The Unity Council

Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood has shown all the economic signs of gentrification without losing its majority-Latino population.

In recent years, the blocks around Oakland’s Fruitvale Transit Village have seen many changes that are typical of urban neighborhoods around the United States. Housing prices are on the rise, and the population has grown wealthier and more educated. But Fruitvale’s transformation is unusual in one key way: It hasn’t gotten whiter.

Between 2000 and 2015, homeownership, median household income, and educational attainment all increased in the majority-Latino neighborhood. The gains were on par with Uptown Oakland, which posted the Bay Area’s largest increase in white share of the population in the same timeframe. Unlike Uptown, however, Fruitvale saw these outcomes without an exodus of people of color.

How did Fruitvale manage to maintain its cultural identity while showing all of the economic indicators of gentrification? Researchers from UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative believe the transformation can be attributed, at least in part, to the transit village itself; a community-planned project that provided the neighborhood with much-needed social services, and an inviting urban design that stimulated commerce and street life.

Sonja Diaz, an LPPI researcher who led a recent study on the neighborhood, says Fruitvale’s story can help inform other low- and middle-income communities that need economic development but worry about its side effects. “What we want to highlight is the opportunity for a community to really prosper across a wide range of indicators while still maintaining its identity and not displacing its residents,” she said.

To understand the impact the Fruitvale Transit Village may have had on the neighborhood’s prosperity, Diaz and her colleagues compared the economic and demographic outcomes for that census tract in 2015, with other census tracts in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County that were most similar to it in 2000, based on their racial makeup, average rents, and median household income. As a control, they also ran the numbers for the aforementioned census tract in Uptown Oakland.

Change in median household income Change in proportion of homeowners (percentage points) Change in B.A. completion (percentage points) Change in Latino population (percentage points)
Fruitvale 47% 8 13 -1
Similar Bay Area Tracts 33% -3 8 5
Similar Los Angeles County tracts 39% -1 2 6
Uptown 39% -2 18 -7

Over the past 15 years, Fruitvale substantially outperformed its peer neighborhoods in median income growth and educational attainment. But Fruitvale’s increase in homeownership is particularly notable, Diaz said. Not only does it buck national trends toward higher rates of rental housing, it’s also unusual because Latino households were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, which took place in the midst of the study period. And while similar neighborhoods in Los Angeles County and the rest of the Bay Area saw small increases in their proportion of Latino residents, Fruitvale’s proportion of Latinos barely changed, even as its economic indicators skyrocketed. (Uptown Oakland saw its black population decrease by 14 percentage points over that period, from 59 percent to 45 percent).

One of the main things that differentiated Fruitvale from its peer neighborhoods over the study period was the opening of the Fruitvale Transit Village, in 2003. In addition to 47 units of housing (10 of which are affordable) and a number of retail spaces, the village includes a charter high school, a community center where residents can access legal services, a public library, and a small clinic, making it a hub of community activity.

“The concept of bringing these services to a dense area of the city, especially around transit, I think worked better than anybody envisioned,” said Chris Iglesias, head of the Unity Council, the Fruitvale-based social equity corporation that developed the village. These services may have had an impact on the educational attainment of local residents, as well as their incomes. They also may have helped provide the ability and motivation for residents to stay in place. “There’s more of an opportunity for folks to put down roots here, and be part of this community,” Iglesias said.

It wasn’t just the many community-facing enterprises in the village that helped shape Fruitvale’s fortunes, but also its design. Initially, BART, which operates the rail stop adjacent to the transit village, had planned to build a parking garage on the lot. But the Unity Council and other community groups insisted on a more active use of space. The finished result includes a pedestrian walkway, lined with storefronts, that provides an inviting connection between the neighborhood and the station, and a safe, new public space for events and street vendors.

“If you had a parking lot, it would’ve effectively blocked off users of that transit stop to… International Boulevard, which is a small business corridor with a lot of Latino-owned and Latino-serving businesses,” Diaz said. “The design of the village itself opens to this big corridor that already existed. And that’s probably part of the reason that you saw these gains, because accessibility and continuity were things that were thought of in the planning.”

Phase II of the village is currently under construction, and will include 94 units of affordable housing and more clinic space. Another 180 units of market rate housing are planned in a future phase, but Iglesias said the Unity Council is working to make those units affordable, too. With such a high percentage of affordable housing units, and such a concentration of community services, Fruitvale Village is unlike most transit-oriented development projects. But the village is not the only new development in the area. “There’s plenty of market rate housing going up all around us,” Iglesias said.

At a moment when transit-oriented development is becoming a more widely acknowledged necessity for sustainable population growth, and simultaneously viewed as a harbinger of gentrification and displacement, the Fruitvale village shows a middle way. By creating a dynamic new public space anchored by vital community services, the existing population has been able to stay in place and prosper. What’s more, these priorities don’t have to come at the expense of other developments that can house newcomers; although it seems important that the needs of the existing community are prioritized in such a central location, right next to the BART station, the area’s economic lifeline.  

“This strikes me as a scalable project to ensure that there is economic mobility and opportunity for the most disadvantaged,” Diaz said, “while still being something that makes economic sense for the wider community.”

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