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The Black Cultural Zone’s Pivotal Role in Rebuilding Oakland’s Black Community

By Tanya Dennis


Between 1990 and 2020, Oakland lost nearly half of its Black population due to economic and social forces.  East Oakland, once a middle-class community, is now home to mostly Black families living in poverty.


In 2021, 314 Oakland residents died from COVID-19.  More than 100 of them, or about 33.8%, were Black, a high rate of death as Blacks constitute only 22.8% of Oakland’s population.


This troubling fact did not go unnoticed by City and County agencies, and the public-at-large, ultimately leading to the development of several community organizations determined to combat what many deemed an existential threat to Oakland’s African American residents.


Eastside Arts Alliance had already proposed that a Black Cultural Zone be established in Deep East Oakland in 2010, but 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic galvanized the community.


Demanding Black legacy preservation, the Black Cultural Zone (BCZ) called for East Oakland to be made an “unapologetically Black” business, commercial, economic development community.


Established initially as a welcoming space for Black art and culture, BCZ emerged into a a community development collective, and acquired the Eastmont police substation in Eastmont Town Center from the City of Oakland in 2020.


Once there, BCZ immediately began combating the COVID-19 pandemic with drive-thru PPE distribution and food giveaways. BCZ’s Akoma Market program allowed businesses to sell their products and wares safely in a COVID-compliant space during the COVID-19 shutdown.


Currently, Akoma Market is operated twice a month at 73rd and Foothill Boulevard and Akoma vendors ‘pop up’ throughout the state at festivals and community-centered events like health fairs.


“Before BCZ existed, East Oakland was a very depressing place to live,” said Ari Curry, BCZ’s chief experience officer and a resident of East Oakland. “There was a sense of hopelessness and not being seen. BCZ allows us to be seen by bringing in the best of our culture and positive change into some of our most depressed areas.”


The culture zone innovates, incubates, informs, and elevates the Black community and centers it in arts and culture, Curry went on.


“With the mission to center ourselves unapologetically in arts, culture, and economics, BCZ allows us to design, resource, and build on collective power within our community for transformation,” Curry concluded.


As a part of Oakland Thrives, another community collective, BCZ began working to secure $100 million to develop a ‘40 by 40’ block area that runs from Seminary Avenue to the Oakland-San Leandro border and from MacArthur Boulevard to the Bay.

The project would come to be known as Rise East.


Carolyn Johnson, CEO of BCZ says, “Our mission is to build a vibrant legacy where we thrive economically, anchored in Black art and commerce. The power to do this is being realized with the Rise East Project.


“With collective power, we are pushing for good health and self-determination, which is true freedom,” Johnson says. “BCZ’s purpose is to innovate, to change something already established; to incubate, optimizing growth and development, and boost businesses’ economic growth with our programs; we inform as we serve as a trusted source of information for resources to help people; and most important, we elevate, promoting and boosting Black folks up higher with the services we deliver with excellence.


“Rise East powers our work in economics, Black health, education, and power building. Rise East is the way to get people to focus on what BCZ has been doing. The funding for the 40 by 40 Rise East project is funding the Black Culture Zone,” Johnson said.

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