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SOMOS Visits Fruitvale Village

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The past few weeks, we’ve referenced the “year of learning” that the SOMOS team is embarking on. It’s an intentional framing that all staff, from top to bottom, is trying to incorporate into our areas of work. It’s a decision to take pause from time to time, and give ourselves permission to dream and create and think outside of the box-- all with the goal of continuing to build a more vibrant Mayfair.

One of the exciting ways we’re learning is by visiting organizations who are doing incredible work! It’s a great opportunity to learn what else is being done beyond East San Jose, build connections and a stronger network of allies, and think about how we can bring new tried-and-tested ideas to our own neighborhood.

Today our team had the great opportunity to visit Fruitvale Village, and learn about all the work that the Unity Council is doing in Oakland.

We hopped on BART and made our way up to the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. Walking around the plazas and courtyards was lovely: the papel picado, the Jacaranda trees, the tiles, the brick instead of concrete, and the absence of cars…there was an exciting energy in the air. We walked past shops and cafes, and even saw a charter school and senior center.


The Unity Council is a non-profit Social Equity Development Corporation with a 50-year history in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Their mission is “to promote social equity and improve quality of life by building vibrant communities where everyone can work, learn, and thrive.”

Their programs aim to provide the community with the tools, knowledge, and resources to transform their lives and ultimately achieve their long-term educational, career, and financial goals.

The Unity Council has been around for decades and their work is expansive, but we specifically wanted to learn about Fruitvale Village, their mighty mixed-use development that has garnered national attention for its ability to bring together businesses, community services, housing, cultural events, and transit options without resulting in gentrification.

We wanted to see how community development can be done well, and especially how it can be done with community voice and vision leading the project.

Executive Director Chris Iglesias gave us a personal tour of the village, sharing the history and vision of the Unity Council. We asked questions about authentic community engagement, how to navigate partnerships with private and public institutions, and how to grow an organization while maintaining community connection.

We also heard from BART Director Robert Raburn, who represents District 4 (including the Fruitvale BART Station) who shared why it’s crucial to consider transit-oriented design when developing new urban projects. We were pleased to hear BART’s commitment to working with community, and found it fascinating that BART was a partner in bringing affordable housing to Oakland. A representative from La Clínica also joined us and was able to outline the vast health care services they provide to the community, with an emphasis on providing culturally-relevant care. With so many cross-sector experts in the room, we were able to have rich conversation as we thought about how to it truly takes an entire village to build sustainable systems, like those that we’re building in Fruitvale and Mayfair.

The urban village is large--- we got to see the senior center, a Family Resource Center, the library, and dozens of small businesses. We were also able to tour the construction site of “Phase II;” 181 units of affordable family housing will be available, including some reserved for the region’s chronically homeless and space for a local nonprofit to be housed. Much of this work reminded us of Quetzal Gardens, Mayfair’s own forthcoming mixed-use development, that will be SOMOS’ new home and will also provide affordable housing for our neighbors and spaces for small business to incubate. We liked hearing how the Unity Council provided technical assistance for locals to apply for the housing lotto, and our team challenged ourselves to take it a step further by continuing to advocate for a local preference policy, to truly ensure that residents aren’t being displaced.  [construction photos]


After the tour, our team debriefed and discussed what inspired us, and what we’d like to explore further. Many were interested in the idea of a community development corporation (CDC), and imagined what it would be like to have one in Mayfair. We also wondered what we can do in San Jose to ensure that the upcoming development of the Little Portugal BART station includes community voice in the planning process, so that we have a station that reflects the neighborhood and encourages a stronger local ecosystem. Perhaps we can spend time building relationships with San Jose’s transportation agencies.

It was a great trip, and we’re excited to continue sending teams across the country to bring learning back to our neighborhood. We’ll keep you posted on our trips via this blog!

Thank you to SPUR for helping to organize this tour. We were able to share this experience with friends and partners from SJSU’s CommUniverCity, the School of Arts & Culture at MHP, Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco’s Office, and other neighborhood advocates. 

If you’re interested in learning more, check out City Lab’s article on the Fruitvale Village: How Transit-Oriented Development Can Prevent Displacement


Chelsey Cartwright