The East Bay Express

Caffe Nonna on the corner of Bancroft Avenue.

Caffe Nonna on the corner of Bancroft Avenue.

Few people, if any, refer to the crossroads of Bancroft and Fairfax Avenues in East Oakland as the Bancroft-Fairfax Business District—and yet, there’s a sign at the intersection designating it as such.  Most people know it by one of its older names, like Antique Row or Antique Alley, even though the last antique shop closed down about two decades ago.  Since then, the district has struggled to reinvent itself.  In the early 2000’s, hair salons and barbershops were the main industry and the rest of the neighborhood was pocked with empty storefronts.

Fast-forward to today, and these dark ages are but a distant memory. The Bancroft Fairfax Business District is experiencing a comeback as a shopping destination. The economy is thriving and nary a storefront is vacant. In the last year, six new businesses, among them a clothing store, a café, a coffee shop and tattoo parlor, have opened and the neighborhood’s first-ever Merchant’s Watch Association was formed. A skincare salon is slated to open this summer, and plans for a parking lot, fitness center, and multi-unit live/work space are underway. The neighborhood still has a ways to go, but the future is starting to look much brighter.

“This neighborhood is up and stepping,” said Martin Trahan, Jr., who’s owned a barbershop in the area for 10 years. “Now you’ve got all types of things you can do over here because they’ve added variety to the whole block.”

The Bancroft-Fairfax district was originally built on hope. When realtor Charles P. Eggleston moved to the neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, commercial development had not yet spread north of East 14th Street (now International Boulevard). Eggleston believed the area was  “ ‘the logical point in the East-of-the-Lake section for a thriving suburban trading center,’ ” so he funded the construction of multiple storefronts along Fairfax Avenue in the hopes of attracting future businesses. The eponymous Eggleston building located on the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue was his masterpiece and it still stands today. Within a few years, real estate in the neighborhood increased seven-fold and by the time the Fairfax Theatre opened in 1926, Eggleston’s vision “of a business block” was complete.

Almost a century later, it is hope—again—that has led to the neighborhood’s revitalization. The first new business, Just Because Boutique, opened in November, followed by a tattoo shop called La Maison House of Tattoos. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about this area from the past,” said clothing storeowner, Tammy Rhymes. “And I think everyone kind of has the same vision to revitalize this area.”  By spring, the first coffee shop (Caffe Nonna) had opened, followed by a café (Kafé Kolao), a Reggae- and African-novelty shop (Sundiata), and a youth music studio for the Oakland Leadership Center. The former Antique Row is no longer homogenous and now boasts a variety of industries, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the area for decades.

The low rents are one reason for the district’s sudden growth. As development creeps further into East Oakland, neighborhoods east of High Street have become increasingly more appealing to business owners. With time, they hope the area will become the East’s next shopping destination and prosper in a way that businesses before them never did. Sandra Bradford, the owner of Caffe Nonna, had originally planned to open her shop in the Laurel, but chose her current location on the corner of Bancroft because she felt it had more potential. “There’s a shift over here that’s getting ready to take place,” she said.  “Somehow, somewhere, someone is putting out a bigger picture and people are getting it.”

But the lower overhead comes at a price. It’s harder to generate business in low-income neighborhoods. “It’s a long-term investment,” said Bilal Sabir, the owner of Delightful Foods, which has been located in the area for over 20 years. “You’ve got to hustle to get your customers and build up your clientele. And a lot of people fail, especially up and down Fairfax.”

New businesses, Kafe Kalao and Just Because Boutique, on Fairfax Avenue.

New businesses, Kafe Kalao and Just Because Boutique, on Fairfax Avenue.

Hoping to reverse this trend, business owners have turned to advertising and improved signage as a way of attracting more customers. Rhymes has installed mannequins dressed in sundresses and mini skirts on either end of Fairfax Avenue to bring attention to her boutique. Other business owners have erected 20-foot tall canvas banners in front of their stores, advertising everything from haircuts to sandwiches and smoothies. The banners are gaudy and garish and do little to improve the image of the area, but they do the trick. Foot traffic is higher than its ever been and a lot of customers, merchants say, are first-time visitors to the neighborhood.

Also hard to miss are the blue and white Merchant Watch Association signs that hang in storefront windows and on poles on the sidewalk. Residents and merchants have always had a good rapport. They warn one another when they see the parking enforcement officer and once, about five years ago, helped collectively catch two purse-snatchers who robbed a business owner’s wife on the street corner. “This is an intersection where people know each other and look out for each other,” said resident Katch Keating who played a central role in forming the group. “But I don’t think we came together just for that. We came together for a lot of reasons, and part of it was trying to effect more positive change.”

So far, the group has put together a database of contact information for the neighborhood and held public meetings that have had police officers in attendance. But their biggest accomplishment, to date, has been convincing every business owner in the area to purchase and display a sign announcing the existence of the neighborhood watch. Since the watch group’s creation, there have been no burglaries and, on the occasions when the police have been called, they seem to arrive faster than they did in the past, merchants said.  “There’s less crime because we’ve been more alert and more active,” said Watts who has watched the neighborhood change since she opened her store in January. “I see older women and men now, when I didn’t before, taking their morning walks [and] residential people taking their money to local businesses.”

The recent changes have also spurred discussions about other things in the community that people think should be improved upon. At the top of the list are a security patrol for the neighborhood and security cameras on sidewalks and at intersections where drivers have a tendency to speed or pull dangerous stunts, like 360-degree “doughnut” turns. Improved street lighting and speed bumps for Bancroft Avenue and Foothill Boulevard have also been mentioned, and many store owners long for a future when they can remove the bars from their window and unlock their doors during business hours.

“I want my customers to feel safe,” said Watts, who threw a BBQ for the neighborhood after opening her tattoo shop, “and be able to walk down the street comfortably and freely.”

As business has picked up, parking, which was scarce to begin with, has worsened. Merchants worry that the combination of scant parking spaces and overly diligent parking enforcement officers will detract customers and be a death knell for the district.

But the community is hopeful that they’ve found a solution. For the first time in years, an enclosed lot on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Foothill Boulevard is for sale. The lot’s previous owner had refused to sell during his lifetime, but as luck would have it, his widow feels differently. If the community can convince an investor to purchase the lot, this could be the neighborhood’s answer to the parking problem, and even a means of attracting more business.

“This area is growing for the better,” said Watts. “And we can’t just let it sit there.”