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The Guardians of Ghost Town

Along a 25-building stretch of West Oakland, neighbors work to improve their block, connect with each other, and cling to what’s theirs.


Annette Miller, 52.
682 30th St. Here since 1966.

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After Hezekiah Allen was pressured to leave his home, Tanya Retherford moved in—at more than triple the rent.

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A mural on the site of a future food-prep facility for Oakland Unified School District.

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Tanya Retherford.

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Renia Webb.

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Zoë Donnellycolt.

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Lisa Bird.

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Maurice Williams works on a truck in front of Annette Miller’s house.

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Residences on 30th Street.

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Miller checks on the progress of the 29th Street construction site.

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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.

READ MORE: 30th Street newcomers and old-timers discuss the transformation of the block.

A trail of black smoke is rising in the sky, so Annette Miller heads out to investigate. She darts down the steps of her house on 30th Street in Ghost Town, West Oakland, and heads south along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The late-winter day is sparkling and blue, and Miller is dressed to match, sporting an indigo hoodie, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers the color of the Caribbean Sea. She passes several old-timers, who shake her hand. A shuffling teenager straightens up, smiles, and gives her a hug. “See ya, Ms. Annette,” he says. “All right,” she calls back.

A fire engine is parked, lights flashing, next to a charred mattress on the northern edge of a homeless encampment at MLK and 24th Street. The situation under control, Miller heads back to her block, sweeping through a neighborhood that she’s known all her life. There’s the house on the corner that once doubled as a flower shop, where as a girl she’d step into the front room and inhale deeply. There’s the alleyway that she used as a shortcut to her elementary school and that’s now home to an apartment complex, the school shuttered and razed. Then there are the ghosts of the departed, either dead or evicted: Ms. Belinda and Mr. Melvin, Mrs. Richardson and Mr. Wells. “All black,” Miller says as she walks along. “All gone.”

She pauses at her house, a three-bedroom, two-story structure built at the turn of the last century that her grandparents purchased in 1964. It, too, is bright blue. Miller settles in at a picnic table in her side yard, next to two barbecue grills. Throughout the day, people flow in and out. “Our house is a free-for-all, a hangout spot,” she says. “As long as you ain’t got nobody trying to kill you, you can come spend the night. We’ll even give you a toothbrush.”

From this perch, Miller has watched as the block—and the entire west side of Oakland—has changed over the decades. She can disentangle its history like an evolutionary biologist. During the Great Recession, houses were bought and lost to banks at some of the highest foreclosure rates in the entire Bay Area. Then those houses were scooped up by real estate men who paced the sidewalks and rarely smiled. Buildings were emptied out, murals painted over. Fences went up. Rent went up—by 71.5 percent over the last five years. Way back in 2001, SFGate called the neighborhood “deliciously attractive” because its “poverty and misfortune preserved a rare sort of purity and beauty,” as if it were a forbidden, primitive fruit. Later, the real estate men would try to take a bite out of Miller, too.

The story of Miller’s block is the story of an Oakland in upheaval. Private money has crept ever outward from the city’s prosperous hills, flooding lowland neighborhoods that had long been neglected and uprooting the very people who had survived that neglect. In less than a decade, the white population in Miller’s neighborhood has more than doubled, from 14 to 33 percent, while the black population has dropped from 50 to 39 percent. Yet while rents and home prices have skyrocketed, poverty has endured: Nearly 43 percent of the neighborhood’s residents remain below the poverty line, including 58 percent of its children.

Miller was born in this house, some 52 years ago. “The average person lives in a house for what, three years?” she asks. “I try to tell my kids, living in the same house for so long, it should mean something.” As the pace of change has accelerated, Miller has become the default historian of the block, a keeper of its stories and secrets, an advocate for the old-timers and a bridge to the new arrivals. “It’s not hard at all to remember,” she says of all the missing people and families who once made a life on 30th Street. “When you’ve lived here your whole life, you don’t forget.”

Miller’s block
is 30th Street between West Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in the West Oakland neighborhood formally known as Hoover-Foster, after a local school (Hoover Elementary) and the first African American superintendent of Oakland Unified School District (Marcus Foster, who was assassinated by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973). It is 740 feet long and runs east to west, with 25 buildings that are as polyglot as the city itself: single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, a couple of low-slung Section 8 apartment complexes, artists’ lofts barricaded behind a locked gate and a wall of shrubbery, a brick warehouse covered by a sprawling mural. Many residents call the area Ghost Town, though nobody knows for sure how the name got started.

Miller grew up here, living with her grandparents until she was eight, when she moved to another house they owned nearby. Later she joined her mother, who gave birth to her at 17 “and wasn’t quite ready,” at the Acorn apartments on 10th Street. Her grandfather and grandmother were strivers from the South, he originally from Arkansas, she from Georgia. They eventually bought a half dozen homes in Oakland along with a barbecue restaurant, Uncle Willie’s, near Downtown. But the house on 30th Street was always the spot, the place where they’d hold cookouts and play dominoes next to the fire to keep warm. Her grandpa gardened out back, chickens and rabbits roaming the yard like they owned it. When Miller got hungry, she’d pick peaches and plums from the trees.

She graduated from McClymonds High School in 1984, then held “whatever odd jobs I could find”—Taco Bell, FedEx, clerical work at the old army base. She moved back to 30th Street and eventually found steady employment as a housekeeper at a hotel in Jack London Square. She also raised four kids: Justin, Phillip, Toyia, and the youngest, Deante, born in 1997, whom everyone called Peek-a-Boo because when he was a baby he couldn’t stop blinking.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Miller noticed the neighborhood starting to whiten. In 2005, her friend Anthony sold his two homes across the street for $655,000 and moved to Vallejo. The properties were flipped and sold a year later for $840,000. Then came the implosion of the mortgage market. The bank repossessed the buildings, which were then bought for the bargain-basement price of $125,000 in 2009 by a Piedmont real estate investor named Justin Wallway. Miller didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a tipping point. As the Great Recession unfolded, investors on the block bought up more foreclosed buildings, betting on a recovery: a four-unit building for $255,000 in 2011, a duplex for $180,000 in 2012. In the last decade, at least half of the buildings on the block have been sold, and in the last several years, prices have rebounded, then soared. In 2015, a single-family home sold for $510,000. Last year, a duplex on the corner went for $800,000. The most recent sale, last October, was of a single-family house that went for $825,000. Redfin now estimates the house to be worth $954,000. It won’t be long before the block has a million-dollar home. The rest of the neighborhood has followed the same path. According to estimates by Trulia, the average home price in Hoover-Foster jumped by 260 percent over the past five years—from $270,000 to more than $700,000—more than double the rate of Oakland overall.

As the recession and the ensuing boom have upturned the neighborhood these past 10 years, Miller has gotten to know, and appreciate, many of her new neighbors. Several years ago, Zoë Donnellycolt and Hunter King moved in next door. “The first thing they hollered about was ‘Annette, we know we gentrifying the neighborhood, but we’re not going to come here and act shitty towards you guys,’” Miller says with a laugh. Donnellycolt is a dancer, and King, who recently moved out, works for Causa Justa, an organization that fights displacement. Down the block is Lisa Bird, whom Miller met several years ago while handing out flyers for National Night Out and who has hired Miller’s uncle for a number of home improvement projects. In the apartment complex across the street is Renia Webb, an Oakland native like Miller who, also like Miller, is involved in an endless number of community projects. But there are still a lot of people on the block she’s never met, which feels odd considering how many people she once knew.

There was a time
when Miller, too, thought she would not last here. After her grandfather died and her mother grew ill, ownership of the house was transferred to her uncle, who refinanced in 2006. Six months later, he unexpectedly died without leaving behind a will. When, nearly a decade later, Nationstar Mortgage finally learned of the uncle’s passing, it began to return Miller’s mortgage payments. Miller didn’t know what to do, so she kept sending new payments, which were always returned, unopened. In late 2014, the bank that held the mortgage, Deutsche Bank, foreclosed on the property. A white man from Nationstar started coming around, telling Miller that she needed to get out.

“Man, what the hell you mean, we don’t own this place?” Miller would shout back. “We been living here all our lives.” He asked Miller to put her dogs inside so he could come into the front yard and inspect the house. She told him to stay put. He wanted photos of the house without people in the frame. Miller and her relatives would run outside and sit on the stoop, pulling out cigarettes and looking rough, as soon as they saw him coming down the block. “You gonna take pictures, you gonna take pictures with us black folks up in it,” she says.

The block rallied around Miller, whose father, who also lives in the building, had been awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. A banner was hung across her house—30th Fights Back Against Foreclosure—and a GoFundMe account was created. Miller’s neighbors and friends promised to lock arms and physically block any attempts to remove the family. “There was no room to breathe,” says Anya Svanoe of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which was assisting Miller. “At any time they could have been evicted.” For a year, the family’s fate was in limbo as Miller worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs to secure a loan that would allow her to purchase the house back.

In 2016, on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Miller was served an eviction notice. She rushed downtown to the courthouse to stop it. The next day, she joined activists at a protest in front of a McDonald’s on Telegraph Avenue, part of a series of actions held in honor of King. For hours she passed out flyers to hundreds of people, asking them to call Nationstar and Deutsche Bank. The calling campaign must have worked, because on Tuesday, a representative from Deutsche got in touch and told Miller it would sell her back the house. A few days later, after the paperwork had been signed, the same representative from Nationstar was back out front, trying to take photos. “He didn’t know we’d won,” Miller says, laughing. She told him, in blunt terms.

Later that year
, on a Monday morning in November, Miller pulled up in front of her house, returning from her job as a caretaker for an elderly woman. A car tore around the corner. It was a friend of her son Deante’s, and he jumped out in tears. He said that Deante had been shot several blocks up, on 39th Street. She rushed over, pulled up the yellow crime scene tape, and found her 19-year-old son dead. Nearby was one of his best friends, Roderick Travon Godfrey, also dead. Just months earlier, Godfrey had been a panelist at an Oakland town hall about gun violence.

Miller’s youngest was athletic—he had played baseball, basketball, and football at McClymonds—and worked at FedEx. Godfrey had been an honor student and worked at UPS. In high school they had called themselves SWAG, for Students with Goals. Deante was good at math and hoped to be an engineer. That night, memorials grew in front of both of their homes. “He was a good guy,” Miller told a reporter from the Chronicle, standing outside her house. “He wasn’t one of those people, you know? Him and Travon didn’t deserve this.” No one was arrested, and the double murder remains unsolved.

Miller has kept her memorial out front on 30th Street, and it has grown. On the sidewalk are dozens of candles below photos of Deante and other family members who have passed. One day this spring, there were two large blue balloons tied to the fence—a 2 and a 1—to mark what would have been Deante’s 21st birthday. As a kid in Sunday school, Miller once heard a line that got stuck in her head: If we remember the people we love who die, we keep their spirit alive. Miller’s whole life has become a campaign against forgetting.

She often thinks about the future, and the changes that she can sense are coming. The biggest change on the block involves the industrial building on the corner of 30th and West Streets. It was once home to a company that cut plastics and in the 1980s paid employees $14 an hour, plus benefits—the equivalent of $33 an hour today. It will soon be converted into 14 live-work spaces for artists. Miller is not enthusiastic. “Not one black person that I seen was making any kind of decision about what was going on,” she says of the planning process for the development. “You ain’t going to be seeing no black artists down there.” As the chair of the neighborhood council, Miller hears this very complaint repeatedly from many longtime residents of Ghost Town: Things are being done to the neighborhood, not with the neighborhood.

Much of that feels out of her control, but not all of it. Miller gets cards in the mail all the time from realtors interested in buying her house. People call out of the blue to make her offers. Recently, she saw a story on the news about a burned-out house in San Jose that went for more than $900,000. With all the land she has out back, she thinks she could probably get a lot of money for her property. Maybe $2 million, she estimates. Is she ever tempted to sell? She looks at the questioner in a way that suggests he hasn’t been paying attention. “C’mon, man,” she says. “We ain’t going out like that.”

Originally published in the June issue of
San Francisco

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