Jaime Omar Yassin checks out the books at the “people’s library” and community garden next to the abandoned Miller Avenue Library, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle
The corn grows thick and tall outside Miller Library, a vacant city-owned Spanish Colonial building in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. Seized by activists in 2012, it’s now flanked by a community garden on one side and piles of debris on the other. City officials have all but given up trying to take it back.
“They pretend we don’t exist,” said Jaime Omar Yassin, 46, an outspoken member of Occupy Oakland who helped commandeer the property three years ago, in what was supposed to be a four-hour Occupy demonstration. Instead, it has become a permanent settlement.
Yassin and a small crew of neighborhood folks help tend the garden, christened the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez in honor of a local writer who died of cancer in 2011. Initially, police tried to kick them off the property, Yassin said, and city officials sealed the building’s entrances.
“It was very tense,” Yassin said. “The police were here 24/7. There was always a car running.”
Undeterred, demonstrators returned and set up milk crates of books around the sidewalk. Then someone cut the fence to the property and installed planter boxes to
“They kicked us out, and we just came back,” Yassin said. “They got sick of kicking us out. And now they just pretend we’re not here.”
A community fixture
The garden is a community fixture. It has official Facebook and Twitter pages, and its volunteers offer free ESL classes every Monday. The plants are coarse but tidy, arranged in large planter boxes and surrounded by fruit trees. A book stand in one corner bears travel guides, Spanish literature and a Tom Wolfe novel, all up for grabs. Yassin said the group, now loosely known as the Miller Building Community Reclamation Project, never enters or uses the building.
The city no longer seems interested in forcing the occupiers off the property.
“As long as its maintained, we have other things to do,” said Fruitvale district Councilman Noel Gallo, who has grudgingly accepted the Occupy group. The Miller building needs about $10 million in upgrades, he said, and so far, the city hasn’t found a developer willing to take it on.
Mayor Libby Schaaf couldn’t be reached for comment. Oakland’s Director of Economic and Workforce Development Mark Sawicki said that while the city doesn’t condone the Biblioteca Popular or other appropriated gardens, “It is difficult to prevent or stop them from returning.”
From left: Jovanny Rios, age 12, and Isaac Sanchez, age 13, check out the garden, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. Both help maintain it. Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle
Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle
“It puts the city in a difficult spot,” Sawicki said. “There are safety issues, and people shouldn’t be growing vegetables on soil when we don’t know whether it’s contaminated.”
Biblioteca Popular is one of several city-owned plots in Fruitvale that have been appropriated by protest groups or residents, some of whom have cut locks or burrowed through fences to put the land to use. The Miller building, which for decades served as a public library on Miller Avenue, sits just blocks away from the Fruitvale Community Garden, on Foothill Boulevard. That land, owned by the city and leased to the East Bay Wilds Native Plant Nursery, was choked with weeds before a loose band of community organizers took it over in 2012. It’s now festooned in rose bushes and tomatoes.
Nearby on International Boulevard lies another vacant lot, where other activists have cut holes in the fence and draped banners along the periphery, proclaiming the property an “Indigenous Land.”
That “Indigenous Land” is in negotiations to become a Nike store, Councilman Gallo said.
Locals built the community garden next to the abandoned Miller Avenue Library, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. Cuellar helps Yassin maintain the garden. Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle
With Oakland in the midst of a revival, it’s unclear how much longer the gardens will survive.
Nike isn’t the only sign of change in this traditionally working-class neighborhood. A one-block strip near Interstate 880 now houses a brewery, 25 artist studios and a high-end architecture design firm. A trendy home-and-garden store offers classes in beekeeping and preserving. Grocers have converted liquor stores into full-service markets, while artists have painted flashy murals on the sides of buildings. According to Gallo, Google has eyed properties near the Fruitvale BART Station with the intent of creating new job training centers. Google declined to comment, but a source within the company said it’s “exploring Oakland and other cities” as part of an effort to diversify its workforce.
But as Fruitvale is transformed by investment and creativity, many of its longtime residents worry the new development will push them out. The gardens, in one sense, have allowed residents to lay claim on an area they’ve long called home — and places that the city seemed to have forgotten about.
Turning a blind eye
For years, city officials, it seemed, turned a blind eye to the vacant lots and buildings in Fruitvale. Larry Gallegos, the city staffer who oversees real estate projects in East Oakland, said he was aware of the occupied parcels but wouldn’t comment further.
Gallo, who has long crusaded against blight in his district, said the Miller Library was a dump site for old mattresses and dead dogs when activists took it over. The lot that now houses the Fruitvale Community Garden was similarly dilapidated.
“That lot is a space we created for our community,” said Michael Muscadine, 29, a former gang injunction defendant and fifth-generation Oaklander who helped start the Fruitvale Community Garden.
Muscadine is apprehensive about changes he’s seen in the neighborhood.
“I see a lot of families moving out because they can’t afford housing,” he said. “And more folks are buying homes and moving in.”
Community members painted the walls with messages at the community garden and “people’s library” next to the abandoned Miller Avenue Library, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Santiago Mejia, Special To The Chronicle
The Fruitvale Community Garden might stay put, so long as the land it’s occupying is leased from the city by Pete Veilleux, owner of the East Bay Wilds nursery. Veilleux said he didn’t know the garden was part of his plot until about a year ago, when the city asked him to evict the group that ran it.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Veilleux said. “We need more gardens and community green space.”
The fate of Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez seems shakier.
“We don’t have a lease. We don’t have a legal right to be there,” Yassin said, adding that he’s aware the city could come in at any time and raze all the vegetable beds.
Yet Gallo said that he and other officials have thrown up their hands. He said a few charter schools and churches have expressed interest in the Miller building, but none of them can cover the cost of seismic improvements and restoration of the historic facade.
For now, the Miller Library will remain empty, even as the neighborhood evolves. The activists have become the property’s de facto groundskeepers.
“They’re at least taking out the trash,” Gallo said.
Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org