Community Spirit Is Just Around The Corner

The Corner, located on Robinson Street in Oakland, is a community center that serves the neighborhood’s residents in a variety of ways.

The Corner, located on Robinson Street in Oakland, is a community center that serves the neighborhood’s residents in a variety of ways.

words: Sara Saltiel

photos: Sara Saltiel

On a cold, rainy Friday night, a small group of artists and musicians gather at The Corner community center for an open mic night. The bright orange and green walls glow from the light of the colorful paper lanterns and twinkling lights strung up in the corners of the room, chasing away the gloom outside.

A mix of couches and chairs are set up around a makeshift stage with a lone microphone. Incense permeates the air as a few local artists sit at their tables selling jewelry, gems, T-shirts or their artwork hanging on the walls.

The near-empty room slowly fills up with community members young and old as a tall woman with colorful dreadlocks wearing a black dress steps up to the microphone. After welcoming the small, intimate crowd, she tentatively asks: “Do you guys mind if we start with something I’ve written?” Almost everyone in the crowd nods their head and murmurs words of encouragement.

The source of the enthusiasm and support is The Corner. A community center located in Oakland, The Corner provides a diverse array of services for a diverse population. Services include after-school and wellness programs, workshops, an event space, a coffee shop and a safe place to share feelings and ideas for the Oakland community. It’s a place where everyone has a voice — a place that seeks to bridge the gap between neighbors.

Jacquea Mae sings at an open mic night.

Jacquea Mae sings at an open mic night.

Nadine Masagara-Taylor, the director of The Corner, believes the space is needed now more than ever.

“I think we live in a time where people are so disconnected and doing all kinds of different things,” Masagara-Taylor says. “So, the purpose is getting people connected to their neighbor, getting to know their neighbor, and we do that through affordable, community-driven activities.”

Affiliated with Friendship Church across the street, The Corner was founded in 2012. The building formerly housed Breach Menders, an organization that refurbished homes in the neighborhood. Left with an empty building in 2007 after Breach Menders’ dissolution, community members wanted to make the building a “third place” space — a social area separate from one’s home and workplace — so The Corner was born.

The Corner’s café creates a “third place” for every member of the Oakland community. Guests of the café are greeted by the same bright green and orange walls as the event space next door, the smell of fair trade coffee, delicious baked goods, comfy mismatching furniture and the smiling face of Ms. Di — or Mama Di, as some call her.

Di, the Operations Manager at The Corner, has been there since the beginning, providing patrons with not only kind words, but also with buttercake.

“I bake our signature dish, buttercake,” Di says. “It’s a goody. It always sells out, and people know me as the one that makes the buttercake.”

As Di lists off patrons by name that frequent the café, it is clear how much she enjoys her job. It is no surprise that she has become as much of a staple to The Corner Café as her buttercake.

“I took over the café one time and people were like, ‘Where is Ms. Di?’” Masagara-Taylor says. “I’m like I’m here, too, ya know, but that’s part of their routine to see Ms. Di in the morning.”

The Corner serves many purposes, and its spirit of community extends beyond the café. In addition to essential social service programs, The Corner is a place where community members can connect and talk about everyday issues. It is a multipurpose space that tailors itself to the needs of the community, providing a safe place for community members to express themselves.

This is evident just by looking at the art on the walls. There is a painting of a one-eyed Statue of Liberty with the words “Land of the Thieves, Home of the Slaves” inscribed on the tablet she is holding. A painting of a grocery bag filled with food reads “People’s Free Food Program.” A painting of a golden Africa. The Corner, however, goes beyond creating a safe place for art. It also provides a space to heal when social burdens become too great.

Ms. Di — or Mama Di, as she’s known at The Corner — sells her famous buttercake at the café.

Ms. Di — or Mama Di, as she’s known at The Corner — sells her famous buttercake at the café.

With ongoing cases of police brutality and discussions regarding relationships between communities of color and the police, The Corner hosted a forum to discuss recent events. Masagara-Taylor wanted to bring different groups in the community together to have a civil discussion.

“Diverse groups of people from different backgrounds attended, and we were able to have that conversation where it didn’t turn into, like, this huge fight that you might see on social media,” Masagara-Taylor says. “Just being able to say, ‘Let’s take people from behind their phones, from behind their laptops and actually get them to connect and know one another on a personal level,’ and I think the space helped promote that positive energy.”

That positive energy permeates events at The Corner and is especially evident at open mic night. As the woman with the dreadlocks reads her poetry about her experiences with racism, the group collectively nods with affirmation and support.

“Exhaling becomes an act of defiance. Me and my generation will have joy even if you don’t like it,” she reads.

The theme of almost every performance is racism and what it is like to be black in America in 2016. Performances are met with encouragement and praise as pieces alternate between spoken word and singing, some expressing what is in their hearts without any preparation. It is a time of healing, all made possible by The Corner.

Natiq Jalil, a performer of spoken word and a local artist whose watercolor paintings hang on the walls, believes that The Corner is unique and fills a void in the community.

“It’s one of the few community centers I see that’s left,” Jalil says. “People can come together and create and brainstorm and plan. It’s very necessary.”