Residents in Oakland Upper Rockridge neighborhood clash over proposed BLM mural

A deeply polarizing battle has been brewing in Oakland’s Upper Rockridge neighborhood over proposed plans for a permanent Black Lives Matter memorial mural along a popular stairway known as the Sunflower Path. 

The path, between Proctor and Modoc Avenues, has been a beloved thoroughfare for residents in the area. It’s lined with colorful animal and dinosaur figures, a wide array of succulents and during the late summer and early fall, bright, towering sunflowers. 

Battle is brewing in an Upper Rockridge Oakland neighborhood over a proposed Black Lives Mural along a popular stairway known as the Sunflower Path. 

Last year, it was also the site of an impromptu tribute that was created not long after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On the steps of the stairway, young people in the community wrote in colorful chalk the names of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and other Black lives lost as a result of racial injustice.  

In 2020, the Sunflower Path in Oakland became the site of an impromptu BLM tribute in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. 

The display offered many in the community a way to mourn and peacefully demonstrate as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially during a time when the pandemic had kept many from joining large crowds in protests. 

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It also, however, erupted into a contentious clash among some community members. Nearby residents said that the display was vandalized. At least one resident issued a complaint with the Oakland Public Works Department asking the chalk work be removed, citing it as graffiti. It was ultimately erased with a city worker arriving on site to power-wash most of the names away.

City officials later said the action was taken as a normal, procedural response to a complaint of graffiti that was entered into the system and that the incident would prompt review of Oakland’s policies on how such expressions would be handled by the city.

In the aftermath of that incident, community members gathered for a vigil to express their solidarity in the BLM movement, as well as show to support for the young demonstrators who put up the chalk display as part of a neighborhood response to the calls for social justice. 

The dispute over the chalk art also sparked a new campaign by residents and other activists in the area to launch efforts to get a permanent mural put up along the path. Organizers of "The Oakland Stairs Project" started gathering signatures from supporters and raising money for the plan.

The East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF), which has been a partner in the project wrote on its website, "The mural was repeatedly vandalized and erased, but the issue remains crucial to our country and our neighborhood. With the intention of reclaiming this point in Oakland from redlining and a shamefully racist history, The Oakland Stairs Project aims to echo the original intention, and evolve it into a permanent stair mural that embodies racial equality, unity and change."


Organizers said that they’ve gathered more than 300 signatures in support of the effort and had launched a search for a local Black artist or artist of color for a "mixed media mural incorporating paint and tile for the Sunflower Path stairs."

But the project has not been embraced by all in the community, not surprisingly, given the reaction to the temporary display on the stairs last year. Last month, a new campaign emerged in an effort to block the proposed permanent artwork. A group of opponents began circulating a petition to stop the mural from going up.

KTVU reached out to the group through a website it set up, In its email response, the group argued that the site has been a neighborhood space for years, where residents have enjoyed flowers, and the animal and dinosaur sculptures that adorned the path. The group said, "We believe that this [is] not an appropriate place for this project because it will alter a pre-existing artistic expression and more importantly it will impact the neighborhood negatively."

Some of the other reasons for the opposition included concerns about trash becoming a problem with visitors coming and going. Opponents also pointed to heightened fire concerns, noise issues for nearby neighbors, and maintenance of the mural. They also cited worries about parking and congestion being problems due to crowds visiting the site. 

Councilmember Dan Kalb, whose district covers the Upper Rockridge neighborhood, has been a staunch supporter of the mural plan. "The claim that it may create more car traffic… is a ridiculous exaggeration," he told KTVU. "It's not like that neighborhood has had a ton of traffic. Now a few more cars visiting something is not a big deal. It's a ridiculous argument," he said.

Another worry that opponents cited was that paint on concrete steps could be a slipping hazard. Kalb and other supporters noted that under the proposed plan, the risers of the stairway would be the sections that would be painted, not the actual steps, so they countered that the paint from the mural would not pose a safety threat. 

Kalb acknowledged the opponents’ position. "I do realize there are a number of people in the larger neighborhood there who may not want this," the councilman said. "Listen, this is Oakland. I don't expect any proposal to get 100 percent support. That's okay, people have the right to not want something."

But he's said he's fully behind the project and that he’s already expressed that his office hoped to find some money in its budget to help fund the proposed plan. "I think it’s very exciting," he said, adding, "Ultimately, I have already decided that I support this from the beginning, and we’re going to go through the approval process that the city has."

That process included seeking project approval by going through an application process through the city’s Paint The Town program. The program, run by the Oakland Department of Transportation, the Eastside Arts Alliance, and Safe Passages, has sought to get Oakland's communities involved in helping to enhance city streets through art. "This is an opportunity to beautify your community and enhance interactions with your neighbors," city officials said on the program's website.  

"It is our hope that a public piece of art can get installed that uplifts and celebrates our community’s now diverse identity," organizers said. 

Julia Liou, a resident in the area and supporter of the project said that she has been disappointed to see the resistance against the project, though adding, "I am not surprised given what happened during the course of the BLM chalk mural." 

She also noted that putting up a BLM tribute carries even more significance in a place that has a history of racial segregation through redlining housing practices back in 1930’s. 

"Realizing the precedent set by redlining in Upper Rockridge, residents joined to contest it by working on a permanent mural that evolves the spirit of the original piece," Liou said, adding, "The intention is not to alienate any residents, but instead to demonstrate inclusivity and harmony."

One thing that can be agreed upon was that the issue was sparking a deep divisiveness and vitriol among those who have differing views on the BLM memorial proposal.   

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Last week, a sign that was put up near the stairway by the opposition was taken down and stolen, according to a post on the neighborhood social networking service NextDoor. 

On the site, posts involving the proposed plans for the Sunflower Path have generated very strong responses.

Some argued that the city had plenty of stairway paths that have been neglected and that the artwork would be better suited elsewhere, given that the Sunflower Path has already been a place that’s been well adorned and enjoyed by the neighborhood.

In response, some people called that a classic example of taking a "not in my backyard" stance and that all of the discussions against the project further point to a greater need for a BLM tribute to go up in this particular neighborhood.

There have been others who argued that the opponents’ decision to call their campaign "Save the Sunflower Path" was misleading and only added fuel to the fire by making it seem like the physical path itself was in danger of being torn down. 

KTVU spoke with some of the residents living within view of the stairway. The response to the proposed mural was mixed. None of the residents wanted to be identified due to the anger and backlash that have resulted over the issue. 

One resident was all for the project and said, "Given some of the very, very early redlining that happened here in these neighborhoods, I think to have a monument or some other very permanent visible display of support for the Black community is really important." 

The neighbor added, "Conversations about race and the history of what’s happened in the country are obviously heavy conversations that parents can choose or not choose to have with their children… I think this would actually be a wonderful opportunity to open the door to that conversation with their children."

Another resident, who firmly opposed the plan, acknowledged that the path was public property and that the will of the community should prevail. "The staircase belongs to all of us. If the neighborhood decides that they want a Say Their Names tribute on the walkway, so be it," the neighbor said but also expressed that while such memorials were important, a mural that named the lives lost because of police brutality and other forms of racial injustice would be a deeply painful reminder that would be difficult to look at on a daily basis. 

The resident said that for most people, it would be a choice to come to the path and take in the message of the mural, but those in the immediate area would not have a choice and would be the ones feeling the heaviness every time they looked outside their windows or left their homes. 

The neighbor also said that the current atmosphere created along the Sunflower Path, also affectionately dubbed "Jurassic Fairyland," was one of wonder and fun for families and young children to explore. The resident has reached out to Kalb and expressed hopes that the area remained in its current state and has even invited the councilmember to come take a look and visit the site when it's at its peak later this month, with the sunflowers in full bloom.

That neighbor stressed that should a BLM mural go up, it would be disrespectful to the cause and the purpose of the tribute to keep all of the whimsical figures in their place, so the resident said that the current lighthearted spirit of the path could not and should not co-exist with the serious and somber social justice message of the proposed memorial. 

Animal figures line the Sunflower Path in Oakland's Upper Rockridge neighborhood, where a neighbors are battling over a plan to put up a BLM mural along the stairs. 

One thing that has been echoed on both sides was sadness over the divisiveness that the issue has caused. "It has been heartbreaking that neighbors have been pitted against neighbors on this matter. Regrettable and hurtful accusations have been made on both sides," said the resident. 

Those on both sides have called for community members to engage in civil, respectful, and neighborly behavior despite what they hoped would emerge from it all.

"Last summer I saw that the artwork that those young girls put their heart and souls into being vandalized a number of times. And that kind of broke my heart that people would do that. If you don't agree with that message, then that’s certainly your right to do so, but don't vandalize someone else's artwork or someone's political message," a neighbor said. 

Despite the rising opposition, project organizers said that plans for the proposed memorial were moving forward. They hoped to select an artist, a project team and advisory members within the next month before submitting their application for the project to the city.