The Malonga Casquelourd Center is nestled in a part of downtown Oakland that has long been seen as a microcosm of the city’s diverse culture. It has a lot to do with the center itself, located on Alice Street between 14th and 15th Streets, which has been promoting art and culture in Oakland since the 1920s, a place where children and adults from all walks of life come together to drum and dance. . And just around the corner, the Oakland Village hotel provides affordable housing and services to hundreds of Chinese seniors.
Not so long ago, the corner of the 14th and Alice also housed a huge fresco titled Universal language—A colorful love letter to the diverse residents of Oakland, featuring portraits of revered local artists and community leaders, created by artists Desi Mundo and Pancho Pescador of the Community Renovation Project. But in 2016, the City’s Planning Commission approved the construction of a new boutique apartment tower on the site, Alice House, offering units at market prices. After a long fight, the mural was finally darkened.
The loss of the mural was a sign of the times in a rapidly bourgeois neighborhood of Oakland. But for the Universal language mural, that was not the end of the story. Artists were able to recreate the work in the spring of 2020, several blocks from the original on the side of the six-story Greenlighting Institute building on 14th and Webster streets.
The long-running saga of the mural and the neighborhood that surrounds it, which includes the Malonga Center and Hotel Oakland Village communities, is now the subject of a documentary, Alice Street, by Oakland filmmaker Spencer Wilkinson.
Much more than a behind-the-scenes look at the mural making process, Wilkinson, whose relationship with Mundo began years before the mural was designed, through his nonprofit work with young people, uses the film to examine the struggle for social justice and housing. which he inspired and tells the story of how Oakland artists and activists came together to demand community benefit agreements from real estate developers wishing to build in Oakland.
The Oaklandside recently met Wilkinson ahead of next Tuesday’s screening of Alice Street at the New Parkway Theater, to talk about the importance of the documentary and how it is helping others across the country fight to avoid the displacement of long-time residents in their own communities.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come into contact with Desi Mundo originally?
We met a lot because of his work in the arts, and he also ran a youth program. As for the movie itself, I lived on Alice Street and learned that Desi and Pancho were going to start this mural just down the street from my house. He connected with me because they [Desi and Pancho] wanted to conduct interviews with local residents and some of the community’s cultural arts leaders, to find out what they would paint on the mural. I offered to help them in their process if I could also make a documentary on the mural.
In a way, it was selfish of me to jump on their project because I wanted to know more about my own neighborhood. I had taken a few courses at the Malonga Center. I’ve always been curious about what the Oakland Hotel is like, and by conducting these interviews with them, it gave me a better understanding of the depth of these two community centers and their histories. After taking classes and learning from two really amazing teachers there, I still didn’t understand how the center had become what it was. These interviews allowed me to find out.
For many of us who may not or may not have known, the movie is also a great lesson in Oakland history.
I don’t think we put enough emphasis on the Malonga Center. It’s a world-class performing arts center located in the heart of Oakland, and I don’t think they really got their due in terms of the city’s recognition – what a critical center it is in [the] cultural arts community and the African diaspora. Anyone in the country knows about the Malonga Center, but I think a lot of people, even residents of Oakland, aren’t really aware of the history and its importance as an institution. One of our goals was to really try to help tell this story.
You mentioned that you live in Alice Street. In the film, we hear a neighbor who opposes the fresco and what it represents. Based on your life and filming experience over the years, how have you seen the neighborhood change?
I lived on Alice Street for a total of six years, and I lived on Jackson Street before that, from about the year 2000. This has radically changed. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed. Rent prices have skyrocketed. And this has caused a lot of pressure for the cultural artists who are based at the Malonga Center. You see it going down 14th Street and you see all the new luxury condominiums going up. These have direct impacts on local residents, causing displacement.
It’s nice to see businesses, restaurants, new art galleries and stuff like that, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s aimed at longtime residents of downtown Oakland.
During the production of the documentary, you all got to see the downtown landscape change completely. In the film, it’s interesting to see footage of a pre-pandemic Oakland, with cheerful people dancing and mingling unmasked in tight spots.
It’s interesting that you say that. We started filming at the end of 2013 until the beginning of 2020. We had a virtual screening a few months ago and a large part of the community was there. There were a lot of people attending classes at the Malonga Center, and there was not a dry eye during the call. People have talked about seeing the film almost as a mourning and therapeutic experience – to revisit life before the pandemic and before gentrification really impacted this neighborhood at the level it has. It’s almost weird looking at a room full of people without masks and not having some sort of feeling about it.
When I was watching the movie I also thought of the Asian seniors at the Oakland Hotel and wondered how they are now and how they must have felt when the pandemic started and their world was shattered.
I’m still in contact with the Oakland Hotel and the Village Program Manager, her name is Nancy Lu. You can see her briefly in the movie. We were actually working on a little segregated elderly follow-up project that is about what’s going on in terms of a pandemic. Everyone isolated themselves, all these programs had to be closed: singing groups, dance groups, neighbor-caregiver-neighbor groups, all of this had to be closed. I am also curious about how this culture has changed. They have such an innovative approach to senior care where the residents run all of these programs.
I hope we can all see a film about how these elders dealt with the isolation and how the culture inside the village has changed.
We did a bunch of filming before the pandemic, and then we shut down the project. Would love to go back to compare. One thing I want to add is that we had this impact campaign done with the film. We got two grants from the California Arts Council and the San Francisco Foundation. Both provided grants to do impact screenings of the film where we really focused on the communities in California affected by gentrification. We would contact nonprofits and build relationships with them. We were able to do 15 screenings. A lot of them are in person and outside, and a lot of them are virtual as well. We were in Fresno, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Watsonville. I want to talk about it because it seemed to be the timing of the movie’s release and this desire to reconnect with the community. The impact tour was a huge success for us and we want to continue to expand this tour nationwide.
What was the general conversation with people in those communities? How do you think the displacement and gentrification in these places is similar to what’s happening in Oakland?
Yes, there are so many similarities in the city of Fresno, they have an early gentrification, where people are really starting to move into downtown Fresno, and rental housing prices are going up. It was the same thing we heard in Santa Ana, Los Angeles, and Orange County. Even Watsonville has problems with high rents. I think the pandemic has exacerbated this tendency to relocate and increase housing prices in very small towns. We showed the movie in Helena, MT where they had this massive migration of people from California and other big cities. The film provided an opportunity to discuss these questions and share ideas. Like what happens in the movie, when the community fights to negotiate community benefit agreements with the developers.
It’s a talking point in all of these screenings where people are like, how did you do that? How do you share these messages on the walls and make public art reflect local struggles and bring people together and resist development that does not really meet the needs of local residents? At the end of the tour, we brought all of these cities together in a Zoom discussion on how to get and build a small organization that can continue to help people stay in touch and share best practices and talk about housing justice and resistance to gentrification. It’s something that fascinates me.
Oakland is really the model, I think, that communities can learn from. I’m glad the film opens that door to learning from those longtime bands in Oakland who really do this work.
It was uplifting to see people like Favianna Rodriguez and Chaney Turner who have been at the forefront of the struggle to defend the arts and social justice and housing in Oakland.
This had a huge impact on the downtown Oakland map. If they hadn’t come forward and disrupted him, they wouldn’t have ended up centering fairness as part of this plan. They are real leaders and they have had a real and measurable impact on the city.