Fruitvale: The Town's Gem 

With its thriving businesses and large immigrant population, Fruitvale is uniquely Oakland: diverse, welcoming, family-oriented, community-minded — and too-often overlooked.

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click to enlarge Helen Slape, owner of Bonanza - PHOTO BY AZUCENA RASILLA
  • Photo by Azucena Rasilla
  • Helen Slape, owner of Bonanza

One of the most well-known and longest-running businesses in Fruitvale is Bonanza, a dual store on International at 36th Avenue that sells hardware in the larger portion of the store, and camping, construction, and military goods in the smaller portion. It's been a staple in the neighborhood for over 53 years. Helen Slape, the 87-year-old matriarch of Bonanza who is at the store daily, recalls what Fruitvale was like when she and her husband first opened their business.

"First [the space where the hardware store is located] was a Safeway many, many years ago. The little emblem is still on the roof," Slape recalled. "They had moved, and before we moved in, I believe it was a furniture store."

When Slape opened the store, Fruitvale was largely inhabited by Italian, German, Portuguese, and Irish families. Then Chicanos moved into the neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s as the Chicano Movement spread nationwide. "When we first moved here, this wasn't a Hispanic community," Slape added. "I was the only Hispanic, along with the fellow across the street" (where Mexican restaurant El Farolito is located).

Being one of the longest-standing business owners in the area, Slape has seen a multitude of changes in the past five decades. During our recent conversation, she talked effusively about many of her regular customers who started as apprentices for someone else and how she got to see their transformation: becoming owners of their own companies. It is the kind of family-like atmosphere that people feel when they shop at Bonanza — and feel about Fruitvale.

Many might not know that Slape's hardware store also used to have a separate warehouse on 37th Avenue and International. "We used to bring in the 40-by-20-foot container — that was before Home Depot, Lowe's, and all of those," Slape recalled. Eventually, they had to forego the warehouse because of competition from larger chain hardware stores.

The secret to staying in business all these years despite competition and changes in the neighborhood? "Hard work. That's it," Slape said. "We used to stay here from seven o'clock in the morning, and at ten o' clock, we were still here. We were here six days a week."

As Fruitvale evolves, Slape worries about the future of long-standing businesses like hers, and how the continuous redevelopment of the area could affect them. One of her biggest concerns is the construction of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The light rail on wheels is a new bus service that will run along a 9.5-mile corridor between downtown Oakland and San Leandro BART, along International and a stretch of East 12th. This new system is scheduled to begin service in December 2019 and aims to alleviate traffic congestion, while providing more reliable public transportation in the East Bay.

Slape, however, is worried that the construction phase will disrupt business and that the lack of parking will deter patrons from coming to the area.

Once BRT is completed, residents in Deep East Oakland will have a faster access to Fruitvale and to businesses all along the BRT corridor.

Yet despite her fears about BRT construction, Slape remains hopeful about Fruitvale and proud of what she has achieved all these years with her business. "You know what the secret is, too?" she asked. "We sell service. And we treat people with respect."

click to enlarge Enriqueta Soriano, owner of El Palacio - PHOTO BY AZUCENA RASILLA
  • Photo by Azucena Rasilla
  • Enriqueta Soriano, owner of El Palacio

Chris Iglesias of the Unity Council echoes Slape's feelings about Fruitvale being home to businesses that respect and welcome people regardless of their background. Fruitvale "has built a strong identity that's built not just with the Latino community, but with all types of communities," he noted. "It's a place where people feel like they can come in and start their lives. It's still a place that's accepting with a strong cultural backbone."

New immigrant communities that have found a home in Fruitvale and have opened business there include the Mam community, an indigenous Mayan group based in the inlands of Southern Mexico and Guatemala. As of 2012, 37,663 people of Guatemalan descent resided in the San Francisco Bay Area region, according to a report by the Oakland-based research institute PolicyLink.

"First thing I see in the morning when I come into work are strollers, mothers, fathers, grandmothers bringing their kids to our head start programs," said Iglesias, of how family-oriented Fruitvale is. "It's a sea of humanity."

Fruitvale is also a one-stop shop, a neighborhood where you can find everything you need, and that's what makes it an appealing place to work and live. Fruitvale "is still a place where folks can educate their kids, find services for their families, find retail, food," Iglesias noted. "This is what makes this place special."

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