Discovering Opportunity in West Oakland, the Alex Miller-Cole Story.

Newly planted trees line the street near house Miller-Cole recently rehabbed.

Alex Miller-Cole is a typical Oaklander and an exceptional person. He is typical because he arrived here from somewhere else and has remade his life many times. What’s exceptional is what he is doing with the life he has built for himself in West Oakland.

Alex came to California from Mexico as a teenager and then, while wading through the legalization process, came very close to being deported. He ran a successful interior design business for a decade until the Crash of 2008. As he put it, “everything went to hell. Interior design is like travel-it’s not a necessity.”

He bought his home in West Oakland at the height of the housing bubble in May of 2000. As he watched his house lose value after the Crash, he also saw neighboring buildings plummet in value while landlords abandoned their care.

So he decided to purchase one of them and rehab it with the crew that had been with him in his design work. In fact, during our conversation he repeatedly mentioned that keeping his crew together was one of the reasons that he decided to start a new business. So he went from running Alex Cole studios to starting the Cypress One Properties when he bought a fourplex on his street.

Miller-Cole bought and rehabbed this house into a bright and very functional duplex.

He has bought and rehabbed a total of 6 properties, and then rerented them to the same tenants or to other folks from the neighborhood. Thirty percent of his tenants are still in the Section 8 program. He says that it is possible to keep the rents low while upgrading the units and making a profit.

Miller-Cole didn’t stop with building a successful business rehabbing properties in his neighborhood. He is also the chair of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition which has mapped the assets and resources in West Oakland and found that there are a surprising number of manufacturing companies that go unnoticed.

What has not gone unnoticed to his group is that most of these businesses employ no West Oaklanders and the members of the Coalition are working to change that. For instance, REI, that well-known Berkeley outfitter, [it turns out, as you can read below, that I was mistaken. REI has no factory in West Oakland or in California at all. I am sorry for this error] makes sleeping bags in their unmarked factory on West Grand, along with a giant publishing house PsPrint on Mandela which bills itself as “one of the most environmentally friendly printing companies on the web”. Cole says that PsPrint is receptive to hiring local which would certainly be a more environmentally sound practice than transporting people from out of the area.

Many Oaklanders are members of REI, the largest consumer cooperative in the US (according to its website).  If members read the company’s policy statement which declares it is “an employer of choice, where employees are highly engaged in the vision of the company and are representative of our communities,” they might want to check up on REI’s hiring policies in West Oakland and let them know whether it is indeed representative of “our communities.”

Alex Miller-Cole and the San Pablo Corridor are working closely with Council Member Nancy Nadel. Through her office they found out about the many machining shops making parts for other industries in West Oakland. They also discovered that these shops are always on the lookout for employees with the right training and that few people are getting that training. He contends that this is a highly paid profession with few credentialing requirements, unlike contracting or plumbing, etc. He envisions a young person getting a job making a good income and raising a family all while being able to walk to work.

The next step for Mr. Miller-Cole and his group is to set up training programs for this type of work. In the meantime they are still planting trees and cleaning up neighborhoods. They have already adopted two parks in their area.

As a business owner and landlord one would expect that Cole would be opposed to a new parcel tax, including the $80 tax suggested by Mayor Quan that the City Council has so far been unwilling to put on the ballot. But one would be wrong. He said, “The point is we have 400 jobs to lose” and he believes we can’t afford that. He says, “I am the happy owner of six properties. We’re being asked to get our city over the hump for the price of a few dinners out.” As Alex Cole-Miller stated simply, “We must “save our city.”

Alex Miller-Cole in front of his studio

Now is the Time for Adult Education

Parents & students protest at the closed Shands School

This week is the first anniversary of the last graduation of the Edward Shands Adult School. I had written last year that, “Thursday night may have been the last graduation the Edward Shands Adult School puts on. After 139 years of free basic adult education and ever-expanding offerings, including its high school diploma program, Oakland Unified School District has decided to close almost the entire adult school department.” See http://oaklandlocal.com/blogs/2010/06/edward-shands-school-close-adult-education-faces-severe-cutbacks-oakland-community-voices.

And it came to pass that Shands in East Oakland, the Neighborhood Centers schools in East Lake, and the Pleasant Valley School for Older Adults and Adults with Disabilities were all closed by June, 2010.

Students in Family Literacy

The remaining teachers were funneled into the Family Literacy Program, English classes for parents in their neighborhood schools, and GED preparation. In the video accompanying this you’ll hear long-time teacher Jessie Ortiz talk about the only remaining Spanish GED class which she taught last year. By the way, all of these classes had been offered in summer as well as the school year before the funding stream was removed by the state legislature.

The wonderful little Bond Street center near Fremont High School still holds a core of citizenship, computer and other literacy classes for second language learners. It has been threatened with closure repeatedly over the years but still hangs on. It may not last this next round of closures, but its demise is being hard fought.

There is some confusion in the video that is shared by many in the District. Oakland Unified provided one of the few, perhaps only, high school diploma programs for adults. Most people were only aware of the General Educational Development Test which results in a California High School Equivalency Certificate.

Fully 40% of Oakland youth don’t graduate with their original classmates but could come back and receive actual coursework in the Math, English, Social Studies, and Science classes needed to complete their high school credits. We graduated roughly 5000 students since the Shands campus opened.

The high school classes program no longer exists but GED classes are still being offered at some sites. Other GED prep classes are being taught by former Oakland Unified teachers at other institutions like the one being offered, for free, at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. The problem is that not only are there not enough of them, most students are not even  aware of their existence.

Shands graduate & speaker, June, 2010

Last year we held a graduation in Laney College’s auditorium for 75 high school graduates and at least 50 GED certificate holders. Before joining the diploma program, I subbed in ESL at the Neighborhood Centers and some of the other ESL sites like Chinatown which had also been closed down. Then at Shands I moved from ESL to English to counseling to Government and Economics which I taught during the crash of 2009/10-interesting times.

Despite the low rate of pay and uncertain conditions-as an hourly teacher I had no guarantees and a lower wage than teachers with a District contract-I found the work immensely rewarding. The community of teachers and students and staff in our little marginalized world of immigrants, formerly incarcerated youth, single moms, and often desperately struggling families was a very cohesive one.

Everyone came to us across a minefield of obstacles that would knock most folks out for life. They continued despite lack of resources, health, support and even those difficulties unwittingly (I hope) caused by the District’s administration. Yet even those who didn’t always make it to class knew that the option to remake their lives was still available when they were ready.

One of the teachers I worked with summed it up best, “Adult Education survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, but now we can’t afford it. It’s ridiculous. Talk about not valuing what you have.”

The news is slightly better today than other days. The teachers and students have put up a helluva fight and are now getting some hopeful responses by at least one board member although the news from the governor is bad. He’s calling for more cuts if the tax extensions are not available.

At our last graduation of Edward Shands another teacher and I had made signs for the students to quietly wear over their gowns on the stage of the auditorium that said, ”Save our School & Save Adult Education.” Our principal, a perfectly nice man, told us to take them off. He said, “this is neither the time nor place…” I thought it was and I still do, but we’ll have to make the time and the place. No one is going to give it to us unless we demand it.

Please check out the video. It is my love letter to the community I miss, a community that must continue to exist, for all our sakes.

Librarian Talks Back to Oakland Trib Anti-Public Employee Rant

Jane Courant has been a full time Oakland librarian since 1998. She’s worked as a children’s librarian and is now the Adult Services Librarian at the Dimond Branch. Previous to moving to the Bay Area, she was an actor/singer in small theatre troupes and maintains an interest in the arts.

This letter is a response to the Oakland Tribune editorial bashing library workers and their unions, http://www.insidebayarea.com/opinion/ci_18217065.

“I strongly urge the Governor to follow the legislature’s lead and sign AB 438, a decidedly pro-library bill, rather than follow the dangerous position taken in “Assembly Bill 438 is an Anti-library Measure,” (6/7/11). A private company’s mission is to maximize profits. A public library’s mission is to serve all citizens equally and protect their free access to information as well as the privacy of their library records. Librarians must be able to stand up to authority — and they frequently do — to ensure that they fulfill this mission, whether it means preventing FBI access to borrowing records or opposing those who would censor materials, keeping them from library shelves or computer screens.

If a public librarian’s employer is a private company beholden to its investors, fear of losing one’s job makes such principled positions much more difficult to maintain. Recently, LSSI, one of the biggest players in the library privatization game, took over the Santa Clarita system. Its contract gave them control not only of hiring, but of materials purchasing as well. In attacking the SEIU, The Tribune misses the point of public unions completely, whether they protect the rights and responsibilities of teachers, police, park workers or librarians.”

One needs only look at the Patriot Act and the folks who fought its infringements the hardest, to see the importance of keeping the libraries public. Thanks for this letter, Jane.

Open Studios, & Art & Music in the Gardens

Last year I somehow missed the Pro Arts Open Studios. This hardly ever happens. According to the website, proartsgallery.org, they have been running their open studios program since 1974. For those folks who have just landed from another planet, the Open Studios movement implies that artists invite you into their workplaces and exhibit their work where they make it.

In reality many artists now gather in spaces set up as temporary galleries for the Open Studios rather than open up their often cramped work spaces. On the one hand, you can see a bevy of artists gathered in one spot rather than search for the many little studios spread around the whole Bay Area’s twelve cities.

On the other hand, there are many more large studio buildings where artists jointly rent space than there used to be and seeing artists in their natural habitat can be more instructive and personal.

It was for just that reason that I began taking my children to Open Studios in the late 80’s. At one studio we saw an artist shooting hoops (it was a toy net) in his work space. I thought it would encourage my athletic son to see that he could make art and still have fun. I liked to provide my kids with art supplies, including small sketch pads to take wherever they went, as my father had done for me.

I remember not too many years ago when you could visit artists in the redeveloped empty warehouses down by Jack London Square. Seeing these repurposed buildings was as much fun as looking at the art. Now empty big box retail space, the Barnes and Noble building, for instance, vies for reuse as a makeshift gallery.

It makes one think that maybe the enduring usage for many buildings in Oakland should be actual artists’ live/work spaces. Here I’m not talking about lawyer lofts where open concept living rooms full of Italian leather and kitchens with granite counter tops and stainless steel are the hallmarks of someone not making a living making art. Going from industrial to post industrial then retail to post big box retail back to art makes one wonder what city planners are thinking. Have they noticed the irony?

First, my friend and I set out in the afternoon and were able to take in a gallery in a beautiful home in the Lakeshore area, then onto the Swarm Galleries, finishing with the post-big-box space on JLS. At the first gallery, I ran into artists whose work I had watched change and grow over the years.

Next we moved onto  The Hive Gallery at the end of 2nd Street near the Square. We found more artists than were actually listed in the Pro Arts booklet but some of those listed had not yet opened.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this was last Saturday when it had poured on and off in the morning and early afternoon. Since I have almost completed the process of becoming a true Californian, I do think it’s my birthright to enjoy blues skies, and I have even developed the natural fear that I might melt if caught out in the rain. So, as you can imagine, attendance was sparse.

At Hive we found so many variations of art/crafts/sculpture that I can’t really describe the creativity on display by these folks. Since I had decided not to take my still or video cameras and don’t have a camera phone, I can’t even show you these wonderful things. You just have to go, really you gotta go.

We met an artist who makes cute dresses, charming cloth chickens (I mean really charming) and carves puppets, incredible, another artist who lived in Nepal and taught art there, a painter/muralist who takes videos of herself performing the layers of her process, and too many others. Wait, don’t forget to ask for the artist who has the movable untoy, Mickey Mouse meets the Raiders. Oh, and the artist who sorely tempted me into taking on debt with his resin treated works using paint, string, rulers, fabric, well, I may have to go back.

Then we headed down to the former Barnes and Noble building and ran into old friends, both artists and visitors, like Rita Sklar who has become well-known for her beautifully crafted watercolors and many more until they dimmed the lights and ushered us out.

So then on Sunday I decided to walk down to the Lakeside Garden Center since my neighbor, co-owner of the fabulous spot that is Garden Hortica (gardenhortica.com), had been bombarding facebook with the happenings at Lakeside Park,  Art & Music in the Gardens. Not officially part of the Open Studios, but the event took advantage of the excitement of the weekend.

Artists were showing their wares both outside and inside and gardeners were likewise demonstrating their art. There was food being purveyed by the Oakland Museum while musicians played on the stage.

Rather than tell you about the goings-on, check out my photos and short video of some of the grounds and what the artists say about their work and Oakland. Listen in particular to Christian Moffat of Create in Clay, createinclay.org (barring problems with my video editing program!) and what he says about the Town.

I managed to come away without buying a single piece, but I’m not proud of that. This has been one of the toughest years for me financially since my kids were little, and I’m not sure I believe things will get much better. But there is one more weekend and I’m determined to find something I can afford, at least spiritually.

If, by some awful chance, you are one of those people-and I have friends like this- who buys posters of the great masters which you frame and stick up over your couch, please get off that damned over-stuffed chair and go out and buy a piece of art.

There are no excuses for not having a piece, many really, of original, locally crafted art somewhere (everywhere?) in your house. Mine is loaded with it and it gives me joy every day, more than a new car or new clothes ever could. You still have another weekend-so go out and support a local artist. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

You can still preview the artists before you venture into their neighborhoods by visiting Pro Arts Gallery where 400 of them will be on display until June 12th-150 Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland.