“It’s like life just stopped here,” said Noni Session, as we stood inside a large dusty room on Seventh street in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland on Indigenous People’s Day. The black, sparkly ceiling emitted a celestial vibe. Rows of liquor bottles sat partially full behind a 20-foot wooden bar while vinyl ’70s style stools rested in front. Gentle yellow light was omnipresent. A calendar opened to May 2010 hung in front of a mirror.
Words on a colorful but faded sign out front showed this place was once “Esther’s Orbit Room,” a vibrant cultural hub for Black Oaklanders that stayed open for about 50 years before it shuttered its doors shortly after its owner, Esther Mabry, died at age 90 in 2010. On September 30, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) closed on purchasing this space. They plan to revitalize it as an extension of their overall mission to help Black, Indigenous and people of color remain and thrive in the East Bay.
The revitalization of Esther’s, and EB PREC’s mission, has a deep personal connection for Session, EB PREC’s executive director and a Black, third generation West Oaklander who has struggled to keep her childhood home. In the ’80s she and her father stopped at Esther’s regularly before they would go fishing at a nearby pier. At that time, it wasn’t just a bar and restaurant but also a shop where her father could buy bait and she could get a treat.
Memories of Esther’s Orbit Room are still alive in the neighborhood. As Session and I talked, we were fortuitously interrupted two separate times by Black, long-term residents who just happened to be passing by and noticed the open door. They both briefly shared fond recollections of the place, and excitedly asked about the reopening. One of these people was 60 year old Pamela Brown.
“[Esther’s] was a happy place,” Brown said. “There were not that many places Blacks could go and be comfortable, but that was one of those places.”
Brown remembers Esther’s always being packed in the ’70s and ’80s and that “the vibe was just awesome and friendly.” She loved the southern comfort food they served: greens, pork chops, black eyed peas and hamburgers. Brown’s uncle, Nathaniel Harrison, remembers it being a great place to socialize around that time and that people were always dancing to the jukebox. Although Brown and Harrison were too young to experience it, legendary musicians like BB King, T-Bone Walker and Ike & Tina Turner performed at Esther’s in the 60s.
As I asked Session about what EB PREC’s revitalization project could look like, she told me about dreams she’s been having lately that place her inside Esther’s and wake her in the night to visions of “old school, Black church mixed with afro-futuristic aesthetics.” While several specific design ideas interest her, like installing colorful stained glass window art and putting a mural up of Maasai people walking across planets, she is excited that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the space. That uncertainty exists because its re-creation will be a massive collaboration involving many people who aren’t even in the EB PREC collective yet.
How EB PREC Works
Session is just one cog in a wheel that keeps EB PREC spinning. Well over 400 people currently form the collective in a complex process of communal ownership. While Esther’s will be EB PREC’s first commercial business, it’s not their first project. In 2019, and 2020, they purchased two East Bay homes that currently house 13 resident collective members, almost all of whom are BIPOC.
These residents all pay less than $900 per month toward costs required to secure and maintain the homes. At the end of the year, residents can get paid back any surplus if their payments exceed these costs. It’s all part of EB PREC’s process of replacing landlords with communal ownership and permanently taking housing and land off the speculative market in order to keep it affordable.
“There’s no supply and demand issue when it comes to housing; the demand comes from the demand for investment assets,” said Ojan Mobedshahi, EB PREC’s Finance Director. “Our move is to de-commodify land and we never consider putting it back on the market to profit from it.”
One way EB PREC has raised the capital to make these affordable homes accessible and the Esther project possible is by also including community owners in the collective who live in the area and each pay $10 a week, a year, or a month, depending on what they can afford. The community owners offer feedback and guidance on EB PREC’s projects and also have a direct role in electing some of EB PREC’s board members.
Individual investors also play a crucial role in EB PREC by buying shares of the collective for $1,000 each. None of them will strike it rich. EB PREC offers these people a targeted 1.5% yearly return on shares, about what one would expect to secure from a savings account and much lower than what one would expect from a typical real estate investment.
The collective’s website stresses that a key boon in becoming a shareholder is the ability to “feel good about your money being invested in community.” But unlike community owners, investors don’t share an active role in decision making. EB PREC also gets loans from foundations that are aligned with their vision and offer low to no interest loans.
The work and/or money of EB PREC’s five-member staff, 13 owner residents, and hundreds of community owners and investors has made it possible to secure two Bay Area homes and start revitalizing Esther’s, a project they see costing around $5 million. To finish the Esther’s project though, EB PREC needs a new classification of people to join them called commercial co-owners. They see the large indoor spaces hosting a bar and café that they hope will have music performances as well as a healing arts center while the backyard will host a farmers’ market. They’re seeking BIPOC people with expertise in those areas to run and take communal ownership of those spaces with EB PREC.
“Even in my dreams many of the walls are just prepped for art instead of having art on them,” Session said, pointing around to the spaces in Esther’s. “It’s not like how can we cover all the walls with our ideas but how can we prepare a palette that holds our mission and also holds space for other people’s creativity and control?”
Session sees the symbol of the palette in her dreams as the space that commercial co-owners and the community can help to fill. She has many questions like: What kind of cafe will be in the place? What kind of plants can the backspace have? What kind of music will be played in the space? What kind of healing arts practitioners will come? What kind of food will be served?
“We know we can’t be totally clear on what this space will be until it has its humans,” Session said. “Right now, we’re sort of its steward humans.”
As EB PREC searches for BIPOC commercial co-owners, they’re again seeking more resident collective members as the Esther’s property also has residential units that can house at least six people. They hope to build a community of BIPOC business owners and residents to bring vibrant life to Esther’s once again.
Building from Seventh street’s vibrant Black past
To look back at how the original Esther’s Orbit Room was founded in the early ’60s could likely read as a fairy tale to the modern reader as the economic conditions, particularly for Black people, were radically different at that time. Esther Mabry, a Black woman who came to West Oakland from Palestine, Texas at age 22, in 1942, worked as a waitress at Slim Jenkins Supper Club, a legendary Seventh Street jazz and blues club, and was able to save enough from tips to start her own restaurant in 1950.
She named it Esther’s Breakfast Room. By the early ’60s, just around the time Slim Jenkins Supper Club and other similar establishments were closing, Esther and her husband William, a worker at the now closed Alameda Naval Air Station, had enough capital to buy a new space and open Esther’s Orbit Room.
Esther’s and William’s ability to open their business was likely aided by World War II and its subsequent postwar economic boom of the ’40s and ’50s that brought decent paying jobs, disposable income and homeownership to much of West Oakland’s Black population. Seventh Street was lively at that time and full of Black-owned businesses, including dozens of Black-owned jazz and blues clubs.
“It was the place to be,” Mabry said in an interview from 2002. “They used to have music playing and the hot tamale man. They would have shows and dances and theaters. You could just go from one club right to another. But no one’s there anymore.”
Writer Jennifer Soliman briefly and poignantly shows much of the complex reasons for the demise of these economic and social conditions in her historical essay “The Rise and Fall of Seventh Street.” They included federal urban renewal projects and the creation of BART, both of which lead to the destruction of Black-owned homes and the displacement of much of the Black population. In the same 2002 interview, Mabry lamented that there were no longer Black business owners in that location and said, “I’m the only one that’s left.”
These days, starting a successful business on Seventh Street based solely on the capital two people earn who don’t have deep generational wealth may seem like a pipe dream. But in one instance, a cooperative model has worked. The BlPOC worker owned Mandala Grocery Cooperative, which sits across from West Oakland’s BART station, employs seven people and has been open over a decade.
Session hopes EB PREC’s new collective project will help bring some of the vibrant Black life Seventh street once had back to the area by creating an economic and artistic anchor point around Esther’s. For that to happen, Session said she realized more than just housing was needed for BIPOC people, but an economy that they co-create. She hopes the Esther’s project can contribute to that and serve as a model for others.
In the meantime, Pamela Brown eagerly awaits what’s to come from the rebirth of a place that brought her so much joy decades ago.
“This is such a good idea,” Brown said. “It’s a great place to be revitalized.”
The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.