Culture Takes the Lake: Lakeshore bustles back thanks in part to revitalized and innovative Black businesses

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VANGUARD ‘This is a community space,’ said Studios owner Christian Walker. ‘This is for the Black and Brown individuals in the community to feel like there’s nothing you can’t do.’(Photo by Eric K. Arnold)

On an idyllic Saturday in Oakland, the El Embarcadero strip pulses with infectious energy. There’s foot, bicycle, roller skate and vehicle traffic. A large drum circle in front of the Pergola provides a soundtrack for casual observers and Congolese dancers alike. A few yards away, an open-air marketplace crosses both sides of the street, with vendors selling their wares—jewelry, t-shirts, fabrics, sunglasses and food. The scene is festive, but not raucous—a vibrant picture of Oaklanders utilizing the city’s most picturesque location to the fullest on a warm summer afternoon.

The crowd ringing the drum circle is both multicultural and multigenerational. Most of the El Embarcadero vendors, however, are Black. The vibes seemingly extend across the street to Lake Park Avenue, which connects the two main streets of the Grand Lake District, Grand Avenue and Lakeshore Avenue. There’s a buzz of activity around Afro-Cuban restaurant Cana and Vegan Mob—formerly the site of Kwik Way, and currently a nationally-recognized healthy fast-food eatery. 

The two Black-owned restaurants sit at either side of the Heart and Dagger bar—once the site of live soul and R&B during its incarnation as The Serenader—like rooks on a chessboard readying for a fork. Additional vendors are set up on the sidewalk on Lake Park, including a streetside art gallery hawking multimedia collages of iconic Oakland hip-hop group Digital Underground and various canvases with randomly Afrocentric themes.

Around the bend onto the westernmost end of Lakeshore Avenue, a former Sprint store is the newest location for True clothing, an urban couture retailer owned by Michael Brown, son of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whose Haight St. flagship store is a go-to spot for visitors and locals alike. The Oakland store carries many original designs, including “True Oakland”–branded gear and a t-shirt repping “Wakanda University,” as well as style- and trend-conscious street gear from brands like Stussy and Cookies. Down a ways, near the other end of Lakeshore, yet another newish Black-owned business, Studios, combines high-end streetwear with a barbershop and a culturally-inclusive approach. As this issue goes to press, another Black-owned restaurant on Grand Avenue, Mimosa 2, prepares for its grand opening.

The resurgence of Black-owned small businesses in Grand Lake might seem like an aberration or a triumph, depending on perspective. It’s actually a testament to cultural resilience. National reports on the impact of Covid-19 on minority-owned small businesses are grim at best. This past February, the House Small Business Committee issued a study that found Black business ownership rates dropped by more than 40% over a three-month period in the pandemic’s early stages—the largest such impact on any ethnic group. As the Committee noted, “historic inequalities have combined with hurdles brought on by the pandemic, to further hurt rates of Black-owned business formation and success.” Black-owned businesses were literally the last in line to get government Paycheck Protection Program loans—which came with significant restrictions on how those funds could be used.

In Oakland, street vending represents a vital economic pipeline for entrepreneurs, artisans and brick-and-mortar businesses who faced mandatory closure to remain afloat. Yet the city’s biggest ongoing street vending opportunity, First Fridays, has yet to reopen post-Covid—and faces new obstacles that put its reopening and continued sustainability in doubt.

Last year, in 2020, unpermitted vendors and food trucks—many of them African American—began to gather en masse along the eastern side of the Lake, deploying throughout Lakeshore Avenue like a melaninated army whose armaments consisted of shea butter, smoky BBQ plates, colorful dashikis and cute earrings. Few, if any, of the vendors were permitted; internal organization among vendors was lax at best. This, in turn, led to the congregation of largeish crowds, a party atmosphere, resident complaints over trash and parking issues, allegations of illegal alcohol and cannabis sales, and ultimately a city crackdown, resulting in the entire eastern section of Lakeshore being cordoned off to traffic on weekends, and vendors shifting to El Embarcadero.

ORIGINAL James ‘Old School’ Copes is best known for his iconic ‘Oaktown Is Kicking It’ t-shirt design, which first gained popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Photo by Eric K. Arnold)

James “Old School” Copes is best known for his iconic “Oaktown Is Kicking It” t-shirt design, which first gained popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Over the past decade, Copes has tirelessly advocated for street vendors: organizing First Friday merchants, being vocal at City Council meetings and, more recently, securing permits for the El Embarcadero vendor contingent.

After the pandemic hit, Copes says, “Black people actually came out and sold things for the first time in their lives.” Things like candles, incense, t-shirts, even “grandma’s pralines.” Over time, “people begin to flourish, the small entrepreneurs. The customers were coming and people coming to the Lake were spending their money and the money was being circulated. What I really liked about that was, Black folks were circulating dollars between them. We were buying from each other, right?” 

Besides paying bills, he notes, this micro-economy enabled the recirculation of capital within the Black community, “which raises everybody up.”

Copes then shifts gears into discussing the current Lake Merritt vending situation. “In terms of what we’re doing here at the Lake, at the El Embarcadero, it’s a permitted event. It’s a Black international marketplace of Oakland. We were able to get the permits as far as the sound permits, the [vendor permits], we have insurance and all these things. So it’s legal.”

Chris Rachal owns Mimosa 2, a champagne-themed restaurant and event space on Grand Avenue. In many ways, Rachal’s efforts typify the drive, vision and resilience necessary for a Black-owned business to survive and thrive in Oakland. Rachal is a veteran in the game, with the scars and hard knocks to prove it. He operated Liege in Old Oakland for more than a decade. Over the years, the venue hosted a laundry list of A-list DJs—including Biz Markie, Jazzy Jeff, Rich Medina, Victor Duplaix, Pam the Funkstress and Spinderella; the club’s closing block party last May attracted approximately 5,000 attendees—a highlight Rachal cites as among his fondest memories.

Rachal also takes advantage of community-based resources. He worked extensively with the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, and its Executive Director Cathy Adams, prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, he and Adams were instrumental in securing $1.1 million in appropriations for Black businesses through private, corporate and philanthropic entities.

OACC’s Resiliency Fund became necessary, Adams says, because the city consistently underserves Black small businesses. Oakland hasn’t released a full Equity Indicators Report since 2016; however, existing data reveals massive disparities in income inequality, wage disparity and economic opportunity for African American workers. Rachal says he was denied a city grant that would have given him a whopping $500. The Resiliency Fund, he notes, issued 170 grants in 2020, most ranging from $5,000–$10,000. OAACC’s Adams puts the current number of grant recipients at 240.

“You’ve got a lot of businesses being displaced. Let’s just put it in real terms,” Adams says. “You’ve got a bunch of landlords and, you know, I can just say this as—diplomatically—as I can. We live in a society where racism is not dated … . (But) you have individuals such as Chris Rachel. Who is very smart and very savvy, and just won’t allow himself to be treated that way. Everybody doesn’t have a voice.”

Having a business in Grand Lake, Rachal says, maximizes what Oakland can offer to a businessperson. There’s more daily foot traffic and more nightlife activity overall compared to Old Oakland, Piedmont and the Laurel District, he claims, adding that Grand Lake’s foodie credentials are on the rise as well.

With Mimosa 2, he hopes to bring what he calls an “elitist” drink to a non-elitist crowd. “[Champagne] has always been perceived as this expensive, celebratory, pretentious drink,” he says. “Our mindset is that you can do fun things with champagne, and it doesn’t have to have that connotation.”

Rachal, Brown and Copes’ approaches to Black entrepreneurism are, to certain degrees, all dyed-in-the-wool, or, at least, expected from members of a certain generation. They each broke the mold decades ago, and all established viable business models that help explain their relevance. But what of the new jack?

29-year-old Chistian Walker is one of the youngest Black business owners in Oakland. But don’t let his youthful appearance and laid-back demeanor deceive. Walker’s Lakeshore store, Studios, is very much state-of-the-art, if not next-level, in urban hipness and minimal yeet functional aesthetic. Here you can cop flossy, on-trend Pumas or Vans, or a heavyweight cotton hoodie, get a haircut in an authentic barber’s chair or influence culture on the large dance floor.

Walker emphasizes that the Studios location was conceived as a cultural magnet from jump. “This is a community space,” he says, “This is for the Black and Brown individuals in the community to feel like there’s nothing you can’t do. Simple as that, me being 29 years old, probably the youngest storefront owner in my class, in Oakland … in the fashion industry. I can’t speak for any other industry, but I’m just trying to open up some doors, and figure out where we can go next.”  

In many ways, culture is the through-line permeating Black resilience in Grand Lake. Specifically, Black culture—which, as an influence, has informed American pop culture since the days of the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug. At this moment in time, the Grand Lake District is an example of a place where the Black aesthetic remains visible and contributory to the overall gestalt of restaurants, and retail and public space in the neighborhood.

Rachal, for one, feels that the bar for success for Black business shouldn’t be as high as it is. He’s also keenly aware of setting an example with Mimosa 2. “This is what we can actually achieve,” he says. “We don’t have to settle for less [spaces in] the worst neighborhoods, and we don’t have to open a hamburger shop.”