In 2013 the Black Panther traffic light at Market and 55th streets was updated with a new pole, crosswalk buttons, and light fixtures. Uploading the change to Flickr from his smartphone, Eric Fischer asked “is it still actually ‘this stoplight’?” But “Is this still the same place?” might be a better question for Fischer to ask considering the almost 50 years that have gone by.
The story goes that in response to numerous traffic fatalities of and injuries to children outside Santa Fe Elementary School—a historically “black” public school in a historically unsafe neighborhood—the Black Panther Party and the Anti-Poverty Center demanded the city install a traffic control device. After being told by the Oakland City Council in June 1967 that such an installment could not take place until the end of 1968, the BPP took matters into their own hands. Some armed members of the Party escorted children across the street before and after school until the light was installed more quickly than expected on August 1, 1967.
For the city to update the light pole in 2013 suggests that there is now a locally-recognized need for such a safety device. No local groups had to rally for the change this time around. But is this a result of changed attitudes toward lower-income and minority neighborhoods? A glance at current demographics of the Santa Fe neighborhood compared to the city at large suggests that this is not the same place it was in 1967. Despite still being lower income than Oakland’s average with a 48% black demographic, housing values are steadily climbing above median and now11% more students than the city average graduate from high school. AreaVibes.com ranks the area above average for Oakland neighborhoods and StatisticalAtlas.com suggests that more young, white families are moving in each year. The gentrification buzz phrase “up and coming” haunts this area. In fact, Santa Fe Elementary has closed and realtors boast about significant community development in the last five years. Santa Fe is fast losing its status as the type of neighborhood the BPP would have helped in its active years.
So where is today’s equivalent to the 55th and Market of 1967? A drive straight south on Market Street to 10th will take you the northern boundary of the Acorn Industrial neighborhood which—according to the same analytical tools as above—is staying poor and staying predominantly black. Crime analysis by NeighborhoodScout.com suggests that the northeastern portion of this neighborhood is one of the worst areas for crime in the City of Oakland compared to Santa Fe which is much safer at least by comparison. And Acorn is not the only of its kind. Crime analysis maps via the OPD and other third party websites will show similar statistics in pockets around the city. Like the BPP of the Civil Rights Era, #BlackLivesMatter activists and Occupy Oakland activists have been striving to make streets safer for people of color with emphasis on these poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods. Both causes push for community development projects that will not push out low-income and minority families but instead provide a safer, affordable neighborhoods for them to live.
It is easy to feel good about the BPP’s efforts commemorated here at 55th and Market but similar needs still exist across Oakland 50 years later.