Community leaders and business owners have teamed up with the city of Oakland to revive the Laurel district, making it a more vibrant shopping district and a public space for the community.Along with a new streetscape as part of a $2.5 million city-wide project, many businesses are taking advantage of the city’s façade improvement program, which grants money to small businesses for painting and general upkeep of storefronts.
The district, which runs along MacArthur Blvd. from High Street to 35th Avenue, now features new arches over the boulevard, marking each end of the strip and welcoming visitors inside. Green park benches have been placed along the street, more streetlights installed, and sidewalks at crossing areas are being widened as well.
“I love to walk around [the Laurel],” said sophomore Liz Hoover, “I forget there are so many cool, little shops and restaurants… but [aside from shopping and eating] it’s becoming more of a place to chill.”
Councilmember Jean Quan told The Montclarion last year that she hopes to bring together the area’s Chinese and Latino/a residents with the rest of the community, and to revamp it into a “Rockridge with an ethnic edge.”
But Jerry Goeres, chairman of the Laurel Merchants Association, said this might be more difficult than it seems.
“You can’t turn it into a Montclair, or a Piedmont, simply because you have a major thoroughfare there, and people don’t think of it as a shopping district,” he said.
Goeres said that in the past 10 years, since the “rebirth” of the Merchants Association and increased activism from community members, the Laurel has already seen a lot of improvement.
“You [used to] find a lot of empty stores, but now you’re finding more small independent stores, and they’re doing some expansion,” he said, pointing out World Ground Café and Razzo’s Pizza as two businesses that began in the Laurel and opened other Oakland locations after experiencing success.
“People who shop in the Laurel definitely want to support the Laurel,” said Martha Rueca-Gustafsson, co-owner of World Ground and a Mills alum, who said a lot of her customers are regulars who come from within the immediate area, adding that the community center/coffee shop has “grown by leaps and bounds” each year thanks to that commitment.
Goeres said the association is trying to make the area a place where people will want to spend time whether they’re shopping or not, and they have been holding events to make local residents more aware of what’s available in the district.
“I’ve had people stop me in front of Bank of America asking if there’s a bookstore in the area. I mean, hello?” Goeres said, referring to Laurel Books just across the street from the bank, “so we try to do things that will bring people into the community.”
Goeres said that “eight years ago Starbucks didn’t want to know our name, but now they’ve inquired — what they want isn’t exactly going to fit into what the Laurel wants, but it’s nice to know.”
Rueca-Gustafsson said, “I’m very proud to be a part of the Laurel.” She sees the recent improvements as important “to shed more light on our neighborhood as a community,” and said she is not afraid of what a Starbucks may do to local business.
Although the Laurel district has already undergone significant transformations as a community and an economy, Goeres said, “we hope this is just the start of some big changes.”