Change under way at former bakery building
Site of Your Black Muslim Bakery is being transformed into center for people battling HIV and AIDS.
By Cecily Burt, Chauncey Bailey Project
OAKLAND — The familiar red sign is down, the gigantic mixers and industrial ovens squeezed into a shipping container out back. The wallboard has been pulled away, revealing deep red brick walls.
In a few short months, Your Black Muslim Bakery’s headquarters on San Pablo Avenue will be a memory — fond for some, dark for others.
In its place will be Vital Life Services, an organization that will provide a multifaceted lifeline to those living with HIV and AIDS. The organization plans to create a warm, inviting space where all who enter are safe and welcome — unlike the skewed code of ethics that appeared to rule the bakery’s final decades.
Kurt Zimmerman, a representative of NCK LLC, the company that bought the building, pondered the impending changes.
“There’s a little bit of history here,” Zimmerman said, referring to bakery equipment and rolls of colorful stickers still waiting to identify tempting prune cup cakes, honey spice cakes and whole wheat bread pudding. “I wouldn’t say American history, but history.”
Zimmerman’s company, R.N. Field Construction, has already gutted the interior and removed a shed attached to the rear of the structure. Workers are replacing the footings — some of which were anchored in cement and others in nothing but dirt and debris.
The building is getting new copper plumbing, new electrical wiring, new lighting, new disabled-access restrooms and a new commercial kitchen.
The building had settled and sank over the years, causing sloping floors and ceilings, said construction foreman Russ McCracken. Workers had to jack up some of the interior beams several inches to level it out.
Members of the Bey family lived in apartments upstairs, where the floors sloped as much as eight inches from the southern walls to the middle of the rooms, McCracken said.
There will be three brand-new apartments upstairs, each with a living room, bathroom and state-of-the-art kitchen, closets and washer and dryer.
But the real magic will happen downstairs, when Vital Life Services moves from its Shattuck Avenue facility and opens for business this spring.
Vital Life, formerly the Center for AIDS Services, served between 400 and 600 clients from every walk of life last year. The new location will provide more room in which to carry on its tradition of providing family-style meals, counseling, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, social services referrals and other essential services to men and women living with HIV and AIDS.
The staff offices and meeting rooms will not detract from the open feel of the space or remove all visions of the brick, Zimmerman said. There will be a comfortable living room where people can gather, watch television, play games or just talk. The paved-over parking lot in the rear of the former bakery compound will be transformed into a park-like backyard for people to relax and eat when the weather is nice.
The transformation of the large bakery building comes as others are recognizing the positive potential of North Oakland’s Golden Gate commercial district, cradled by Berkeley on one side and Emeryville on the other.
Two new businesses have taken root in the row of storefronts across the street. A screenprinting business opened in January and a woodworker/furniture maker is moving in next door. They will join two longtime businesses on the block, Portia’s Wing Lee Laundry and the Eastern City Cafe, as well as a computer repair business that has been open about a year, passersby said.
Beauty Pie, a bright and massive beauty supply store stocked floor to ceiling with wigs, hair products and other items, is located next door to the former bakery, and Studio Naga, an Indonesian-style martial arts school, anchors the corner of San Pablo and 59th Street.
The Bey family still owns a row of storefronts on the west side of San Pablo, where Portia Wan’s dry cleaning store has operated for 18 years, surviving a change in landlords.
The bakery’s demise didn’t affect her business one way or another, Wan said, because the family didn’t use her cleaning service. Some of the Bey family and their associates lived for a time in the apartments over her store, and she spoke fondly of Antar Bey, Yusuf Bey’s son and former bakery chief executive who was killed during an October 2005 carjacking attempt. She said she first met him when he was a child and he remained friendly to her.
From time to time, bakery leaders would stop by to collect the rent and they would tell her to give them a call if she had any problems with people in the neighborhood.
“I never did,” Wan said. “I am a legal business. I can call the police. Why would I need to call them?”
Although Your Black Muslim Bakery loomed large over the neighborhood for decades, the newcomers are largely unaffected by its history.
Forthrite, the screenprinting company and gallery space, opened at 5857 San Pablo Ave. in January, months after the bakery institution was shuttered and sold after declaring bankruptcy.
Before the sale, most of the bakery’s surviving male members, including young CEO Yusuf Bey IV, 22, had been arrested in various crimes, including the Aug. 2, 2007, murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey.
“I couldn’t be more happy to be part of the neighborhood,” Forthrite owner Conor Ottenweller said. “We feel this area is just ripe for creative energy to come through.”
He said he plans to have art openings every Friday night, which should draw the Oakland Art Murmur devotees who follow the organization’s list of galleries that open their doors on the first Friday evening of every month.
“As far as walk-in traffic goes, once people see a storefront, it lights up the street,” Ottenweller said.
His space and the one next door, rented by furniture designer Kelly Best, have large bay windows surrounded by deep red-and-black-glazed tiles, features that add to the variety of architectural styles and elements in the Golden Gate district.
According to Oakland’s cultural heritage survey, the original two-story Arts and Crafts style bakery building at 5826-5838 San Pablo Ave. was constructed of brick masonry in 1908 and began life as the Gateway Hotel. It was later Golden Gate Market, Gateway Meat and Gateway Bakery. The storefront was remodeled in 1960 and other alterations were made over the years.
The commercial building next door, historically known as the Klinkner Drug store, also features brick and glazed tile around the plate glass windows with Spanish tile along the roof and other Mediterranean flourishes in the trim. Black Muslims — most likely Yusuf Bey’s father — rented space in this building in 1969 to operate a bakery business. They also ran a restaurant called Allah Land to “promote black economic self-sufficiency,” according to the cultural survey.
Zimmerman doesn’t want to erase the bakery’s history in the building so much as pay homage to it. A huge (11-foot-long) butcher block, a remnant from the bakery’s kitchen, will be sanded down and have legs added to become a conference table, he said. Murals from the bakery and photographs of the building’s transformation will adorn the meeting room walls.
Perhaps volunteers will take some of the food labels and other items left behind to create collages that can be sold to raise money for the nonprofit, he said.
Zimmerman said he got involved with the AIDS alliance after one of his first employees, Brian Rock, died of the disease.
“We loved him and made sure he had everything he needed (as the illness progressed),” Zimmerman said.
Rather than vilify what the bakery organization has become, Zimmerman said he’d rather focus on its original mission to serve and empower its community. In that light, he’d like to think the new AIDS service center will carry forth with a mission to help the most vulnerable.
“We feel the building has life,” Zimmerman said. “It had a good life before and it’s fallen on hard times. We’re trying to restore that life again and help the community.”
For more information about Vital Life Services, visit http://www.vitalcalifornia.org.