For neighbors of the dilapidated warehouse at 3855 West St. in Oakland, the trouble started long before flames swept through the building on Dec. 27.
The property had been a thorn for years in the gradually gentrifying Longfellow neighborhood, a “swing” area of Oakland where Teslas sit in the driveways of big, rambling homes. Nearby residents say they’ve held at least three meetings this year about drug dealing and trash piling up near the white cement building, which code enforcement officials had condemned and evacuated twice, in April and November.
To some, it’s a sign of the city’s inability to nurture areas like Longfellow, a north Oakland neighborhood bounded by Adeline Street to the west, Highway 24 to the east and Interstate 580 to the south. Some call it the “ugly stepchild” of City Councilman Dan Kalb’s district, which extends through wealthier hills areas like North Montclair and Upper Rockridge. A day after the fire, someone hung a handmade sign on the chain-link fence that city workers had placed around the building to prevent people from going inside. “Dan Kalb: This is your fault!” it said.
Others shake their heads and note how bumpy these urban transformations can be. Street improvements and an influx of new wealth won’t necessarily lift everyone up. The areas left behind continue to unravel.
Kalb said he shared residents’ frustrations. He and the area police captain both attended a community meeting 10 days before the fire. They tried to quell a room full of angry neighbors fed up with the city’s paralysis in managing blighted properties and street corners.
There’s only so much they can do, the councilman said.
“The city can’t drive by every red-tagged building twice a day to make sure it’s still boarded up,” he said, adding that he’s known about the drug dealing “for a number of years.”
A decade ago, Longfellow and other transitional neighborhoods were supposed to be the key to Oakland’s renewal. But they seem locked in that evolutionary state: Lawyers and tech workers have moved in and remodeled the old houses, planting lemon trees and setting up patio furniture in the front yards. Kids walk to and from the Oakland Military Institute, a college preparatory school on Lusk Street, less than a block from what neighbors say is an open-air drug market.
On 40th Street, e-scooters zip along a bright green bike lane toward BART’s MacArthur Station. Yet, many blocks have an aesthetic dissonance: rows of brightly painted homes with sloped roofs and bay windows, with an abandoned building or empty lot at the corner.
“It’s a little rough and tumble,” said Will Mollard, a developer who plans to turn a boarded-up laundromat at West and Apgar streets — across the street from the burned warehouse — into townhouses and a live-work space next year. He’s also eyeing 3855 West, which is finally empty after months of cat-and-mouse between the city and the squatters who would get evicted, then move back in.
Mollard trusts the area will eventually grow on its own, as the real estate market picks up and more housing is built. Still, he’s been frustrated by the ongoing crime and Oakland’s slow response, which he blames on a lack of resources. There is no question that the city is hungry for investment and eager to build housing. Yet it has taken months to get approvals to develop a blighted property, owing largely to city departments being short-staffed, Mollard said.
Oakland’s police department is also grappling with vacancies — it now has 739 officers, Kalb said, far short of the 792 budgeted positions. Thus, the police have been overwhelmed by hot spots that smolder and flare around the city — not just in Longfellow, where people are starting to lose patience.
When the warehouse was open, it “became a hangout for a drug sale operation, and the conditions started to spiral,” said one neighbor, Eric Schkufza. People began peeing and defecating in the street and stashing furniture on the sidewalk, turning it into an ad hoc living room. Broken-down cars littered the road, racking up tickets and warning notices, but never getting towed, neighbors said. Six months ago, Schkufza saw several people back a car into the warehouse lot, saw it into four pieces, and then load it onto a truck.
Down the block, bullet holes had pierced a railing and penetrated the walls of another house. Longfellow residents frequently hear the crackle of gunfire.
“It’s a complicated issue,” said Mariah Cochrane, who was leaning on the balcony of her home on West Street Thursday morning, a block from the burned warehouse. She’d grown familiar with the squatters who said they paid $10 a night to the man who ran the property from day to day. The building owner, Rosetta Shatkin, said in court documents that she gave him permission to live there last year. She filed an unlawful detainer suit to evict him in October.
Some of the building dwellers did odd jobs, like washing cars or painting houses. Others seemed to participate in the drug trade.
“I think he felt he was helping people with no place to go,” Cochrane said of the former property manager. Nonetheless, she acknowledged the problems that emanated from the building and lingered after the fire. Private security guards were stationed on West Street for several days after the blaze, but people continued loitering outside the fenced warehouse and a mini mart across the street. Cars with tinted windows orbited the blocks.
Neighbors are restless. Several lambasted the police, Kalb, and other city officials for encouraging them to call a drug hot line whenever they saw transactions, rather than permanently dispatching a police car to cruise the area.
“At the last community meeting we came with specific requests, and the answers we got were, ‘Gosh, we don’t have a lot of resources. Can you leave some more voicemails for us?’” said Adam Bier, a Longfellow resident and outspoken critic of Kalb.
Change is clearly afoot. Signs outside the defunct laundromat advertise new housing next year. Bike and scooter rental docks are popping up along 40th Street. At BART’s nearby MacArthur Station, a seven-story apartment building with lime green trim hugs the skyline. Many residents emphasize that this isn’t a stock gentrification story: The neighborhood is a mix of affluent newcomers, working-class old-timers, and well-integrated Section 8 housing. Everyone wants the crime to go away, Bier said.
As for the burned warehouse?
“What happens is largely up to the property owner,” Kalb said. “But they can’t just leave it in a blighted condition.”