West Oakland is a neighborhood in transition – more people are moving in, and developers have it in their sights as the next up-and-coming place to live. But the neighborhood’s air quality is some of the Bay Area’s worst. A recent report by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies found that new laws for trucks had dramatically reduced emissions – but there’s still a long way to go.
Margaret Gibson has lived on 10th street in West Oakland for all of her 52 years.
“It's a little tough some times, but it's home, and I love it.”
Standing outside her small, grey house, you can see a pine tree shaped like a giant mushroom, and wires over your head. And in the background, you can hear the constant sound of the freeway. The freeway is the 980, built over the neighborhood in 1985. The 580 and the 80 also cut right through. Then there are the trucks, going in and out of the fifth busiest container port in the country. Those machines emit tons of exhaust, some of which settles directly over Gibson’s house.
“I remember I even had asthma attacks when they made the freeway. All my boys stayed sick, my mother fought with it a long time before she passed. Sad, but I guess that's what it is when you've been here all your life.”
Gibson says the bad air quality is just part of what it means to live in West Oakland. She says you can’t just move when you’ve bought a house that you’ve invested in, you’d rather stay and deal with things.
But she says there’s also a lot to love about the area. Walking the streets of West Oakland is like walking in a painter’s palette. The houses are a mix of creamy white, orange, mint green and deep blue. Many are old and well kept. Others less so. And many houses are newly renovated or built. In total, 25 000 people call West Oakland “home”. One of them is Al Martin. He’s leaning over his fence on Henry Street, a couple of blocks south. He's been living here for over twenty years. In his view, pollution is not that big of a problem. “The EPA is cleaning up a lot of the pollution around here in the neighborhoods. If the pollution was bad, you wouldn't see a lot of trees. Basically, I think it's pretty good down here.”
It’s true that there are some parks and trees. The Environmental Protection Association even has a field office in West Oakland. Their community-based projects include everything from using fish bones to reduce the toxicity of lead in the ground to trying to move the trucks out of the community.
Martin’s view is very different from Gibson’s, even though they live just blocks from each other. That’s the case with many of the people in the neighborhood. They’re either convinced that pollution is everywhere, or sure that the air is clean.
Brian Beveridge, Co-director for West Oakland Environmental Indicators project, stakes out the middle ground. He says the air quality in West Oakland “continues to be impacted by industry pretty heavily, but we have made a lot of progress.”
Beveridge’s office is located on the second floor on 14th and Wood Streets, a few blocks from where Martin and Gibson live. The organization works with local EPA officials on some of the West Oakland projects. Beveridge claims that a fifth of the children under the age of five in West Oakland have asthma. He says it’s easy to see why. At his house, just a few blocks away, black dirt collects on the windowsills.
“Municipalities have throughout the 20th century made very clear decisions to place high polluting industries like waste incinerators and bus depots in poor neighborhoods. And they usually do it on that idea of ‘we're gonna bring jobs to this neighborhood.’ So it's like, maybe you're gonna breathe toxic, you and your children will breathe toxic for the next 30 years, but hey, you get a job!”
These days, the demographics of West Oakland are changing – and so are the available jobs. According to the city, those future jobs will be in construction: bio-tech and urban manufacturing. Brian Beveridge says there is a lot of economic interest in the area.
“I think West Oakland's time is here,” says Jeffrey Chew. As the project manager for West Oakland redevelopment at the City of Oakland, he is planning the future of West Oakland from his downtown office a few miles away.
“You know, it's starting to be discovered, but it needs care and it needs direction”, Jeffrey Chew says of West Oakland, the area that the city calls a “priority development area.”
Chew says that health is a concern for the city, and that it is being addressed. “The issue of health and safety has come up at every meeting and will be addressed in the plans through land-use-planning principals,” he reaffirms.
Plans to redevelop West Oakland looked like they might stall earlier this year, when governor Jerry Brown de-funded all the state’s redevelopment agencies. But Chew says West Oakland’s redevelopment will continue and be funded by grants and private investors. The plans include finding new uses for vacant buildings, moving recycling operations to the Army base, and increasing commerce around the BART station. The goal is to enact these changes by the summer of 2013.
“So we think that by building transit-oriented development, by looking at new land uses, and attracting clean industries we can reduce the footprint, if you will, for pollution by 40 or 50 percent,” says Chew. “There's no reason why we can't do that”.
Back in West Oakland, Brian Beveridge says he’s not sure health is enough of a priority. “When you go to a redevelopment meeting, you would be hard pressed to find people from public health who have been invited there,” says Beveridge. “They may show up, but they're not in front of the room, and they haven’t been invited to come and talk about the impact of a project or an area plan. Health is still too much of an after thought”.
In West Oakland, it’s a beautiful day: warm and sunny. But the blue sky is deceptive – the air is not clean. The residents here may not see the pollution when they look out their windows, but the evidence is still there on their windowsills, built up black particulates – evidence of a neighborhood that doubles as an industrial center.