Up-and-Coming Neighborhoods: Getting in While the Getting Is Good, Part 3

Today we wrap up our series on up-and-coming neighborhoods with a spotlight on an Oakland neighborhood that started to “up and come”, but didn’t quite make it: Maxwell Park.

Maxwell Park is a small residential neighborhood in the Oakland foothills. If you’re familiar with the East San Francisco Bay Area, you’ll know that—in general—the hills are affluent, have great schools, and are safer while the flats are typically more mixed-zoning, lower-income, dangerous, but have better proximity to nightlife and public transit.

The Oakland foothills are a sort of funny, unclassifiable part of the city. Neighborhoods falling south and west of Interstate 580 can’t really be called the hills. And Maxwell Park is too far from the city center and bustling Grand Lake area to be considered downtown or even on the outskirts of downtown. Technically, Maxwell Park is lumped in with “East Oakland” – a part of the city that’s extremely poor and dangerous, but Maxwell Park doesn’t feel quite like the rest of East Oakland.


Lower Crime Levels, Strong Community

Maxwell Park is a small community, bounded by MacArthur Blvd., High St., Trask Ave., and 55th Ave. MacArthur and High are both major transit routes – one runs along much of I-580, and the other connects I-580 and I-880 – so naturally, more crime occurs in those areas. Below is a snapshot of violent and property crime incidents in the Maxwell Park neighborhood in July of this year from Oakland Crimespotting. The gray area is Mills College, and you can see that crime is much higher east of the college. The other peppering of incidents is centered around High Street in the corner of Maxwell Park.

Rewind a few years to 2007 – a notoriously bad year for Oakland in terms of crime, and this is what you’ll see:

It’s still not terrible by Oakland standards, but definitely a lot more crime (especially vehicle theft) within the actual community compared with this year.

It’s hard to pinpoint where these actual changes come from, but Maxwell Park has become known for its strong sense of community. For example, over the past few years, the Maxwell Park Neighborhood Council has teamed up with Community Development Block Grants and Keep Oakland Beautiful to transform the park (the park that the neighborhood gets its name from) from a run-down nexus for drug deals into a beautiful community space, complete with a mosaic made by residents.

In a recent piece on East Oakland, Mercury News talked to Dena Proctor, a nine-year resident of Maxwell Park:

‘It's not slick — there's an un-slick element,’ Proctor said of her neighborhood. ‘But I really quite like it… It helps that the neighborhood has a strong community group’, Proctor said, although she doesn't participate in it. She said she has a ‘waving relationship’ with most of her neighbors.

That kind of community and investment in a neighborhood can turn an undesirable area into an up-and-comer. But as Proctor points out, you have to be willing to wait through the neighborhood’s growth spurts while it’s still “un-slick” and rough around the edges.


The Turning of the Tide

When I spoke with Wayne Cory a few weeks ago, he mentioned Maxwell Park as a neighborhood that “didn’t quite make it.” First of all, the market turned. Maxwell Park was a neighborhood that was at the very start of its boom, but as prices fell dramatically across the country, the value of Maxwell Park plunged, too.

Add to that the fact that the surrounding neighborhoods are generally a lot worse and a lot more unsafe, and it’s pretty hard for this little community-driven area to buck the trend. In a review of the neighborhood on Street Advisor, one reviewer calls Maxwell Park a “hidden gem”, but also says this:

The area is not, of course, perfect. Though most murders do not occur deep within the heart of Maxwell park (only one was clearly within the neighborhood between 2007 and 2009), the nearby neighborhoods are extremely dangerous. Six murders happened right at the edges of the neighborhood and a good two dozen just beyond in the surrounding area, so this definitely needs to be a consideration for anyone thinking of setting down stakes here.

Decreasing home values and nearby crime are factors that some people could work around to be able to buy in a more affordable Oakland neighborhood. But this summer, another nail was put in the coffin: the closure of Maxwell Park Elementary.

In a controversial and much-protested decision, Oakland Unified School District shut down five elementary schools this June to save money for the whole school district. All of a sudden, Maxwell Park families had to send their children elsewhere. This isn’t to say that Maxwell Park Elementary was a stellar school, but the loss of a walking distance school has a huge impact on neighborhood home values as well as the appeal for young families looking for an affordable place to live.



So what can we learn from the example of Maxwell Park?

·         Community makes a huge difference. It’s not everything, but it helps a lot.

·         You can’t look at any one neighborhood as isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods—what’s happening a mile or two away will affect your home and property values.

·         Know what kind of rough edges you’re willing to deal with. And know that, at any time, things could get worse. You’re making a bet on a neighborhood’s success.

·         Things can always change.

That last one is really important. Here we see that a school closure totally dampened Maxwell Park’s chances of making it past being an “up-and-comer” to an established, desirable place to live. But then again, the tide could always turn back in the neighborhood’s favor. If you can risk it, there is something to be said for sticking it out and investing in a community through its ups and downs.

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