The last lingering wisps of afternoon sun disappeared behind the lofty container-style buildings of West Oakland. As night fell, the intersection of Union and 26th Streets appeared eerily empty, except for a couple dusty, parked cars. A lone black cat skittered by.
The art gallery and event space Oakland Terminal stood quietly on the corner, with its rusty, corrugated steel doors and scuffed-up white exterior. On that quiet night, the unacquainted eye would never guess that the warehouse is a hub for the local, youth-driven art scene. And that its hybrid music-and-art events consistently draw hundreds of teens and twenty-somethings, routinely welcoming some of the city's most well known creatives. On nights when the venue is alive, DJs spin as crowds dance, laugh, and rap loudly to hyphy beats without inhibition, sometimes spilling into the street. Politically-aware art — advocating for women's rights or the Black Lives Matter movement — decorates the walls. And, for the night, the warehouse transforms into a haven of expression and resistance for young locals celebrating their own existence.
That's the typical setting of an East Bay "Art Party" — events filled with politically conscious young people also looking to turn up. And Oakland Terminal, with its sprawling gallery and inclusive, community-oriented mission, is uniquely poised to host such events, which more mainstream galleries generally perceive as being too rowdy or simply an excuse to party. Oakland Terminal is one of few spaces that consistently accommodates the artistic vision of local millenials without encroaching on the vibrant energy of their expression; in other words, where young artists of color can both show their art and feel fully comfortable being themselves.
"It's this safe place where you just feel okay," Aleks Zavaleta, a co-owner of Oakland Terminal, said in an interview. "We want our space to be accessible. Accessibility is the key word. For all."
Recently, however, that sense of security has been compromised. In March, an altercation broke out at a large feminist art show at Oakland Terminal, and in August, two Berkeley High alumni were shot and killed when a fight erupted during a show at Prime Development in downtown Oakland. Now, Zavaleta and other leaders in the scene are attempting to answer the difficult question of how best to nurture youth art culture and accommodate free expression, while also ensuring that the events remain totally safe.
Meanwhile, they're also battling the growing perception that their parties trigger violence, when in fact their very missions are to create the kind of community and opportunity that combats the effects of social inequality, such as street violence.
For now, the warehouse's doors remain closed. Since June, the space has halted its regularly scheduled youth classes and events to undergo renovations. Its reopening, set for early next year, will bring many new changes to the established venue, such as more shows centered around Black, Latino, and women's rights, as well as the installment of permanent offices for YK La Familia, a prominent youth-led art and culture platform in Oakland.
"Even though that incident wasn't our fault — or anyone else's besides the people who decided that it was okay to fight — we still are responsible for people's safety," said Zavaleta in regards to the fight in March. "You want art shows to be accessible to everybody. And the way that can happen is that it's safe, and that everybody's on point. [But] things will happen. That's the reality of the world we live in."
Kris Contreras, the 23-year-old founder of YK La Familia, and Yaya Plascencia, another long-standing member of the collective, sat on a couch in the rarely-visited second floor of Oakland Terminal late one Thursday night. A lamp's orange glow threw shadows of their stark silhouettes onto the wooden floor of what will soon be their new headquarters.
The group is one of the more prominent examples of a common trend in Oakland: young, innovative creatives forming collectives of artists who complement each other's work, rather than competing with one another solo. These numerous art collectives — progressive, distinctly-styled, and always hustling in search of the next big thing — gather at workshop spaces and small gallery showings, as well as warehouse parties. Often, their events overflow with an ecstatic sense of community and mutual support that you'd be hard pressed to find in traditional art spaces, even in the Bay Area.
Plascencia said that, similar to Oakland Terminal, the YK La Familia mission is to "push for staying true to yourself and whatever culture you may come from....[and] to give [people] a safe space, but also talk about issues. Talk about what's going on. Talk about solutions." The collective's recurring REVOLVE art shows allow for in-depth discussion of relevant political topics, while its more light-hearted Sadie Hawkins dances — which follow the tradition of female identified individuals being the romantic initiators — are meant to provide a safe space for people to simply let go and dance.
But the collective, which has been around for six years, still struggles to find venues to hold their events — or even space for them to meet up and brainstorm quietly. That's largely because mainstream galleries consistently turn them away. And when they are accepted, according to organizers, their work is often treated as fodder to fill a diversity quota.
And YK La Familia is not alone: Other similar Oakland art collectives cite the same problem.
Le Vanguard is one of them. Co-founders Vanessa Nguyen and Albert Watts, self-described as "art and culture pioneers" who challenge what's considered cool, said that they're always looking for new spaces that are accessible and affordable — but they're not always welcomed.