Gentrifying neighborhood threatens historic venue’s survival, according to staff.
By Tulio Ospina
Humanist Hall, a non-theistic church that has been a cultural resource for under-served communities in Oakland since 1941, has been designated a public nuisance by the City of Oakland, based on complaints of neighborhood residents.
According to the staff at the hall, located at 390 27th Street between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, recent gentrification in the area around the venue has led to new residents repeatedly filing complaints against its hours of operation, noise levels, presence of children outdoors and patrons “loitering” outside the building.
After nuisances are reported, the city can impose penalties such as fines and evictions if the annoyances continue. Since June of this year, Humanist Hall has been fined $4,000 due to noise complaints—$1,000 per offense—a sum that could put the hall out of business.
“We host a lot of cultural events for people who otherwise couldn’t afford them,” said David Oertel, Humanist Hall president, pointing out that the church hosts community events, which include Mexican family occasions—such as quinceañeras and baptisms—transgender weddings, cultural dances, barbecues and political meetings.
Once a year, the Humanist Hall hosts a voodoo festival that brings international patrons to Oakland from as far away as Trinidad and Puerto Rico, said Oertel.
The Humanist church is not a profit-seeking entity but is dedicated to offering its space to support the political, spiritual, cultural and ethnic values of minority communities, he said.
Greg Minor, assistant to the city administrator, states the city has had issues with the venue for the past 10 years, mostly due to noise levels during the day and especially after curfew.
With regard to steps to mediate or encourage conflict resolution between the neighbors before resorting to punitive measures, Minor responded that mediation is a usual first step for the city in these situations.
Nonetheless, he was unsure what steps had been taken in this circumstance because he has only been working in his current position for a short time.
Minor said complaining residents have been unwilling to speak publically with the press for fear of retaliation.
Oertel said he has not been able to talk to those who have complaints, claiming they have been secretive and aloof and “not very interested in being in a community with the people who they are in the community with.”
Humanist Hall entered into a settlement agreement with the city last month and agreed to start complying with the city’s conditions in order to avoid paying the fines.
Oertel claims that obeying every regulation has been difficult for the church.
“One of the agreement’s conditions is that we have to report to the city the expected number of guests that will be attending each event,” said Oertel. “But a lot of these people come to family occasions and bring their extended families and we end up with a hundred people.”
Last week, the organization launched an online petition calling on Mayor Libby Schaaf to “encourage condo owners and renters to respect the social norms of the neighborhood – our neighborhood – that they have moved into.”
“Apparently, one homeowner complaining to the city is enough to shut down Humanist Hall, even though 20,000 people per year who use our hall would have to go without it,” says the petition.
Within a week, the online petition has garnered over 1,600 signers.