The Ghosts of the Miller Library: the city of Oakland conspired to keep a historic building blighted and useless. But who paid the price, and who benefitted?

Posted on March 26, 2018

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1176405_546467468735598_1018034054_nI’ve been involved with the Miller Library building at 15th st. and Miller Ave for about six years. It started with a major spectacle event where I and many community members took over the building in 2012. We filled it with books and created a day long people’s fair around the building. That day, kids from the neighborhood started a garden on the grounds with some junk wood found on the corner. After we got kicked out of the building by OPD, we continued to fill those garden boxes with plants and vegetables. There were years when i went to the site, which we called the Biblioteca Popular, every day. But as any long-term project, it had its ups and downs, mostly caused by the city creating obstacles for full community participation.

There was a core group of neighbors involved in the community space on the grounds, and we kept at it as long as we could. By 2016, we stopped referring to our efforts as an organized group, and we stopped actively trying to recruit new members. That was because a group of people had taken over the building, and they had their own way of doing things. We could no longer guarantee the kind of environment kids and families had enjoyed in previous years. Kids used to be able to come and learn a couple of things about plants, and do a little work and have a bit of fun; people could do food giveaways and pick up food when they were hungry; there were greens year round to supplement people’s food stocks. That was gone. We couldn’t guarantee any of that anymore, and it probably wasn’t coming back without a major overhaul of the economic and racist realities of that neighborhood. We didn’t feel like we could in good conscience keep asking people to join, knowing that and so we stopped.

I stepped back, but it never ceases to please me that the neighbors most attached to the space didn’t. These were mostly women and families who’d lived and grown up in the neighborhood for decades. They kept the garden up, and even planted new crops, and whenever I went by to check on things, or to do a bit of support work, the place still looked alive, though, unfortunately pretty run down.

Of course, part of that decline was because of the environment I was talking about earlier, and that was definitely caused by the indifference of a city that barely even knew the area existed until a few years ago when they discovered you can gentrify the Murder Dubs. But some of it was a result of the decisions made by Noel Gallo, the district council person for that area of the East.

Around 2014, Gallo, despite his current disguise as a people’s politician, had been a law and order jack off for the first two years of his term. Gallo’s first major move in office was to suggest a youth curfew, where school playgrounds would become literal youth prisons. Even the police chief thought that was ridiculous and it failed. Gallo looked like a prize asshole who didn’t reflect the needs and wants of his district for a minute. So over the years, Gallo has picked up a trick or two about how to appear less Stalin and more Che, and one of these gimmicks has been his weekly trash clean ups.

Sure, in theory, these are welcome and that’s why he’s doing it. Dumping has been a major problem for that area of Oakland, as it is elsewhere to lesser degrees, and so a politician coming out on weekends seemingly doing the work himself with a cadre of volunteers looked pretty cool. But Gallo cut corners. In order to be able to pick up trash without extra public works support, Gallo directed his volunteers to dump in front of the Miller Building, in fact, right in front of the garden, for weekly pick ups. Because the city council person for the district was okaying this, the space became a free fire zone for dumping. Dumpers no longer even bothered to come at night anymore, they just dumped freely during the day. Why not, an elected official was doing it.

gallo complaint 1

 

gallo complaint 2

Neighborhood complaints specifically mentioning Gallo’s dumping as blight in the neighborhood.

 

Even though neighbors complained constantly to me and to him about this (and as you can see, fruitlessly to public works), Gallo never stopped, and no official ever called him on the dubious legality of this get out the vote activity, though the neighborhood complained constantly. This has been Gallo’s way of interacting with that neighborhood, which by any measurement, he really doesn’t value. He never asked people if they were good with turning the corner into a free dumping zone, he just did it and ignored people who lived there when they complained. Gallo never supported the garden, and even smeared it when he had the chance, despite the fact that it was the only positive thing that happened in that space in the three decades the city has overseen the Miller Building Blight Zone.

gallo rules and legislation video 2

gallo 3

In 2014, despite having spoken to neighbors while they gardened on the Miller Grounds, and during a time when there was absolutely no squatting going on in the building, Gallo brought this to the Rules Committee.

The fire that burned a good portion of the upper floors and roof of the building in April 2017 was, in fact, the second time the fire department had been called out to extinguish a fire there. The first fire in 2016 was minor, and might even have been people trying to get a non-functioning fireplace working. The neighborhood by then had an abundance of caution about fires, the building adjacent to the Miller Building had burned to the ground the previous year, and the year before that, the entire neighborhood had been subjected to an arson spree which damaged several cars, property and a house down the street. So, it wasn’t a surprise the OFD was called in.

The activity cleared out the squatters for a bit, and that same night, public works came to “secure” the building. I went by there in the ensuing days to check on the garden. There had been very little impact on it, and so I was relieved to see that the neighbors could go on with their work there. I also had the opportunity to take a look at the “security” of the building. The bars that had been placed in the facade decades ago had been crumbling for years, and they had been easily removed by the squatters the year before when they started commandeering the place. When PWA secured the building after this first fire, they simply put up plywood, bolted into the same crumbling exterior over the windows. Within three or so days, I noted the bars had been pulled off. The city never came by to “resecure” the building, they never checked on their work and the building was quickly back in business.

The second fire in 2017 was predictable, but the city did the same inadequate “securing”. But this time, the city also moved to destroy our garden and evict it permanently from the grounds. I can see what you are thinking: if the city had put its efforts into bolstering the garden and allowed the community to use the grounds as a free space and park, it would have gone much farther to discourage squatting. At least in hindsight, that’s obviously the case. But nope, the city didn’t do that.

The city’s public works dropped a gigantic container where our book house used to be, and we had to beat the clock to prevent them from simply trampling our garden into oblivion. It was during this time that the city of Oakland’s risk manager contacted us through our mostly defunct Facebook page, giving us three days to take everything we wanted to save, as they claimed remediation efforts now necessitated the entire area where we’d had our garden and rain water collection efforts.

deborah grant 1

Deborah Grant, the city’s Risk Manager, contacted the Biblioteca Popular facebook page to tell us that not only would the site be fully renovated with the insurance money, but that we could expect community meetings going forward on the designation of the building.

As we tried to work out a way to save the garden, the risk manager assured us that the garden would now become superfluous. She told us the city was expecting a fire insurance payout guaranteed to adequately refurbish the building to its former standard. Thats where they left the matter officially with us. PWA were likely going to destroy the garden to clear the way for this community-based building. As they say in Arabic, yati kalafi–we could just take a victory lap and go home.

We didn’t accept this, and went to every city agency and office we could, letting them know that WE had been the only people who’d cared for this space for three decades. It seemed like that worked, at least the city didn’t destroy the garden as they’d claimed they were going to.

Beeb1

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The city put obstacles in our way. The contractor the PWA hired to do the preliminary debris removal covered the fencing and building in signs that warned of asbestos, though, as is clear in this recording, the contractor admitted it was a false claim designed to keep people away from the building. I later spoke to an environmental engineer who was doing active asbestos monitoring with a special device on the grounds, and he also told us there was no asbestos.

The city later covered over the mural which CRP had painted for us, and the artwork that children from the neighborhood had done over the years. But one thing the city never did was properly secure the building. The workers were gone in a week or two, and the same plywood that could be ripped off the walls with bare hands was placed over the windows, and it was gone a day or two after the workers left. Noel Gallo stayed dumping in front of the space.

The garden continued tho, and even a couple of new neighbor’s became involved. We never heard about the insurance money again. I assumed it was bullshit, and a way for the city to get rid of us. Keeping a rotting hulk of a building away from positive use seemed to be the only equation the city was interested in.

The third fire in February 2018 wasn’t a surprise to anyone who lived nearby. I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to certify victim-blaming. But I also want to point out that many people in that neighborhood who are Black and Brown are hanging by the barest of threads. They are precariously employed. They’re living one and two and three to a room, while rents are rising quickly in a neighborhood that used to be the last stop for folks being pushed out of the west and north. They’re oppressively-policed, but the police don’t come very quickly when they need help. So, the issues with drugs and stability in that hood are real and ever-looming, swallowing people when they are low, or suddenly dirt poor and unemployed, taking their kids before they have created a structure of judgement for themselves, turning the area into a huge dumping ground.

These issues aren’t the fault of the people who already fell victim to them, but one can’t ignore how these process work once they’ve been put in motion either, nor devalue the importance of creating a safe space for the people who are holding on for dear life. That’s what the Biblioteca Popular was supposed to be about, giving people an open space to wrestle with these issues and help themselves. But the city put every obstacle in the way of doing that, and a lot of that was through aggressive policing which scared away wider community participation very early on. Gallo’s dumping regime and the lack of support we received at every level of city activity didn’t help, either.

The February fire was the worst. Both the grounds and the building were left a total loss. I had already pretty much given up on the space by then. I wished people the best, but had my own issues that needed intense attention. So the final fire wasn’t as big a shock as I might have thought several years ago. I arrived to watch the building consumed, but felt little more than resignation–the sentence for the space had been pronounced by the city many years ago. The real surprise was that it had taken this long.

While I was standing on the block, at least two journalists I talked to told me that Gallo had cornered them while the fire was still burning, already trying to finger people for the fire and billing it as arson. I told some journalists to follow-up with Gallo about the insurance money and that’s why that question was even asked to my knowledge. Gallo was forced to admit that the insurance money had been paid out to the city, but somewhere along the way, it had been allocated elsewhere.

I mean, during this period when they were throwing that money into a deep hole, probably paying off OPD’s overtime, the city was doing its best to make sure the garden disappeared. But remarkably, they had no plan at all for the building except to just let it sit there and rot. Of course, while Gallo was pointing the finger at everyone else that day, he told the latest tall tale about how the city had found a buyer for the building. This story of a buyer who’d just expressed interest was reborn whenever any scrutiny of the city’s self-inflicted blight got any public attention after Biblioteca Popular began. There was always a buyer for the building just around the corner any time a journalist asked about it for the entire six years I was involved with the site.

The undeniable reality is that the city could have sold the building in 2004; there was only 500k of renovation necessary then to bring it up to code.

citys engineers

The city issued this estimate in 2001. At the time, the minimum investment for the city would have been around 500k. The other figures are optional; the city would not have had to do those to bring it up to its own code.

But they didn’t. The city could have alternately invested the money itself, and sold it then–they may have even found a buyer who wanted to put the work in and abide by the historical status restrictions. But they didn’t even try.

By the time the city put the building up for sale in 2009, it had already been squatted several times, the pipes had burst and flooded lower levels, further damaging the place and adding wear and tear. The city could never have sold the building in the condition we found it in 2012; it already needed substantial work along with the initial repairs that the city should have done in the 90’s. Thats why Gallo’s predecessor Ignacio de la Fuente, started the yearly tradition of lying about the Miller building by claiming it was condemned.  Gallo continued the tradition by falsely claiming it would cost ten million dollars to renovate. They did this to escape responsibility for their and the city’s own mismanagement.

By 2018, after two fires and years of abuse there was just no way anyone was going to buy the Miller Building. Even offering it for free would have been a challenge. As a historical building, the structure coud not be torn down until it had been deemed a total loss. And anyone who bought the building had to return it to its original state and spend about a million dollars in repairs. Nevertheless, Gallo told journalists on the day of the final fire that he had, surprisingly, yet another buyer lined up before the unfortunate event.

In the aftermath of the third fire, now that the building is a total loss, there are many unanswered questions. There’s the question of the insurance money, which has been unofficially pegged at 1.5 millon dollars. Where did it go and how? Who authorized that process and was it legal?

The city must offer its surplus real estate for purchase to Alameda County organizations and non-profit agencies before it puts them out for public sale according to city rules, and that was apparently done in 2009 according to a public records request. But why then did the city go through the same process again, offering it to ALCO agency purchase in February 2018 as if it had never met this requirement? And why, incredibly, was this done only 48 hours before the fire?

miller sale

Noel Gallo’s wife, Aliza Gallo, is a highly placed administrator in the Economic and Workforce Development Office of the city of Oakland, which oversees the city’s Real Estate agency–has she been influencing Gallo’s actions around the building and neighborhood? It’s not a stretch, in fact, to wonder if the city’s neglect, as focused through Noel Gallo, has been in an effort to hasten the destruction of the building, so that it can be called a total loss and the land sold to developers. Given Gallo’s odd behavior around the building, its worth asking if he or his wife stand to gain personal benefit from such a sale.

As we prepare ourselves for the city’s decision on how the building and land will be used going forward, these seem like extremely important questions. But the media and officials aren’t asking them.

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