Alice Street: A Mural Becomes a Movement

by C. J. Hirschfield

Photo by Ayse Gursoz
Photo by Ayse Gursoz

About my home town, Oakland, a recent Washington Post article wrote: “Protesters want to defund the police. Homicides and violence are spiking. In Oakland, ideology and practicality collide.”

It was a wonderful juxtaposition shortly thereafter to watch the excellent new documentary Alice Street, which shows Oakland at its multicultural, peaceful, protesting best.

The downtown corner of Alice and 14th Streets is reflective of a number of things about Oakland. It’s a diverse neighborhood, where a world-renowned multicultural arts center sits directly across from Hotel Oakland, home to elderly Chinese. It’s also a magnet for gentrification and development.

Alice Street asks this question about community: Is what’s coming worth more than what’s here? For many of those living, working and performing at this ethnic epicenter of the city, the answer involved forming a movement—where diverse ages and cultures came together in deep dialogue. Joyfully—but purposefully–dancing and drumming in protest to City Hall? Yes. That’s my Oakland.

Photo by SpencerWilkinson

At the film’s beginning, director Spencer Wilkinson focuses on the creation of four large murals on adjacent buildings surrounding a large urban parking lot. Artists Desi Mundo and Pancho Peskador, both with Oakland’s Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP), began a conversation with their neighbors starting in 2014 to create images that preserve the history of a community at the site.

But what exactly does that look like? And to whom? Older Chinese wanted to underscore Asian successes, music and dance, not just their struggles.  The artists and residents of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts wanted to honor not only the legacy of Casquelourd, the  Cameroonian dancer, choreographer, instructor and founder of performing arts companies, but the Afro-Diasporic-inspired dancers and drummers who make the Center—and the City– come alive. And then there was “Jane Doe,” a local resident who persisted in complaining every step of the way that locals walking their dogs should be included in the mural. The artists patiently and respectfully listened to all. The conversation also included a property owner of one of the mural sites, whose proposed development would require the wall painting be ultimately re-located. Gentrification was real, and more was on the way.

We are treated to beautiful time-lapse photography of the process of painting the fantastic and colorful murals. The community held energetic celebrations when they were completed, and the pride is palpable.

Photo by Pancho Pescador
Photo by SpencerWilkinson

But only three months later, a condo was proposed for the parking lot in the center of the murals that would completely obliterate the art. The community that came together to create the murals morphed into the Oakland Creative Neighborhood Coalition (“Keep Oakland Creative”). They definitely made a “joyful noise” as they converged on City Hall– dancing, drumming, and bearing signs saying “Keep Oakland Culture,” and attending planning meetings to bring equity to the discussion of how Oakland should frame development projects.

In the end, “progress” was inevitable, but successful negotiations between the community and the developer resulted in important compromises around issues of affordable retail and housing units, anti-displacement policies, and community representation on advisory boards. The negotiations also included funding for a new CRP mural just a few blocks away, one of the over 100 they’ve painted since 2010.

“It was beyond the money, says CRP—it was the framing of the relationship.”

In Alice Street, Director Wilkinson shows us that if people take the time to connect, respect and really listen to each other, genuine progress can be made that respects what has come before.

What started with a mural actually led to a movement—of creative and cultural resilience.

Alice Street was recently streamed as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Future screenings can be found here:

C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad  News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.