Temescal in a time of change

Apr 23, 2012

In many ways, the Bay Area is still struggling to recover from the housing market crisis. Although some housing prices are rising, only a few neighborhoods have returned to the peaks reached in 2006. And most of them are in Silicon Valley. Richard K. Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, told the San Jose Mercury News that, “Oakland is still dead.”

Despite the statistics, some areas in Oakland have seen rapid development in recent years. One of them is the northern neighborhood of Temescal. In many ways, it's a typical Bay Area neighborhood: ethnically diverse and middle-income. The average household makes about $68,000, close to the median for Alameda county. But as with many places in the Bay, Temescal is changing rapidly. You can see signs of that change at the First Friday Art Walk.At around seven o'clock in the evening on the first Friday of the month, Temescal’s Telegraph Avenue is filled with people. Doors along the street hang open and people stroll by, wandering in and out of cafes, galleries, shops, and art studios. They’re drinking wine, talking, laughing, and occasionally buying some artwork or jewelry.

Julie Stevens owns a salon in the neighborhood called 17 Jewels. She's lived and worked in Temescal for more than nine years, and seen a lot of First Fridays. “The first couple of years we did it, you were like, ‘When is nine o'clock? When is nine o'clock?’” Stevens remembers. “But now it's 7:30pm and I'm ready to sit down. So, it's good,” she says, adding that the event's popularity reflects a changing neighborhood. “It's definitely a changing of the guards in terms of who is here. In terms of the money.”

The scene at First Friday is only one side of the neighborhood. On a regular weekday, it looks and feels different. Cars pass by on Telegraph Avenue, making it noisy and busy. Some of the popular restaurants are crowded, like Bakesale Betty on the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Ave. But otherwise, not too many people walk down the sidewalks.

Down 49th Street stands an example of the economic disparities Stevens described: a public housing project right next to half-million dollar homes. Stevens explains that in Temescal, there are families who can afford to buy homes in $500,000 to $700,000 range and there are those who qualify for Section 8 housing.

The diversity can lead to tensions – and extreme juxtapositions. Next to the trendy restaurants, vintage clothing stores and organic ice cream shops are  McDonald's and Jack in the Box restaurants. And there are other, older places, like Golden Gate Donuts on 41st Street, that have seen neighborhood change around them.

Inside the donut shop, lottery tickets are just as popular among the clients as the actual donuts. Standing outside the entrance door, Charles Jackson says he's regular at the shop and comes here every day to meet his friends.

Jackson is retired. He spent 20 years working at an oil refinery and another 20 as an iron worker. He says he’s lived in Temescal since 1978, just around the corner from the donut shop. “There use to be a lot of work going on out here and it's not happening anymore as it used to since we've closed all the base,” Jackson explains. “The work is not kind of it used to be.”

Nearby, at 49th Street, is a small alley that looks like a backyard at first glance. Inside are tiny shops, an art gallery, and an old-fashioned barbershop that’s been open less than a year.

Although it's a working day, the Temescal Alley Barbershop is full of people. Four or five men are waiting in the line for one of the three barbers. Nick Vlahos is cutting the hair of Thomas Schnetz, who owns the Dona Tomas Mexican restaurant, located just around the corner.

Like Jackson, Vlahos grew up in the neighborhood. As he snips, he explains why he wanted to open his business in Temescal. “At first it had to do with the fact that the rent was right,” he explains. “We were just renting a shack with three walls. So, it wasn't too expensive.” Vlahos says that all of the small buildings in Temescal Alley used to be stables, for the horses that pulled 19th Century streetcars through the neighborhood.

It's been a long time since any horse occupied this building, but Vlahos says Temescal has changed a lot, even in the last decade. The biggest change, he says, is the crime rate.

“I know, my old boss' wife, the house she grew up on here, just a block away. Every single house on her block by the mid 80s was robbed at least one time. Some multiple times,” he remembers.

Vlahos says that it feels much safer nowadays. That might be one of the reasons he felt comfortable opening a business. But he says that there are still problems. “From what I understand, people are getting robbed on 49th St every week,” Vlahos says. “But they just don't talk about it and they don't always report it because Oakland police have a lot do.”

Possibly a bigger issue in Temescal than crime is the recession. The city of Oakland was hit hard, and has dealt with a $58 million budget shortfall over the last several years. Many city employees were fired, whole departments were merged or liquidated, and programs to help residents and small business owners have been repeatedly slashed. Julie Stevens says that, in the absence of consistent city support, many residents are taking responsibility of the neighborhood themselves. “Temescal has kind of sprung up unbeknownst to the help of the city,” she explains, “because city doesn't have any money. And they don't have enough manpower to really go out and send out their ambassadors.”

In 2004, residents and business owners voted to become what's called a special benefit assessment district. That means the majority of people decided to pay an additional fee to fund improvements in the neighborhood. The money goes toward things like regularly sweeping sidewalks, maintaining landscaping, making banners, and organizing neighborhood events. It's one of the funding sources for the First Friday Art Walk.

Stevens emphasizes that Temescal has a real sense of community, and many people truly care about the neighborhood. She believes that diversity is a strength. “You look around the neighborhood and you can see the diversity. You saw Korean guys walking, African-American… You see white people, brown people, young people, skateboarding young people. So there is lots of things to bring,” she says.

Walking back towards the BART station, it's easy to see the different parts of the neighborhood: across the street from Golden Gate Donuts is a trendy new cafe full of people drinking coffee and working on their laptops. Up the street, Jack in the Box is full of customers. The organic ice cream shop seems a bit empty, as do the Korean restaurants. But in few hours that could all change.