‘Alice Street’ looks at Oakland’s cultural resistance to gentrification

Photo from "Alice Street" Documentary
Ayse Gursoz/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“Alice Street” opens on a hopeful note. Though it underscores the reality of Oakland, which has become “ground zero” for gentrification, the main focus is the city’s people and movements that unite them.

The documentary follows the creation of the mural “The Universal Language,” located at the intersection of 14th and Alice streets in Oakland. In the film, viewers are privy not only to the piece’s creation process, but also to Oakland’s greater culture, one rich with color, powered by resistance and united by diversity. 

Shuttling from scene to scene on a virtual BART ride, “Alice Street” reveals the life behind the stationary artwork. Viewers are transported from Oakland’s Chinatown to Hotel Oakland, where elderly performers are practicing their vocal warmups. Then, it’s off to the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts to hear the beats of African drums and intricate dance shows members put on. 

The film found its strongest moments in capturing the creation process: Lead muralist Desi Mundo took what initially was the street’s vandalism problem and flipped it into a moment of authentic representation. Along with fellow artist Pancho Pescador, Mundo sat through meetings with the performers from Hotel Oakland and the Malonga Center, fielding criticism and constantly changing the piece until all groups were completely satisfied by what they saw. 

“Alice Street” relies heavily on community voices to weave together individual and communal histories for the audience. Viewers get a crash course in the history of Oakland’s Chinatown from interviews with residents, while members of the Malonga Center explain their culture and how they returned to Oakland’s roots of resistance. When then-Mayor Jerry Brown threatened to shutter their doors, they danced their way to City Hall in protest. 

When the mural is finished, everything seems picturesque. “Alice Street” shows a glimpse of the celebration, a block party where the roaring and vibrant communities intertwined. For a moment, it feels too good to be true, even with the convincing smiles and uplifting music. 

Then, everything in the film becomes overwhelmingly gray — gray buildings and gray suits. Viewers are clued in to the fact that a condominium in process would, once finished, completely cover up the mural. 

The film quickly cuts to developers explaining how the outside world’s “interest” in living in Oakland has grown. The details of various meetings and contractual hoops Mundo has to jump through are long-winded and a little dull, but effective. In the first part of the film, the mural begins to take a life of its own in uniting communities of color, and then, the momentum cracks. 

After a series of interviews, all with people of color discussing the impact of the mural, we hear from a naysayer: a woman referred to as “Jane Doe,” who, to the tune of an uppity orchestra arrangement, details her extensive letter-writing campaign to complain about the fact the mural “excluded” white people. 

At a commission meeting to decide the fate of the condominium complex, entire communities stand together to protest its completion — testimonies are heard, statistics about San Francisco’s housing crisis brought up. The woman opposing the mural seems like a lone wolf at the podium, few supporters by her side, but at the end of the day, only her perspective is heard.

In the bleakest point of the film, we see Mundo’s final moments with his creation, quietly watching as “The Universal Language” is prepped to be hidden behind a parking structure. He appears sad, but not quite ready to give up. Director Spencer Wilkinson doesn’t let the viewer dwell on the setbacks for long: The screen quickly fades to black, with a reminder popping up that explains how the building’s developers will be funding another mural. 

“Alice Street” excels because of its focus on communities of color, giving them the space to build the film’s narrative. It’s a snappy documentary, easily going through the mural’s birth and demise in only about an hour. Still, it makes a bold statement about the city’s problems, one that goes far beyond the borders of just the Bay Area: The realities of people of color are merely blips in the bureaucratic process. 

Art has become power, according to Alice Street’s residents. But as the film deftly explains, it’s just not a concept that sells well. 

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kellithnguyen.