By the time Richie Smith was 13, she was used to being told to enter through the back door of a restaurant. So when her family moved from Oklahoma to South Berkeley in 1949, Smith was amazed by the vibrant Black community she found.
People from all around would come to walk up and down the Adeline Street Corridor, the street that runs through the center of South Berkeley, Smith said. She remembers all the Black businesses — beauty shops, dry cleaners, real estate offices, a jewelry store and a theater — that held the community together.
Sixty-eight years later, that community is gone. The Black beauty shops, cleaners, theater and realtors are mostly all closed. In their place, there are coffee shops and yoga studios. Smith said the new business owners don’t care about how clean the sidewalk is. And when she walks by new residents, she said, they don’t wave, they don’t smile — they look away or straight ahead.
“It feels very unsettling. You can feel the feeling of pushing out,” Smith said. “People that move into the community … they look past you, a human being.”
This change in the neighborhood’s character is a common observation of the longtime residents of South Berkeley. Smith is part of a generation that witnessed the shift away from the Black neighborhood that South Berkeley once was. According to the Bay Area Census, between 1940 and 1970, the Black population increased from 4 percent to a peak of 23.5 percent. But the population had decreased to 10 percent by 2010.
A group of residents known as the Friends of Adeline see the corridor’s rising housing costs, combined with its dwindling diversity, as a sign of gentrification in the area. As South Berkeley sees more development, the group has called for affordable housing and more resources for longtime residents. Gentrification has pervaded throughout the Bay Area at large, but the Friends of Adeline consider it an imminent threat to South Berkeley’s heritage.
The group makes it a point to keep track of Berkeley City Council meetings and attend the ones that concern South Berkeley. A contentious development by Realtex on 2902 Adeline St. has been debated by the developer and the Friends of Adeline for more than a year now.
The proposed building will neighbor an affordable-housing community, Harriet Tubman Terrace in South Berkeley. To the Friends of Adeline, the biggest concern with the 2902 Adeline St. development is how many on-site affordable housing units it will contain. City Council will consider appeals to the project Tuesday.
“I’m a senior citizen. There’s a lot of us that are on fixed income,” Smith said. “We won’t be able to live in any of these places.”
An unfamiliar neighborhood
Smith, 82, attends as many Friends of Adeline and City Council meetings as she can. As long as her health permits, she is committed to fighting for affordable housing. Smith has lived in the same apartment with a Section 8 voucher for the past 30 years.
She loves South Berkeley, but her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren cannot afford to live in the place she has called home for the majority of her life.
“What is market rate now? You have to get up on a ladder … to see it,” Smith said. “It’s not a positive that you have residents that were born here, educated here and, at this time, they can’t afford to live here.”
When Willie Phillips moved to the area in 1955, he recalled, almost all of his neighbors were Black. There was Anne from across the street and Mr. Hennison, the porter.
During the Great Migration of African Americans to the West, South Berkeley was populated by Black people fleeing the South — many of whom found blue-collar jobs as longshoremen or porters, according to Phillips.
South Berkeley emerged as a Black community because of residential segregation, a process known as “redlining,” with Martin Luther King Jr. Way serving as one of the boundaries that divided Black communities from the eastern portions of the city.
“What is market rate now? You have to get up on a ladder … to see it. … It’s not a positive that you have residents that were born here, educated here and, at this time, they can’t afford to live here.”
— Richie Smith, South Berkeley resident
Malo Hutson, campus associate professor of city and regional planning, said many communities of color formed out of discriminatory housing practices. Now, the property is cheaper, attracting more development and, in turn, leading to surges in rent costs.
After 1970, Black families began to move out of the area as they struggled to pay off their home mortgages or keep up with rising rent costs.
“I feel out of place sometimes in the very neighborhood that I grew up in. I feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood,” Phillips said. “And I’m not disqualifying the very fact that some of my neighbors are wonderful people, but it is very different than the neighborhood I grew up in.”
A long time coming
Hutson said this history of segregation and city disinvestment in South Berkeley is part of a larger trend of discriminatory housing practices across the country.
Redlining has roots in the 1930s as a guide for home-lending practices. Government loaning agencies would rate neighborhoods as blue, green, yellow or red based on various factors that determined the desirability of granting loans to people from that area. Green and blue ratings indicated that certain neighborhoods were better for investment, whereas yellow and red ratings marked others neighborhood as risky for investment.
“I feel out of place sometimes in the very neighborhood that I grew up in. I feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood.”
— Willie Phillips, South Berkeley resident
Black neighborhoods were typically marked as red, or “redlined,” because of discriminatory housing policy, so private banks denied loans to Black residents, causing the price of land in the area to decline, according to Hutson. For years, Smith said, the city did not pay much attention to South Berkeley because it is a historically Black neighborhood.
Now, Phillips said, he believes that South Berkeley is viewed as a goldmine for development. Hutson said because developers are looking to buy cheaper property and rent it out for higher prices, longtime residents are displaced because they cannot afford market-rate rent.
“South Berkeley has always been low on the totem pole because it was mostly people of color. (The city) didn’t clean up, they didn’t take care or service the area as well as they did areas above Dwight Way,” Smith said. “But now that Caucasians (are) moving in, they plan to upgrade, rebuild and change things. And we’ve been asking for change all along.”
Hutson also explained that with more investment and newer residents, the community begins to change. The mom and pop shops close down, and organic coffee shops longtime residents cannot afford crop up.
In a nationwide WalletHub study from 2016, Berkeley tied for last place in home affordability. City Council members and the mayor have accepted that displacement is a problem in the city and are working to address the housing crisis in Berkeley.
Katy Guimond originally moved to South Berkeley to attend UC Berkeley and is now fighting for affordable housing in the area, but she acknowledges her own status as an “early gentrifier.” As a member of the Friends of Adeline, she expressed that preserving South Berkeley’s historic diversity should be a top priority for the city.
District 3 Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, made finding a solution to Berkeley’s housing shortage one of the two major goals of his campaign. The other was bringing back respect to the residents in the area.
“Displacement isn’t just in a vacuum. … It’s part of a larger trend towards disenfranchisement, disinvestment and dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color,” Bartlett said. “It’s a return to the American tradition of adroit racism.”
“Displacement isn’t just in a vacuum. … It’s a return to the American tradition of adroit racism.”
— District 3 Councilmember Ben Bartlett
Though the local government accepts that something needs to change to address the housing shortage, the city’s initiatives in South Berkeley have still worried some about the potential for displacement of longtime residents.
One such initiative is the city’s new Adeline Corridor Specific Planning Process, which attempts to revitalize the Adeline Street Corridor. The process, spearheaded by former council member Max Anderson and former mayor Tom Bates, aims to draft a plan for the South Berkeley area. Potential changes for the plan include new housing and commercial development, which have raised concerns of gentrification among the community.
Principal planner of the process Alisa Shen said after receiving feedback from the community, those overseeing the process developed five main areas of concern for the plan, including safety, accessibility and affordable housing.
Shen said the process has paused while the city looks for a consultant to help draft the plan with consideration of this community feedback. From there, she added, the plan should be finished within 15 to 18 months.
Lorin Business Association, or LBA, President Heather Haxo Phillips, who owns Adeline Yoga Studio in South Berkeley, said the Adeline Corridor Specific Planning Process offers a glimpse of hope in addressing the regional problems with gentrification.
“The residents’ concerns are about affordable housing, but my concern is improving the economic vitality of the commercial district,” Heather Haxo Phillips said. “The residents do have their concerns, and the business owners have their concerns. (The plan) really depends on so many people who don’t live in the neighborhood.”
She explained that LBA has been largely involved in providing feedback for the economic development component of the plan. The association said a part of this plan aims to attract and support Black-owned business.
Smith said she has been deeply involved with the Adeline Corridor Specific Planning Process but that she has little faith that the plan itself will be implemented once it’s created, calling it a “grandiose show.”
For the plan to prioritize the community’s needs, Hutson said, there must be enough affordable housing for all income levels. He added that similar redevelopment plans in other areas have invested a lot into the community, but they have failed to deliver on affordable housing.
Shen said the plan can outline the community’s goals but cannot legally require on-site affordable housing in private developers’ current proposals, as stipulated by the 2009 Palmer Decision, which prohibited California cities from requiring builders to provide affordable housing units.
In response to the Palmer Decision, however, the city of Berkeley gave developers an option to either provide 20 percent of market-rate units as affordable on-site units or pay a mitigation fee to the housing trust fund, as stated in Berkeley Municipal Code 22.20.065.
“This plan is committed to looking at everything that we can do to address this concern about the lack of affordable housing and gentrification,” Shen said. “But I think that we have to be clear about what a specific plan can do versus what needs to be addressed at a citywide level.”
The fight for Adeline
In the case of Realtex’s proposed development on Adeline Street, the Friends of Adeline have been fighting for 10 on-site affordable housing units, or 20 percent of the 50 units in the building. They want to maximize the amount of affordable housing units instead of having the developer pay the mitigation fee.
But Realtex Executive Vice President Cody Fornari explained that he had concerns about the economic feasibility of the project if the company were to include this number of affordable housing units.
“If we don’t maintain financial feasibilities, ultimately, no units get built,” Fornari previously said.
Hutson said building more housing is necessary to diminish demand and lower prices across the board. But he added that the new housing should have a combination of market-rate, moderate-income and low-income housing units.
During a City Council meeting March 7, Fornari offered to provide eight on-site affordable housing units in the 2902 Adeline St. development instead and pay a $64,000 fee. He also agreed to pay $100,000 to the East Bay Community Law Center and set up regular meetings with Harriet Tubman Terrace.
But the Friends of Adeline are insistent that 10 affordable on-site units is the bare minimum for this private development in the community. In the past two months, the group has gone to meeting after meeting, and it will be there Tuesday night, when the development will be discussed again.
Despite frustration with the process and the shrinking Black population, Smith is determined to continually work to improve her neighborhood.
“That’s my neighborhood. I live there. That’s a part of me. … As long as life lasts, the fight goes on.”
— Richie Smith, South Berkeley resident
She attended a Friends of Adeline meeting April 3. She made it to the City Council regular meeting April 4. And on April 5, she stayed up until midnight planting flowers outside her building. If Downtown Berkeley has flowers, she said, then South Berkeley should have flowers. Once, she walked up and down Adeline Street, cleaning up her neighborhood and filling up six bags with empty whiskey bottles, beer cans and other litter. Most of the Black businesses she remembers have closed, and the new business owners don’t care about what lies outside their buildings, Smith said.
The change that South Berkeley has seen since 1949 has left Smith disenchanted, but she is committed to her neighborhood’s future.
“That’s my neighborhood. I live there. That’s a part of me,” Smith said. “As long as life lasts, the fight goes on.”