How Ethnic Groups Change Oakland Neighborhoods

Christopher Heredia, San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 2009

When Robert Lemon, a UC Berkeley landscape architecture grad student, was a community planner in Columbus, Ohio, he noticed that despite the car-oriented landscape, residents of the city’s Latino community, for the most part, liked to get around on foot and bicycle and, as a result, were bending the neighborhood to their collective will.

Taco trucks and open-air produce markets popped up in vacant parking lots on one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares. The bicycle was a key mode of transportation even though there weren’t dedicated bike lanes, and colorful murals appeared on the walls of large buildings. The neighborhood had the feel of small-town Oaxaca, the Mexican state from which many of the city’s Latinos hailed.

After moving to California, Lemon found similar changes occurring in Oakland’s Fruitvale and Chinatown neighborhoods. He is conducting a formal survey as part of a fellowship. He said he has gone through Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods, walking up and down the streets asking people questions.

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The questions on his survey are wide-ranging. He’s asking residents to identify the closest street intersecting their own and how they perceive accessibility to city services–from parks to public transit. He’s seeking their opinions about community safety and neighborhood traffic. He wants to know whether it’s easy or difficult to walk from one place to another.

Reminders of homeland

Preliminary results show that people–especially in Oakland’s ethnic neighborhoods–want bustling neighborhoods with services that remind them of their native land.

Residents in the heavily Latino Fruitvale district enjoy the pedestrian-friendly International Boulevard, where sidewalk vendors sell everything from tacos to toys. In Chinatown, residents say they like the elbow-to-elbow crush of people on the sidewalks shopping at produce stores and other shops, and they like the cacophony of cars and bicycles because it reminds them of big-city life in China.

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Designing districts

Eric Angstadt, deputy director of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency, said while he hasn’t seen Lemon’s findings, planners are moving toward designing neighborhoods with local character in mind.

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Galen Chiu, who helps run his family’s flower shop in Oakland’s Chinatown, said his experience jibes with what Lemon is finding in his study. People flock to the neighborhood for the $3.99-per-pound crab, the crates of fresh produce stacked on the sidewalks and the Sunday morning dim sum.

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Ironically, many of the traffic signs are in English only, in spite of the neighborhood’s large native Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking community. Chiu said one area that could use improvement is neighborhood safety. Most businesses close at 6 p.m., and police are less visible at night, he said.

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