Before entering Omni Commons, you are greeted by its “free store” – shelves of free colorful clothing for homeless residents living near the Temescal property or anyone else in need.
The store, which spans the lobby of the 22,000 square foot building on Shattuck Avenue, is part of Omni Commons’ larger experiment in redistributing Oakland’s wealth and resources. Since 2014, a collective of volunteers has operated a sort of radical community center there, with the philosophy of providing for people instead of taking advantage of them.
The building has served as a headquarters for self-help groups, a venue for film screenings, puppet shows, hip-hop concerts and zine festivals, a clinic for repairing electronics and decorating bicycles , a laboratory for microbiology experiments and a meeting space for countless community organizers.
“Almost every left-leaning group in the Bay Area knows or has come through Omni at some point,” said Kai Ye, who lobbies for the collective. “It is an important space for building social and political movements at a time when finding affordable event space is extremely difficult.”
These options could become even more elusive if Omni does not raise an extraordinary amount of money next month. The collective, which bought the building in 2016, owes nearly $900,000 on its home loan and could face foreclosure if it can’t find the funds or get another loan quickly.
A crowdfunding campaign has raised $28,000 so far, and the group is planning a fundraising party for Nov. 4 while furiously filling out loan applications.
“We’re working on all fronts,” said Yardena Cohen, one of Omni’s many co-founders. She said it’s unclear what their original lender — an anonymous donor who helped them buy the property — will do if they don’t get the $900,000.
“We do our best to make them pay before we find out,” she said.
The pandemic has decimated Omni’s revenue
The seeds of Omni Commons were planted during Occupy Oakland, where thousands of people camped downtown and demonstrated in the streets, dreaming of a society where power and wealth were not concentrated among a privileged few.
The momentum and relationships built during this movement prompted a large group of organizers to seek physical space to continue their work. Some were part of organizations that rented to exploitative landlords at the time, Cohen said, and they yearned for a place where they would have control.
The white and blue building where they landed, at the corner of Shattuck and 48th Street, was built in 1934 as the Liguria Club, a social headquarters of the Genoese garbage collectors. At the time, Temescal was an Italian-American neighborhood, and the clubhouse, with its ballroom and bocce court, served some 900 members. In the 1980s the building became the Omni nightclub and was later privately owned by a couple who rented it out for various uses.
The Omni Commons Collective signed a lease in 2014, which included the attractive option to purchase the building.
“We wanted a world without owners,” Cohen said. “We wanted him to be out of the speculative real estate market permanently.”
They were able to buy the property for $2 million, thanks to an anonymous wealthy donor who covered half the cost and gave them a loan for the other half.
According to Cohen, Omni never missed a monthly payment, but the loan, which was meant to be a bridging loan until they found another one, included a lump sum payment of nearly $900,000 after five years. The collective was able to negotiate a one-year extension because of the pandemic, but it expires at the end of this year.
Like most venues, Omni Commons has struggled throughout the pandemic, closing completely and then reducing its public events. A lot of 10 member organizations permanently based in the building also struggled, and Omni forgave their monthly payments to the collective, previously a reliable source of income with event revenue.
To make matters worse, there was significant turnover among volunteers at the time, including those in charge of finance, members of the collective said.
“There was no lack of understanding about what we needed to do, but we lost some institutional memory over the past two years, and it took us a while to pull ourselves together,” Cohen said. .
Computers, parachutes and vegan cheese
On Wednesday afternoon, visitors rummaged through the shelves of pants and jackets in the free store at the Omni’s entrance, some grabbed cans or carrots and fresh celery from the City fridge outside the building.
Inside the entrance hall, the staff of Non-verbal actsa youth urban agriculture organization that is one of 10 Omni members in the space, handed out boxes of produce to people who came to pick up their weekly shares.
“If Omni closes, bands like this are going to be moved,” Ye said.
Upstairs, Joe Leisner, a longtime Berkeley activist and volunteer with Food not bombshammered pieces of wood that will turn into a new wall separating Omni’s library from a new political meeting room.
Over there, in the “disco room”, Francesca Tettamanzi was preparing to organize a roundtable for community-oriented businesses.
Downstairs, CC Clark was setting up a silk screen to print a Lithuanian flag in the “media lab”, an area of the building that looks like a garment factory, where anyone can walk in and pay $5 to use the equipment . Clark worked on the industrial sewing machine to prototype parachutes for Ziplinea company providing worldwide healthcare and aid by drone.
Ligure’s former pétanque court is now home to two of Omni’s original members, hackerspace Sudo room and DIY scientific organization Counterculture Labs. The space is both dizzying and well-organized, with rows of labeled boxes filled with parts and gadgets, computers and test tubes, and a vintage vending machine.
In the lab, some citizen scientists are participating in an effort to develop an open-source model of insulin production, aimed at making a generic drug accessible without depending on the pharmaceutical industry. Others concoct vegan cheese.
Only the grand ballroom adorned with chandeliers was empty, awaiting its next event.
The Omni building is a “gem of space”, said Peter Mui, who runs “repair clinics” with Sudo Room. “The people I’ve met are amazing.”
Mui thinks Omni Commons is a good candidate for one of the city’s ‘climate resilience centers’ plans to fund for resource distribution and disaster response. It’s one of many dreams Omni members have for the property, including opening a commercial kitchen, making it wheelchair accessible, continuing improvements to the 90-year-old structure and converting the ownership structure into a land trust. But those plans are on hold until their future in the building is secured.
In the years since Omni opened, members have seen high-end housing developments spring up around them and long-standing institutions disappear, making efforts to “preserve this precious little gem. who stays here” an urgent feeling, Mui said.
“It’s the kind of place where once they’re gone, they don’t come back,” he said.