.Positively 25th Street: This Downtown Oakland neighborhood is a mecca of art and culture

The earthy, animated ethos of Oakland on a short strip along 25th Street is alive and has been kicking it as best it can while emerging from the 18-month lockdown. While the struggles for retail, hospitality and service sectors remain monumental, what prevails just north of Oakland’s Uptown area on the 400-block between Telegraph and Broadway is the synergy of steep grassroots energy and entrepreneurs, many of them women or people who identify outside of binary, who think not just in or out of the box but smash those boxes to smithereens and recycle them into customized infrastructure that is conducive to a variety of business models that best meet their and the community’s needs.

The area is home to, among other businesses, Mercury 20 Gallery, SLATE Contemporary Gallery, Friends and Family bar and restaurant, an impressive assortment of local independent artists represented at Werkshak—don’t just take my word for it: visit—and textile-artist Mira Blackman’s MOON, Forage Kitchen, Oakland Spirits Company, Hofkuche Biergarten and several creative-design-service studios.

So, what is the Oakland ethos on the strip? Retail, hospitality service and gallery owners on 25th Street, when asked, tell me that the city they love and the niche they occupy in it are so much more than the violent-crime statistics, social-protest actions and political divisiveness. That perspective is most often portrayed by mainstream media in simplistic, national reporting they suggest lacks real-time, on-the-street knowledge.

“What’s great about Oakland is that you can find little neighborhoods and be a part of small communities like this one, all within two blocks,” Blake Cole, the owner of Friends and Family tells me. SLATE Art–founder Danielle Fox, in a separate interview, says there’s freedom expressed in an environment that doesn’t just accept different approaches to art and commerce, but actively seeks to be challenged by innovation. Kathleen King, founding member at the artist-run collective at Mercury 20, suggests the cooperative approach practiced by its 23 members extends out the door to reach up and down the street. While appreciating cross-pollination that already exists between galleries and shops on 25th Street, there’s only one thing she is left wanting: more of the same. King says, “I’d like to see even more interaction, with more interpenetration and lateral connections between artists and between galleries and businesses.”

During the pandemic, Mercury 20 closed its doors. Members rapidly put together an online-sales platform—because “we had to,” King says. “We missed the opportunity to show our work, to meet together face-to-face. We were alienated, but we stuck together, and interest grew from outside artists. We even have a waiting list now.”

Artist collectives are not, in themselves, unusual models for galleries, but King says that in the past, they had a bad name and have sometimes been “pooh-poohed” by the elitist fine-art world. In a more-aware, realistic-about-artist-owners 2021, collectives have reached a zenith. “They have good features, like that you—the artist members—are in charge. An artist member can show anything you want, unlike at a commercial gallery where selling comes first. We sell great work that’s relevant, but we don’t have gallerists who tell us to paint this or paint that. We have a community that relies on each other, and that means we have the support of Mercury 20 members, and you can know the sales of your work and the work you do to make everything happen here goes to support artists we get to choose.”

For visitors to the gallery or people who shop for Mercury 20 art online, King says, “We get to educate the public; we’re connected to local events like First Friday. The public doesn’t have arts education any more, so we get to interface with them.” Of course, she says, live interactions are superior to connecting virtually. “There’s something convivial about art exhibits and coming together. The masks that are still required, even as we open for exhibits more, are difficult because with the drinking and talking and enjoying artwork, they intervene.”

Even so, she says art “grounds everything and holds us together,” and because the business model is entirely supported by dues-paying members, they have survived for 15 years despite economic slumps and setbacks. A special 15th-anniversary, 124-page catalog published by the gallery and designed by member Leah Virsik, Mercury 20 Gallery at XV: 15 Years of Art and Community, features the 23 current member artists. “To run an endeavor you have to be flexible,” King says. “People do what they can do. Some have kids and work 40 hours, and still maintain an art practice. Some are retired.” She says the work featured in current and upcoming exhibits presents art that is largely topical, of-the-moment and related to social justice and contemporary issues. “Among many of the artists, one huge theme is global climate change.”

Image courtesy of Slate Gallery

A short distance away, SLATE gallery follows a different path to economic stability and commercial viability. “Foot traffic has always been hard in the area,” Fox says, “but it’s picking up a little as people learn about the new artwork and the cafés on 25th Street. We are fortunate in that we aren’t based on income from foot traffic—we sell art online, do home visits and make a lot of sales to people who want to buy art but don’t just wander in from the street.”

Fox, like King, would like to see growth. “We’d love to see more of the energy and lovely synergy of sunny Saturdays with people meeting friends for a drink and going to a gallery show.” Fox opened SLATE in 2009 and has seen their buyer base shift from local people arriving primarily from Oakland or Berkeley, to more interest coming from all over the Bay Area. “We were open by appointment during Covid and saw buyers and artists who wanted to see a show of multiple artists’ artwork,” Fox says. “We actually sold more in 2020 than we did in 2019. We had people coming from the Peninsula and Marin, and I think they were just enjoying having less traffic. We’ve seen that drop off a little as the difficulty of getting to Oakland has started up.”

She admits the retail scene for small start-up businesses in Oakland, for places that opened in 2019 or after, is different than for more-established businesses. “It’s a challenge, this kind of consumer inertia is felt all over Oakland in any areas with low foot traffic and retail.”

I ask Fox about equity in the art world and steps SLATE is taking, if any, to address the imbalances that exist and persist in gallery and museum representation of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other underserved artists. “Last summer, the slowdown was a chance for us to sit down, consider how many artists of color we represent,” Fox says. “We were pleasantly surprised that what we found was fairly diverse, but we saw areas that mean we’ve brought in more artists, especially Black artists, and we’re mounting more work of both established and emerging artists whose work reflects the African diaspora. We’d always just sought to represent artists whose work we liked, but this did encourage us to look in different directions.”

Collaborative exhibits, such as “Gather,” an exhibit showcasing three Oakland artists that was held at SLATE and simultaneously at Werkshack’s gallery space last summer, had Fox and the staff jumping at the opportunity to provide more exposure for their artists. Use of the then-available Werkshack gallery was offered to them by owner Christine Ferrouge. Fox says Ferrouge’s generosity meant artists who might have had to wait two to three years before being exhibited—the gallery represents 40 artists and only mounts six to seven shows per year—benefitted from the “familial energy” of 25th Street business owners.

When I catch Cole without warning during the bustle of a Sunday brunch at Friends and Family, she scrambles to get someone to cover her station so we can chat. I ask her to describe opening the bar and restaurant on April 25, 2020, and her experience since that time. Specifically, I want her to talk about what it means to operate what is “proudly a woman + queer owned business,” as stated on the establishment’s website. Can a space claiming to be welcoming to queer and trans people also be considered comfortable and tolerant for everyone, regardless of gender identification or other self-definitions? Does that very question suggest the only path to acceptance as a neighborhood bar is through straight or possibly homophobic portals that negate the value, dignity or honor of queerness?

“I think the way I’ve thought about it is that this is a forever-evolving conversation,” Cole says. “We’re not exclusively a queer space, but I am queer and most of our staff are queer. What we believe is that qualities in our community should be honored. Honoring those qualities is shown in big and little ways. Little things we do are allowing our staff to bring their own outfits and personalities to the job. It’s in the way we use safe language for people. The pronouns we use are maybe little actions, but they bring larger things to life. When you feel safe and recognized, you can fully be yourself in a space. You can see yourself reflected and feel you’ve found your community. There’s a greater sense of belonging.”

Cole says that for a long time within the hospitality industry and in bars specifically, queer places were essential to the trans and queer community. “But those bars have been under the radar,” she says. “The bars that got recognition were stereotypical masculine, considered ‘serious’ or took themselves seriously. We say, let’s create a new standard. We take our jobs seriously, we have a high standard for execution, but it’s not about ‘Look at us doing an amazing job!’ We have a business that keeps trying to improve every day, listens to our clientele, offers a welcoming space for everybody, doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

As a collective entity viewed from my perspective, these shops and service owners on 25th Street candidly raze the detritus of old, “we’ve always done it this way” commercial structures—without destroying long-held practices, traditions and culture and without disregarding the area’s micro-communities that have bonded for decades. In these conversations, I found owners who eagerly self-question and re-examine their business practices, willingly debate and dissect preconceived notions when social change demands it, take charge of their destinies and embrace collaborations with neighboring businesses that uplift all players.

It occurs to me that in our contemporary, responsibility-shirking times, the most rare of attributes is that they admit honestly and without resistance to oversights, to areas they say are “important, but not our thing,” or “not something we can handle.” They admitted to not always being most this or best that or uniquely such-and-such. Sometimes it’s remarkable to just be slogging along, hustling to keep the doors open. But business owners who are open to input, investigation and interrogation, and actively seek complex human interactions and partnerships? That’s some kind of miracle … so maybe the ethos of Oakland is that minor miracles happen on 25th Street, daily.

It’s an uplifting, maybe even overtly or overly rosy thought, upon which to end. But I pose the question: After all we and these business owners have been through during the past two years, aren’t we allowed that?

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