The canvas is black. Made up of three, old condemned buildings totaling 22 three-bedroom units at 77th and Bancroft in East Oakland. The artwork incorporates spoken word, or “Writings on the Wall,” sculptures, paintings, graffiti art, and photographs. I didn’t know what to expect from the Brighter than Blight art exhibition. Jarrel Phillips, AVE founder, explained to me that the space was once the site of former notorious projects, “Green Side” apartments, that have long been abandoned. I just came along for the ride. And before I knew it, I found myself caught up in this life-size and life symbolic artistry. For the last two weekends, the site was transformed into a major public art installation that gave back to the people and community of East Oakland. It was a vision by hip hop, spoken word artist and emcee Ise Lyfe. Lyfe chose to acknowledge all those who survived and thrived at the Green Side apartments. Like Lauryn Hill wrote, “develop a negative into a positive picture.”
“The social justice conversation is usually around sexuality, voting, healthcare, agriculture, etc., but we tend to get away from the basics rights of food, shelter and clothing,” says Ise Lyfe. “It’s crazy that people have to live like this.”
It took about four months to create the Brighter than Blight exhibit. It closed its doors, Sunday, June 30th. Some pieces will stay at the site, while others will be a part of ongoing exhibit that collects stories throughout Oakland.
The building will soon be demolished. And after, the California Affordable Housing Initiatives (CAHI), and the Oakland Housing Authority will work together to create a urban farm in its place, according to oaklandlocal.com.
As a mere spectator, I was able to reflect and connect with each piece of imagery. I even took part in the exhibit myself the moment I picked up a marker and wrote something on the wall in honor of my grandmother, alongside hundreds of other grandma reflections, in “Big Mama’s House.”
Having been San Francisco bred, San Francisco needs something like this too. Something all-inclusive, that empowers its blighted communities. Change the world, but reach the hood first.
Thanks Ise for sharing your vision and igniting the flame.
An Excerpt From the Program:
Brighter than Blight is an exhibition that transforms a discontinued former housing site, with a dual history and reputation of positive togetherness and violence, into a life-size symbol of accountability, community storytelling, resilience and commitment to a better future. The goal of the project is to equip our community with a visual teaching tool and to affirm the power of voice and engagement.
In 1970, the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) built three buildings totaling 22 three-bedroom units, at the 77th and Bancroft site. The development was part of a four year plan to decentralize public housing sites and integrate affordable housing within existing Oakland neighborhoods to allow households of varying socio-economic backgrounds to live within close proximity. The idea was to eliminate the “densely populated, low-income, housing project” model of public housing and enable lower income families to be surrounded and uplifted by a more economically stable community. However, because of crime, drugs and police activity, in addition the chronic problem of underfunding from HUD, maintenance was continually deferred and the site was ultimately added to the list of “blighted” properties.
In 2003, as part of a strategic planning initiative, “Green Side” affectionately named after a tenant suggested the name in response to one of the sides of the building being painted green, was closed and the few families who were living there at the time were relocated to other OHA properties.
Brighter than Blight reveals the story of some of those Green Side families and thousands more across the country who share a similar history. As we look back on what public housing has been and imagine what it could be, we view Brighter than Blight through a lens of our own choosing. Brighter than Blight is about the community — the Mothers, Fathers, Big Momma’s, Uncles, Aunties, Sons and Daughters — who have shared the experience of living in public housing. When the art project was conceived, the artist, Ise Lyfe knew the personal stories of public housing residents would be integral to conveying the complexity of life in East Oakland. When grappling with the idea of having docents, individuals who could give voice to the art, the idea of bringing youth into the center of the exhibit came full circle. The youth docents and parent ambassadors you meet today are here as a result of a deliberate plan to employ neighborhood children and adult leaders from CAHI and OHA communities.
For more information, visit: brighterthanblight.tumblr.com. Brighter Than Blight is a multi-media public art project funded by California Affordable Housing Initiatives with the cooperation of the Oakland Housing Authority, City Coucilmember Desley Brooks and presented by interdisciplinary artist Ise Lyfe.