Locals rally to help neighbor keep third-generation home

Mark and crew
Mark Lasartemay (center) and his crew of helpers. Photo: Phyllis Oyama

By Elisse Gabriel

Please see the bottom of this story for updates.

‘Tis the season for goodwill towards men, and especially those in need. Like many of us caught in the crossfire of the recession, Mark Lasartemay never anticipated he would be among the needy. In fact, he has always been on the giving end of the equation — mowing neighbors’ lawns for free in his youth, coaching wrestling at Berkeley High pro bono for more than a decade, and tending to his ailing grandparents in their final years while working full-time.

After graduating from UC Davis in Environmental Toxicology, Mark landed a job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He worked there for 26 years, saving enough to pay for a long-awaited renovation of his grandparents’ home at 1399 Hearst Ave, which had originally been purchased in 1929 as a gift from his great grandparents for his grandparents. Mark’s grandparents, Ruth Hackett and Eugene Lasartemay, were one of the first African-American family to own a home in this part of Berkeley, a historic breakthrough following the racially restrictive housing covenants of the time.


Home before
Mark Lasartemay’s original house at 1399 Hearst St. Photo: Mark Lasartemay

Mark spent most of his childhood with his grandparents, who were not only wonderful neighbors, but also prominent figures in Berkeley during the Civil Rights movement. They were charter members of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP and co-founded the East Bay Negro Society (later renamed the Northern California Center for Afro-American History & Life), whose artifacts are now housed at the African American Museum & Library in Oakland. In the basement of their house, Mark’s grandparents also founded The Church of the Good Shepard, which is now located in Oakland.

For Mark, the house on Hearst Street is more than a home; it represents his family heritage, and is where he learned the values he carries inside him to this day.

“My grandparents were the most intelligent, righteous and committed individuals I have ever known, and I am eternally grateful to have had them in my life for so many years,” said Mark. “They taught me the true meaning of perseverance and tenacity. They were dedicated to making a difference and leading by example.”

In 2009, when the time came to update the century-old home, Mark did his due diligence, researching contractors and visiting homes that reflected the quality of their work. Unfortunately, the reputable contractor Mark entrusted ended up not only abandoning the job just after the house had been nearly torn down, he also left with Mark’s life savings and then some. The house, once a charming addition to the neighborhood, was now a plywood shell that began to deteriorate as months then years went by without funding to rebuild. Mark was devastated, both emotionally and financially.

One might expect neighbors to add to Mark’s grief by complaining about the tarp-covered eyesore. And some did. However, those who know Mark have stepped on board to help, which is a testament to his character.

“Mark is someone I trusted and felt compassion for immediately,” said Phyllis Oyama, a Hearst Street neighbor and co-owner of Songtone, a Berkeley-based performing arts and record production company she runs with her husband, Lee Townsend. “I have been moved by Mark’s great integrity and desire to hang onto the property of his grandparents, whom he loved so deeply and respected so much. Upon learning about his horrific tale as well as his inspiring family history, my first instinct was to help him.”

Home of holidays 1
Mark Lasartemay’s house under construction. Photo: Mark Lasartemay

Mark Brilliant, a history professor at UC Berkeley who lives across the street from Mark, has also come forward to lend support. “My family and I would like nothing more than to see [him] emerge from the storm [he’s] weathered to become the third generation Lasartemay to occupy 1399 Hearst,” he said.

Mary Dell Magoon, owner of Ledger’s around the block, and a former classmate of Mark’s father, Valdez, wrote: “I have come to know you these past 10 years and can only say ‘the acorn does not fall far from the tree.’ You are definitely one of Berkeley’s finest and intent on preserving a great heritage…”

And Amy Tanouye, a former colleague at the Lawrence Lab, also speaks to Mark’s admirable character, describing him as “dependable, conscientious, personable and knowledgeable…As a friend he is always there to lend a helping hand when I’ve needed him,” she said.

Despite a court ruling in his favor, Mark is still awaiting repayment by his contractor, though he realizes this may never happen. However, with minimal compensation and the help of a team of close friends, Mark has once again begun to rebuild his family home. With the winter rains already coming down, however, Mark is all too aware that time is of the essence. He must finish the exterior to ensure that all the work he and his crew have recently completed is preserved. But funds are sorely needed.

Mark’s hope is to gain $50,000 in aid to accomplish this task. With your help, he can make this happen. Funding efforts will be raised through YouCaring.com, a nonprofit fundraising source dedicated to those in need. Unlike other crowd-funding sites, all donations go directly to the recipient.

More than just a house, 1399 Hearst St. has brought together three generations of Lasartemays, devout Baptists, Civil Rights activists, cultural historians, and now, supportive neighbors who have united on Mark’s behalf. With donations from YouCaring.com, Mark’s efforts towards restoring his family home is a dream we can all help make a reality, just in time for Christmas.

To make a donation to Mark’s house visit the dedicated YouCaring.com page.

Update/Clarifications, 12.30.14

After questions were raised by readers in the Comments section, Berkeleyside asked the author of this article to provide some supplementary information. Here are Elisse Gabriel ‘s responses:

How could a contractor take Mark’s life savings?

The bid on the cost of renovating the house was greater than what Mark and his wife had at the time, so the contractors (a husband-and-wife team) offered to give them a loan to complete the project. However, this offer was contingent upon Mark and his wife giving him all they had, which included borrowing from the value of the house itself. As a result, they lost $330,000. Mark has legal documentation for this in both federal and civil courts, as he went to trial over this and won the case. Despite the court ruling in his favor, the contractors still owe Mark the majority of the money.

Is Mark renovating the house or redoing it?

He did initially plan to raise the house and renovate, though “renovate” in this case included tearing down about 80% of the house and retaining the rest. He did obtain city permits for everything. However, after weathering for five years (following the contractor’s disappearance), the house was so run down that the city required Mark to hire a structural engineer (costing him $10,000), resulting in his needing to rebuild once again. “Instead of going forward, I had to go backwards,” Mark says.

Did Mark get any of the money from a house sold at 1814 Grand St. in Alameda?

Mark did get his share from the house sold in Alameda ($100,000). However, $70,000 immediately went back into the house on Hearst Street, which was left solely to him, since he had taken care of his grandparents for all those years. The remainder went to paying the mortgage on the Hearst Street house, his $1,100/month rent, and other expenses. At this juncture, he is nearly broke.

Is Mark working now?

As of the spring of 2014, Mark retired from his job at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory after working there for 26 years. He still earns $2,000/month from the LBL via his retirement. However, he plans to seek full-time employment as soon as he can get the windows, doors and stucco completed on the outside of the house; hence his desire to raise these much-needed funds. For now, he’s acting as contractor on his family’s home, which has become an all-consuming project.

Who is the writer Elisse Gabriel?

Elisse Gabriel is a freelance writer and editor, a Berkeley resident and friend of Phyllis Oyama, a neighbor of Mark’s who came up with the idea to help raise funds and tell his story. (Note: Mark never asked for any of this — his neighbors simply rallied around him to help, as have his former work colleagues, who are helping to rebuild his house). Phyllis asked if I would write Mark’s story and I agreed. I met with Mark several times and also integrated letters from respected colleagues and neighbors, all of whom speak to Mark’s integrity, honesty and character. I wrote the article pro bono and am not affiliated with any fundraising or marketing organizations, nor did I have any underlying motive in writing this article other than to help a person in need.

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