiated six months of free rent and a freeze on his new $855 rent for a decade. He also has the use of the basement, where he spends his days painting and where his work hangs in a low-ceilinged hallway.

“I could have got more, but I’m trying to be fair,” Allen says. He appreciates that there’s a laundry facility directly across from his room. He also enjoys the solitude of the basement studio, where he spends most of his time. Still, there is a part of him that wishes he had demanded more. “Although I gave him a good fight, you feel like you gave up something.”

722 30th St.
Here since February 2018

“We want to be careful about how we present ourselves and how we communicate. We don’t want to come off as the…” Tanya Retherford’s voice trails off for a moment. “Well, it’s kind of obvious that what we’re afraid of is looking like we’re this bubble of exclusivity, happening in a neighborhood that is predominantly black, where people have lived a very long time. And we’re a bunch of mostly white artist kids. It looks and smells like gentrification.”

Last August, Retherford and a group of fellow artists and designers who call themselves 30 West signed a five-year lease on a vacant industrial building on the corner of 30th and West Streets. A month earlier, the collective had been forced out of another West Oakland warehouse, itself a casualty of the citywide crackdown in the wake of the 2016 Ghost Ship fire. On 30th Street they hoped to create a model for future artist collectives by legally converting the building into seven art studios and 11 bedrooms.

“We really don’t have a great deal of money, but young people do stupid things for something they strongly believe in, and right now that’s where we’re at,” says Retherford, an architectural designer. They formed a nonprofit organization and have received a few donations and grants, along with construction loans. The hope, Retherford says, is for the warehouse to become a “creative incubator.” One person will use the space to build a tiny house; another will create lamps and paper sculptures; a third plans to assemble and sell bikes.

They are trying to tread lightly and be respectful. Two members of the collective attended a recent meeting of the neighborhood council, which is headed by Annette Miller, but they didn’t speak. Once they’re up and running, the group hopes to open the space up for community events. They will soon throw a housewarming and invite everyone on the block.

While she waits for the warehouse to open, Retherford has become the block’s newest resident. In January, she spotted an ad on Craigslist for the top floor of a duplex across the street from the future home of her collective. “Completely Re-Done,” it said. “GORGEOUS ARCHITECTURE!!” A month later, she moved in. It was Hezekiah Allen’s old unit. The rent was $3,095. 

664–666 30th St.
Here from 2004 to 2011

“I knew the landlord had lost the building when people started coming around, taking pictures and saying we had to get out,” Belinda Mitchell says. She lived in the duplex with her husband and son and had no intention of moving. “We had become a family,” she says about the block; she had grown especially close to Miller. But the bank took her to court, and the judge said she had to go. “The sheriff came at 4:30 in the morning, banging on the door. He was nice, gave us until noon.” The family scrambled to collect as many things as they could and moved in with Mitchell’s other son in East Oakland. It was tight, and they’re still crammed into the same place. It’s not an ideal situation, but it could be worse: Another woman who was evicted from the building is now living a few blocks away, under I-980. 

675 30th St.
Here since 2011

“I know some neighbors on the block kinda give the middle finger to the newbies,” says Renia Webb, a mother of four who lives in an affordable housing apartment complex on the block. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘Who wants to pay $6,000 for rent when you could come from the city and pay a third of that?’” Webb works in economic development at a local nonprofit, and while she’s not at all happy about the displacement of African Americans—she’ll never forget witnessing the eviction of Belinda Mitchell—she doesn’t blame people who seek more affordable housing. “A therapist from San Francisco was looking at the apartments on the block because he couldn’t afford the rent increase in the city,” she says. “He was a single father trying to raise his daughter, who is about to graduate from high school, and he needs to send her to college. You see the struggles that every family is having.” Still, she can’t help noticing that the city now pays more attention to the neighborhood—for instance, a nearby playground just reopened. “That was something they had been working on for like 15 years, but the neighborhood starts to change, and all of a sudden there’s money to do it.” 

678 30th St.
Here since 2014

Zoë Donnellycolt was raised in an activist family in rural Connecticut; her parents run a 43-year-old company that distributes antiwar and anti-racist bumper stickers and paraphernalia. They taught her that diversity is the lifeblood and strength of the country. It was mostly an abstract lesson, as almost everybody Donnellycolt knew growing up was white. Moving to a three-bedroom duplex in West Oakland forced her “to figure out how to be a strong anti-racist ally,” which can be a messy, confusing process.

“I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey Annette, let’s be friends!,’ because that’s fake,” she says, sitting across the table from Miller on a spring morning. “You don’t know me, you don’t need to trust me. Especially because I’m white. I’m like, ‘No, don’t trust me. People like me do bad things.’”

Donnellycolt, a dancer who cobbles together her $703 rent by working seven different part-time jobs, has had long conversations with her roommates about their complicated role in the neighborhood. “We’re the first round of gentrifiers,” she says. “We aren’t the people building the developments, but we are the people who are paving the path for other white people to come into this neighborhood.” It’s not a particularly comfortable role for Donnellycolt to assume, but she does take solace in knowing that her building is owned by an African American whose parents bought it in 1963.

She would like to be more active in the neighborhood, perhaps by teaching dance classes, but with all those jobs it’s hard to find any extra time. “My schedule looks like a fucking mess,” she says. The community she has found is with the broader dance scene in the Bay Area, filled with risk takers and explorers. “My queer identity—it makes sense that I came out here in the Bay and not back in the country.”

In her hometown in rural Connecticut, things change slowly, if at all, and she’s still adapting to the neighborhood’s constant transformations, like the enormous luxury development opening soon a couple of blocks away, with its website that describes Oakland as “one of the coolest places to live” in part because of its “upscale developments.” “Ugh,” she says. “That’s the worst. Buildings go up and down so fast—of course people are upset. Of course people get angry that they don’t feel like they have a say or any control. It feels inhuman.”

734 30th St.
Here since 2015

Lisa Bird had lived in Oakland for three decades—first Rockridge, then the hills of Redwood Heights, where the schools were solid, the streets quiet. But after her kids moved out and she separated from her husband, Bird was looking for a change. Her daughter hung out with a crew of skaters that often went to the skate park in de Fremery Park, which had once served as a grocery distribution spot for the Black Panthers. “Mom, you should really go check out West Oakland,” she said. “It’s really cool—you would like it.”

Bird had put in offers for homes elsewhere but always got beat, so in the summer of 2015, she drove around the neighborhood. “The first time through, I didn’t know if I could live here,” she says. But after spending a few days checking it out, she noticed that people had a way of hanging around in their front yards, chatting and relaxing. Neighbors seemed to know each other. Folks said hi when they passed her on the street. There was a vibrancy, and variety, that was lacking in the hills.

That fall, Bird was shown a four-bedroom house on 30th Street. It was filled with a dozen people who may or may not have been paying rent and was jammed with empty beer bottles and food containers. One of the house’s official tenants was a Filipino American anarchist named Brian, who had supported Annette Miller’s fight to save her home and had painted the banner that hung over it. But Brian had taken a sojourn in Mexico, and the place had gone downhill. Bird put down an offer, and after a visit from the sheriff, the subtenants departed and the house was hers.

A few days after closing on the house, she visited the property with her ex-husband, a masonry contractor, to see what work needed to be done. As they stood out front, three young men walked up, and one of them “pulled out a big-ass, scarier-than-shit gun.” The man pressed it to the neck of Bird’s ex while another held a gun on Bird. “For half a second I thought they were going to kill him,” she says. Then she realized the men only wanted their stuff. They handed over their keys and wallets, and the men departed.

“My family just flipped,” she says. They tried to convince her to move, but Bird stayed put. “The gun in the head was like, ‘This is our neighborhood, lady. All you white people who are moving in here are taking over, but right now this is still our neighborhood.’ It was just a welcome to the neighborhood.” Family members suggested she put up a fence out front, but she resisted—one of the reasons she’d been drawn to the neighborhood was the open front yards. But then a man she didn’t know started coming around, knocking on her door to ask if she needed help. Sometimes he parked his car across the street and stared at her house for hours. That was enough: Up went the fence, along with a “Smile, You’re on Camera” sign in the front window.

Still, Bird has no regrets about coming to West Oakland; she says she’s happier than she’s ever been. “There’s a connection with people here,” she says, which she attributes to the sense of community instilled by the African American old-timers. She’s aware that those same neighbors are now threatened, especially as more professionals migrate east from San Francisco. “When I came to this neighborhood and it started changing so much, I was not happy, ’cause that’s why I came here,” she says. “I wanted to be able to have that community feel. But it still does.”

706A 30th St.
Here since 2007 

“I like this block because of how calm it is, how it’s almost like we’re a family,” Alex Flores says. “When we throw block parties, everybody comes out and shows love.” Flores lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with his mother, three siblings, and a niece. He’s amazed to see white people jogging around the neighborhood, walking their dogs without a care. One of his best friends used to be a guy named Brian, who moved to the block in the 1990s. “He was a big dude on anarchy,” Flores says. “He taught me about gentrification even before it happened.” Brian showed neighborhood kids like Flores how to fix bikes, leading students on bike rides through the city. But despite his contributions to the neighborhood, he wasn’t immune to its changes. “He got evicted too. He was big in the community, and it sucked seeing him go away.” 

697 30th St.
Here since 2012 

“I was like, I need a place to live, this place is cheap, hell yes, I’m taking it,” Grant Rich says. The cartoonist and day care attendant had previously lived in the Tenderloin, and then the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of Oakland, but after breaking up with his girlfriend, he needed a more affordable place. The downstairs neighbors were anarchists and had been involved in Occupy Oakland; the upstairs neighbors were “crusty punk kids that hopped trains, a random hodgepodge of white kids with dreads.” The middle floor of the triplex was more conventional: Rich’s roommates worked in construction. “They called us the bro unit,” he says. Over the years, some of the other tenants moved out, a few got evicted, and one died of an overdose. Rich is still in the apartment and helped lead the fight against the landlord, Justin Wallway, when he tried to remove the building from rent control by claiming he had fixed up the property. “One day we found a massive envelope delivered to every unit,” Rich says. “But I knew it was bullshit right from the get-go. He had invoices for carpet. There’s no carpet in the building.” 

Originally published in the June issue of
San Francisco

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