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OAKLAND, CALIF.

Community fights to save arts center

By Bill Hackwell
Oakland, Calif.

In a struggle that symbolizes the clash between community culture and corporate redevelopment, an historic arts center here is fighting for its life.

For over 20 years, the Alice Arts Center has been home to the multicultural performance arts community in Oakland. It is nationally and internationally renowned for its vitality and immeasurable contributions to the city. Known affectionately as the Alice, this majestic building on Alice Street in downtown Oakland houses 74 artists who live in single-occupancy residences, and studio rooms for 22 artistic organizations that serve the community with low-cost classes, workshops, performances and cultural programs.

All this is threatened by Mayor Jerry Brown's redevelopment plan, which is designed to shut down the Alice and expand a charter arts school that he temporarily had put in the basement.

Brown has become known as the gentrification mayor. He is responsible for eliminating much of the affordable housing in Oakland while catering to corporate real-estate interests.

Displacement is so widespread that many who work in Oakland are forced to commute from as far as Sacramento--85 miles away.

To combat Brown's plan, the artists and residents of the Alice have, with growing community support, formed the ARTS (Artists and Residents Survive Together) Coalition. The coalition points out that the city owns and controls over 1,000 properties, many of which are suitable for the charter arts school.

The ARTS Coalition has a strong distrust of Brown, who has failed to live up to promises to improve maintenance at the Alice. Despite a long waiting list, he has allowed 25 to 30 artist apartments to remain vacant so it will appear that the building is running at a financial loss.

Brown had to retreat on some of his threats to close the Alice after 400 artists, residents and community supporters, many of whom take classes at the center, marched to Oakland City Hall on May 27. The march was led by Fogo N' Ropa, a Brazilian-style drum orchestra, which rents a space for capoeira classes in the building. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art played to music.

As the marchers moved down 14th Street, their strength and spirit drew many onlookers to join in and brought shopkeepers out of their stores. At City Hall the protesters were so loud that the city council sent representatives out to try to quiet them down.

The people were so charged and determined to show their opposition to closing the Alice that the rally grew even louder.

Speakers included artists, performers and residents, as well as representatives of the community group Just Cause and the ANSWER Coalition.

The movement to save this community jewel continues to grow. Organizers say they will be out in force on June 10 when the city council discusses the Alice Arts Center's future.

Azania Howse, one of the artists who organized the May 27 protest, explained this community struggle's importance in light of cutbacks nationwide: "What is happening here in Oakland to something so positive as the activities of the Alice is just another projection of what is happening around the country. Money is being stolen to build up the military at our expense. Poor people are just going to be out of luck if they don't fight back."

Reprinted from the June 12, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

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