.For the Culture: ‘Alice Street’ captures the history of a once-booming arts district and its struggle to save a mural that represents it

Viewing for a second time Oakland filmmaker and director Spencer Wilkinson’s new documentary, Alice Street, I deliberately push mute. I’m curious to see how the 70-minute film will pan out minus Micah Berek’s energetic sound score and without the dynamic language and charismatic voices of a narrative delivered with powerful conviction by people featured in the film.

I know, from a first screening, that the film centers on gentrification, displacement and grassroots resistance to redlining and commercial and residential development projects that come with little regard for cultural legacies, long-term residents and small-owner business communities. The problems currently, historically and disproportionately impact people of color in Oakland’s downtown core. The film’s narrative is largely propelled by the creation of a mural that is ultimately covered up by the stuff of developers’ and city planners’ dreams: a development project backed by profit-minded property owners and city officials bent on constructing more upscale high-rent housing and retail space in downtown Oakland.

During this second screening, I watch only for filmmaking art as a visual medium. I’m hoping to erase, or at least diffuse, the persuasive and emotional influence of pro and con spoken words and music in order to find a kind of observational neutrality. What does a silent story derived from moving and still imagery say? With contemporary society and public opinions increasingly image-driven, is the visual story in isolation effective, nuanced, truth-telling, persuasive in one direction or the other?

Immediately I see faces. Black, brown, white, Asian or Pacific Islander, Ohlone and other Indigenous people. They are young, old, middle age; people of all genders, alone or in great crowds, dance in the streets or march in front of City Hall. There are actors, artists, singers, dancers, policy wonks and academics, community activists, recognizable city officials and more.

In closeups of the primary 10-member cast, there is the regal Ruth Beckford, the “Godmother” of Oakland Afro-Diasporic dance; a calm-faced Eric Arnold, historian and communications director for the Community Rejuvenation Project. There are the vibrant Theo Williams, founder of the Samba Funk Afro-Brasilian dance group; the wise, time-worn face of Chinese cultural leader and calligrapher Zhao Jiam De; the spirited Lailan Huen, daughter or Oakland’s first Asian-American female mayor and an active member of Oakland’s Chinatown Coalition. Appearing off-and-on are Black Arts Movement and Business District co-founder Ayodele Nzinga; master drummer Mosheh Milon; jazz-musician Destiny Muhammad; and often, Chilean-born immigrant-artist Pancho Peskador, who is integral to the mural that is the centerpiece of Alice Street.

Appearing everywhere throughout the film, there is Desi Mundo, a Chicago-born aerosol artist and founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project. Mundo leads the Oakland-based mural arts organization—referred to as CRP throughout the film—and works to cultivate healthy communities through public art, education, civic engagement and empowerment. CRP, since 2010, has painted more than 200 murals in the Bay Area and, in collaboration with artists, schools and community partners, seeks to impact policies relating to land ownership and preserving and celebrating art and culture in public spaces.

Although now muted, I hear the echoes of remembered words and phrases: “Hell no,” Mundo’s response to granting intellectual property rights to the mural to the property developer. “The tallest building in Oakland, a high-rise, 37-story building …” words spoken in near-reverential tones by developers, that will mean the artwork is destroyed. There are histories and memories told of the time when then-Governor Jerry Brown planned to take over the Alice Arts Center for a planned arts high school, until a coalition of dance and music groups that “danced” to City Hall to protest, and the death of artist Malonga Cssquelourd—who was tragically killed in an auto accident—combined to halt the controversial takeover. “It’s a sanctuary, but also a ghetto,” someone says about Oakland Chinatown—and mention is made of Black GI’s and redlining after the war, of BART and the post office displacing Black people and Latinos in deep West Oakland.

Beckford, in one clip, says she will be 90 in December and would be “happy to see herself on a wall.” I smile, but then can’t forget Williams saying, “How is our city gonna grow and still embrace, elevate, preserve our culture? Oakland is historically a city that has represented resistance … this is bare knuckles out here.” Another voice says the city is becoming “a land of cranes and exit signs.” A white woman, who declines to use her name and is referred to as Jane Doe, speaks in fierce opposition to the mural. Mundo says, “All these murals that we do are always a community dialogue. We’ve been actually working hard to accommodate people. We can’t make something that is going to please everybody. In fact, we don’t want to. We want to make something that has a little bit of bite to it. It’s not all soft and peaceful. This is about a really fierce culture, you know. Really strong resistance to all of those forces of gentrification, displacement.”

As the scenes roll out, there is art in process: the mural sketched, diagramed, spray-painted in black outlines on a whitewashed wall before vibrant colors bring to life people of all races dancing, singing, at work and more. The visual progression later repeats, but this time it’s a building growing from blueprints to scaffolding to construction to completion and covering up the mural.

Wilkinson, in an interview, says, “What I look for in filmmaking is for people to be moved. People have to break open to let truth shine in. It’s important with media that people get into that emotional place that allows them to feel honest, grounded and real. Emotional resonance is something I strive for.”

While making the documentary, he learned that Oakland Chinatown was forced to move three times due to discrimination and new development. “They had a vast area at one point, and then there was a mysterious fire; later, BART pushed them around. It’s indicative of the City and the forces that have impacted communities, much like the Black Cultural District in West Oakland was impacted by BART and the post office. It’s collective trauma, and the indigenous community also are in that group,” he says.

About Jane Doe’s role and inclusion, Wilkinson says, “She centered herself in the role of being the dissenter of the mural. She wrote to every council member multiple times, plus the mayor and others. She made every effort to end the mural, and I felt she was perhaps representative of quieter members in the community. I had some hesitation about including her, because she’s not the real threat to Oakland communities. Those real threats are large corporations and city governments not enacting policies protecting communities. But she really was impactful, and I felt at points the fate of the mural was almost up to her.”

Wilkinson’s background, and an anthropology degree from UC Santa Cruz that included a year studying and working in Ghana, inform his filmmaking. “I was reading about cultures around the world and how ethnographies are written,” he says. “About the study of ‘other,’ and the biases ethnographers carry into that work: it was important to understand the power dynamic of writing about cultures as if they are ‘less than.’ With documentaries, I’m constantly looking at how I’m telling the story, what is missing, what I’m not catching. I carry awareness of my blindspots, and I know it takes a whole community to tell a story about itself.”

For that reason, Alice Street was made with the deep involvement of the community; with input from culture keepers and elders, young activists, seasoned organizers, artists and everyday people living in Oakland. Wilkinson says, “The film’s real heroes are the people doing the work of activism.” Impact tours with screenings across California extend the grassroots operation in Oakland to reach communities statewide.

Measured by public viewings—screenings at film festivals, in community centers and available online, Alice Street’s impact is huge. Soon, the footprints already made in the state of California will extend nationwide. Wilkinsons says a new grant will mean the film can be brought to communities of color, middle schools and high schools, colleges and universities, and urban downtowns across the country. A curriculum developed in conjunction with the documentary ensures the lessons learned are available to students and people engaged in fighting against the forces of gentrification and displacement.

I asked Wilkinson about the “disappeared” mural known as “Universal Language” and the new mural. It took eight months of intense negotiation to arrange with the property developer at 14th Street and Alice Street. Nearly eclipsed by the new six-story building, a sliver-like glimpse of the original Alice Street mural is all that’s visible. Joyously, in a dazzling splash of color and energy, the new mural—partially funded by the developers—has sprung to life on the west-facing exterior wall of Greenlining’s 360 Center at 360 14th St. The Greenlining nonprofit organization has, since the mid-1970s, sought through advocacy and activism to resist redlining in African-American, Asian-American, Latino and disabled communities and promotes lasting, community-based coalitions that preserve culture and provide economic opportunity.

Wilkinson says he’s proud of the Oakland community that came together—even during the pandemic—with incredible fortitude and courage to resist property development threatening to erase their history and displace their very homes and businesses. Offered insight and wisdom of people who know the history of Black businesses and African American drumming and dance in Oakland, the Black Panther Party, the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts; Oakland Chinatown, Hotel Oakland and more, he says his documentary is simply one instrument in a vast toolkit he hopes will serve other communities engaged in similar activism. If the film—viewed once or multiple times—causes anyone to “break open to let truth shine in,” Alice Street will have life beyond the screen. It will be the beginning, not the summation, of a movement for change.

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