Artists start work on 6-story mural to replace a lost ode to Oakland culture

Over the next several weeks, the Community Rejuvenation Project will paint an ambitious mural on the west-facing wall of the Greenlining Institute’s downtown Oakland headquarters. Anyone who wants to watch the artists sketch the grid, and daringly paint from a swing stage that will dangle from the six-story building’s rooftop, can stop by from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days.

It’s a rare opportunity to witness CRP, probably the city’s most prolific creator of murals, in action.

“It’s 90 feet tall,” said Desi Mundo of the Community Rejuvenation Project about the wall. “It’s a monstrosity in terms of height.” 

The new painting replaces the “Universal Language” mural, which was created in 2014 on the walls of two buildings at the corner of 14th and Alice streets. Universal Language was an homage to Oakland’s rich culture and history. It depicted culture keepers from the city’s diverse communities and occupied a crossroads space on the edge of Chinatown and across the street from the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, along one of the main thoroughfares connecting downtown to Lake Merritt and East Oakland. 

“We had this romantic theory that this would be a mural to combat gentrification,” said Mundo about the Universal Language mural. “People would see it and think differently about how they move in the community, because we knew people were coming.”

The city paid for half the Universal Language mural’s costs, about $40,000, using public arts funding that CRP and other groups successfully campaigned for in 2013 after the Oakland City Council passed an anti-graffiti ordinance. The massive walls had been a frequent target of taggers, and public officials figured a mural would prevent vandalism while beautifying the neighborhood.

But, shortly after the ribbon cutting for Universal Language, it was announced that a new apartment tower would go up in the parking lot in front of the walls, effectively erasing the painting in a stinging moment that embodied the gentrifying collision of old and new Oakland.

Mundo said the new mural on the Greenlining building is funded in part by a community benefit contribution made by Bay Development, the real estate company whose tower is blocking the old Alice Street wall.

The new painting depicts some of the culture-makers who appeared in the original mural, along with new subjects and themes, including a few scenes of the protest movement that sprang up in 2015 to resist the erasure of the mural on Alice Street.

This might be the most intricate mural Mundo has worked on. He called it “beyond complex” because of the building’s height and detail of the art. Helping Mundo are three other artists: Dave Young Kim, Marina Wong and Rachel Wolfe.

Mundo told us that because the canvas for this mural will be one side of the headquarters of the Greenlining Institute — an organization founded to combat racist redlining and economic marginalization — the painting will feature a red line woven among train tracks to symbolize Oakland’s early years as a railroad terminus, and the exploitation and exclusion of Black, Chinese, and other people of color who built California. 

“As Oakland fights to maintain its identity in the face of gentrification and economic inequality, we hope this mural will not only add beauty to our city, but will also be a source of connection to the history and soul of Oakland,” Greenlining Institute President Debra Gore-Mann said in a statement.

Redlining was a practice used by banks and the real estate industry to enforce residential racial segregation and to determine who could receive mortgage loans, which steered valuable public investments into white neighborhoods while starving Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods of similar improvements. (Reveal, an investigative reporting outlet based in Emeryville, recently looked into the ongoing problem of “modern-day redlining.”)

Prominent leaders from Bay Area indigenous communities, including Corrina Gould, will appear in the new mural to remind us that these are still native lands. 

The new mural’s themes of resistance will blend into images of celebration, and the red line gives way to a bright green ribbon that spirals upward and weaves like a vine through dancers and musicians. A full description is available on CRP’s website.

Mundo said the new mural embodies Oakland’s ability to do more than just survive gentrification and displacement — it can also thrive and create.

“The conversation for this piece went beyond just resiliency,” said Mundo, describing outreach and listening sessions his team conducted. “It was about ascendance, about people reaching their maximum potential and not just surviving, but coming out of struggle with something bigger and better, and reaching the full potential of our humanity.”

Darwin BondGraham is news editor of The Oaklandside. Email: darwin@berkeleyside.com.