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American Steel Studios Use Logs to Displace West Oakland Homeless for a Year and Counting
by Zack Haber (Zack.Haber [at]
Wednesday Oct 16th, 2019 1:00 PM
By placing giant logs on the public streets outside their building, American Steel Studios in West Oakland has prevented homeless residents from parking outside it. The City of Oakland has allowed the logs to remain for a year and counting even in the wake of the fact that 11 West Partner, who owns AS, gave an illegal donation to Mayor Schaaf's campaign.
This story was written in June 2019, with updates in August and October 2019.

Since the rent in her former home tripled right at the time when she was approaching retirement, Luda moved into a tiny home that she tows around with her vehicle, moving mostly throughout Berkeley and Oakland. Finding places to park has now become one of the most important things in her life. One of the few places that works well for her is an area in West Oakland that is close to American Steel Studios (AS), an organization that rents out studio space to artists. But Luda and other homeless people who stay in West Oakland feel that AS has made their ability to find safe parking more difficult by placing giant heavy logs in parking spaces. I tried, for months, to talk with representatives at AS to get their input for this story but eventually they told me they were unwilling to comment or participate. So this story, out of necessity, will mostly be told from the perspective of homeless people.

I first met Luda in the West Oakland Library, which sits about a block away from AS, when she introduced herself after overhearing me talking about how I write about homelessness. It’s unsurprising that I met her there, because it’s one of the few areas in Oakland she’s found to be both safe, comfortable, and healthy for her to park and sleep in.

“I am chemical sensitive,” said Luda. “One of the biggest issues I face from being on the street is exposure to automobile fumes, especially diesel fumes, and to a lesser degree, industrial fumes like auto-paint.”

Luda also explained to me that she wants to be unintrusive towards housed people. She never takes the last parking spot on a street and never parks outside of a person’s home who she doesn’t know. These self-imposed rules provide further limitations as to where she can park.

“I found that I thrive well, sleep well and am energized if I sleep near a park or a green area with trees and if I stay away from freeways,” said Luda.

AS sits between Mandela Parkway and Poplar St. and between 18th St. and 20th St. in West Oakland. It’s about .6 miles away from the nearest freeway, is next to the tree filled DeFremery Park, and isn’t close to residential areas. When Luda discovered the area in the spring of 2018, she found it to be one of her best parking and sleeping spots in Oakland. Perhaps Luda wasn’t the only person who sought cleaner air and an area away from housed residents. The place was quite popular as dozens of people who slept in their vehicles stayed there alongside dozens of people camped out in tents along Poplar Street.

“I felt kind of excited that here was this community of people,” said Luda. “I knew if anything happened I could yell or knock on somebody’s door.”

Luda liked the area and became friendly with a family there who worked in the military and lived in an RV with solar panels. But she was also concerned as she noticed some campers were leaving large piles of waste all around them and that some were doing and selling hard drugs.

Luda suspects that AS was trying to get people to leave the Poplar Street area as early as summer 2018. At that time she claims they regularly blasted music in the middle of the night. One might speculate that artists in AS played music just to enjoy it as they made art, but Luda disagrees. The type of music and manner in which it was played suggests disrespect and aggression. They didn’t pay songs, but loops of small abrasive sections of classical music.

“At one point they had a snippet from the William Tell Overture that looped at a very high volume,” said Luda. “It was a loop that was intended to be disruptive to anyone trying to sleep and I could hear it two blocks away.”

Luda claims the loud music made it difficult to sleep, traumatized, and angered people. She noticed one camper who seemed angry going out of his way to make an especially big mess around Poplar Street. His actions might have been the tipping point for AS.

Luda woke up to the sounds of tow trucks and forklifts on October 22nd, 2018. She claims a representative from AS asked everyone to leave as they dumped logs onto the street. The representative explained that when he confronted the man who was making the big mess, the man threatened him with a gun. While the people at AS were justifiably concerned about the situation, no homeless people I talked with said they tried to work out problems with them. They seem to have started with aggression.

Not all housed people in the Poplar Street area acted in the manner that AS's management did. Poplar street also borders Ralph J. Bunche Academy, a public continuation school and according to Miles Tunnard, a homeless person who used to stay in the area, school principal Betsye Steele expressed concern about the mess people were leaving but was also sympathetic and helpful.

“She told us that she was totally sympathetic to our problems and she wanted to know what she could do to help us,” Tunnard said. Tunnard agreed to do his best to keep the place clean and agreed to talk with Steele if she could help in any way.

I emailed Betsye Steele for her comment on the situation. But she never wrote back.

These days I see less than a dozen campers along Poplar Street. Much fewer people stay in the area near the AS building. Giant heavy logs still sit outside of the AS building on Poplar Street between 18th and 20th streets. The total number of logs keeps slightly changing as I suspect that, occasionally people move them and then AS replaces them. When I did my last count in early June, I counted 71 logs. They take up the vast majority of the parking spaces on the street making it impossible for anyone to park there.

Gary Rosenquist, a retired long term bay area resident who lives in an RV with his wife, used to camp outside of the AS building but now stays a few blocks away. Perhaps because he isn’t as sensitive to chemicals as Luda is, Rosenquist isn’t specifically frustrated that there’s much less space around the AS building to park in. But he’s still offended and angered by AS’s actions.

“The logs didn’t hamper me in any way. I can just go a few blocks down the road” said Rosenquist. “But it’s offensive. It serves the purpose of those who have money but it doesn’t benefit anybody else.”

Rosenquist also pointed out he thinks dumping the logs in the manner AS did and is doing is illegal. He might be right. California penal code 374.3 states that “it is unlawful to dump or cause to be dumped waste matter in or upon a public or private highway or road.” Could the logs be considered waste matter? If so, AS’s actions are illegal.

When I emailed Lynette Gibson McElhaney about the logs, the city council member responsible for district 3 in Oakland where the AS building sits, she claimed to have “no knowledge of this subject.”

It’s hard to believe that the city is unaware of the situation with the logs because signs on both sides of Poplar street warn residents to move their vehicles for weekly street sweeping. Since the city organizes street sweeping, they are at least turning a blind eye to the log situation on Poplar street.

Poplar street isn’t the only place where the logs are. In April I noticed a man with a tow truck placing logs out on the street along Willow Street between 20th Street and W Grand Ave in deep West Oakland. I noticed logs lined up in parking spaces in that area of Willow Street as well as logs lined up on 20th street, covering about two blocks between Wood Street and Campbell Street. The streets border a Lyft administrative building, an Audi storage center, and Raimondi Park.

When I talked with the tow truck driver he refused to give me his name but he told me that a small local company called Ponderosa Millworks was providing the logs to AS and other businesses and suggested I talk with Michael Veneziano, who owns the business. When I went by Ponderosa Millworks, Veneziano refused to talk with me on record. While inside the store, which sits about a block away from the AS building, I noticed heavy logs that looked similar to those used to block spots in the street.

Not all homeless people are against the logs and the way they are being used. Joseph Carney, who found a parking place for his RV between logs on 20th street now has almost the entire block to himself. The area used to be crowded and he’s much more comfortable since the logs arrived.

“The logs were a good idea because it keeps people from parking here,” said Carney. He expressed concern that a lot of homeless people parking near a public park where children play could be dangerous.

“One or two RVs is not a bad thing if you keep it clean,” he said. “But when you have a whole block full of derelicts it all gets dirty.”

Most homeless people I talked with are offended and angry about the logs and wish that concerned businesses and individuals would talk with them directly if they have a problem.

“Let’s work something out but don’t just throw logs in the street,” said homeless Oakland resident Jonas Armenta. “They don’t know what we’re going through.”

Post Script, three months later:

I wrote this story in June, but not much has changed since then. There are still logs outside of American Steel Studios preventing people from parking there, though a few more people have moved logs and carved out spaces for themselves to park. On August 7, 2019, The East Bay Times reported that Oakland’s Mayor, Libby Schaaf, would have to pay a fine and return 2,400$ in excess donations for accepting an illegal donation from 11 West Partners, who own American Steel Studios. The 11 West Partners donation was four times greater than the legal limit for an Oakland Mayoral campaign.

Post Script, five months later:

After the city of San Francisco faced backlash from activists for putting boulders on the street in Clinton Park to block homeless camping in September 2019, media attention towards blocking public space in the bay area erupted. It was in this context of heightened attention that posts on twitter and facebook began to go viral when, during the annual Life Is Living Festival in DeFremery Park, housed people complained about having trouble parking, that parking spaces they had parked in in previous years were now blocked off by giant logs.

KRON4 quickly ran a story quoting an anonymous resident who incorrectly claimed the logs had been there for “a few months.” In the same article, Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney claims “she noticed the logs but... didn’t know where they came from.” Yet when I emailed her about it in May, she claimed to be oblivious. The article concludes with Gibson addressing who she claims to be the mysterious assailant by saying, “Come in and talk to us. Let us understand what you’re trying to get at together and we can solve it together as a community.” She made no mention of illegal dumping.

Final notes:

A day after this article initially came out, Renee Green, who used to work out of American Steel Studios, told me that she’d heard the abrasive music and specifically the William Tell Overture snippet in the area for at least the last four years off and on. She said it didn’t come from American Steel Studios but, instead, from the Oakland Music Complex across the street. Other former and current American Steel Studios tenants approached me and wanted to clarify that the choice to put down the logs was purely a decision of the American Steel Studios management and that many tenants disagree with what they’re doing.
§Logs outside of American Steel Studios
by Zack Haber Wednesday Oct 16th, 2019 1:00 PM
Logs have also appeared along 20th street in West Oakland, near Raimondi Park and near the Lyft and Audi buildings.
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