Oakland's Koreatown Isn't Your Typical Ethnic Enclave 

Welcome to Koreatown, which was the vision of one man, includes very few Korean residents, and employs an African-American "street ambassador."

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"If you wanna step out for 20, 25 minutes, come on through," Davenport says.

"Okay, thanks for making me feel welcome," Harris responds with a smile, as Davenport ducks out to continue his fliering.

Across the street, the dialysis technician veers down 23rd Street to Providence House, a supportive housing facility for people with HIV/AIDS. Although the facility is not technically within the Koreatown district, Davenport feels it's important to include it. "In order to have the businesses, you need to involve the community," he reasons. "These are your customers."

As Koreatown's official "street ambassador," Davenport takes his job very seriously. He isn't a property owner, but he works and lives there. Not only does he want to make the area a better place to live, but he believes that the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District can help make that happen. Of course, he has his own opinions, too.

"I feel as though I have a way with people," explained Davenport, sitting in a plush corner office in the dialysis center prior to his walk. "And people need some assistance, you know, that's what I'm here for. I interact very well with the public, and for a lot of the board members, they're really not from Oakland. They live outside of the area. So they're really not familiar. So part of my responsibility is to maintain the streets."

Davenport first learned of the Koreatown community benefit district from board member Kathy Beallo, who owns the building where he works. "One day, it was a lot of trash in her parking lot, stuff like that, and I said, 'Hey, you know, I'll pick that up for you.' So me and her became very close in a way where she began to trust me in doing things, not only because I work here but because my boss gave her a good report of who I am and what I've done to make things better for the dialysis center."

Beallo invited Davenport to one of the district's monthly board meetings. He continued to attend, and was very vocal on sharing his thoughts and ideas. A few months later, he was voted onto the board.

It soon became clear that Davenport had a unique perspective and position in the community that could benefit the board's mission. "My thing was that I could probably work with the people on the streets because I have a way with people and also because I was born and raised in the inner city, so I know how to relate with them, as opposed to other people that ... didn't live that type of life, may not know how to go in there. It's all about speaking." Plus, he added, "It's good with me being black, also it gives balance. If it was all Korean, you may not get feedback. I can relate to them. I try to keep the peace."

The board members seem to be counting on it. "What Dermelle does goes a long way to prevent what happened in Southern California, which is not what I want," said district board member Ben Schweng, referring to the LA riots, known by Korean Americans as Sa-I-Gu, or, literally, 4/29.

As the board's street ambassador, Davenport is primarily paid to report graffiti and illegal dumping to the city. But he also interacts with neighborhood kids and other residents, including the homeless. He tries to prevent homeless from panhandling in front of businesses or loitering around bus stops.

But Davenport goes a step further. He'll give a homeless person a few dollars if he has money in his pocket, or tell them about the shelter on West Grand and San Pablo where they can get hot meals twice a week. Sometimes, he said, he walks with them to ensure that they get there.

His effort was evident the other day when, while passing out fliers on Telegraph, he ran into an older homeless man pushing a shopping cart. He told the man to meet him at the car wash down the street where he would pay him to wash his car. The man seemed reluctant at first, but Davenport kept pushing the issue until he agreed.

"Because homeless people are homeless, they're still people," said Davenport. "And my thing is, I treat everyone the same whether you homeless or whether you have a nice big home and a business over here. ... And so I try to interact with them, and I also try to let them know what we're trying to do within our community and that they are a part of the community."

Sometimes, however, Davenport's tactics can be a little too touchy-feely for the board. He said he once hired homeless people to pass out fliers for the board, and wanted to hire them to help clean up after their street festival this fall. But his good intentions didn't pass muster with the board.

"This is the down-and-dirty work that I do out here," he said, adding that some board members seem hesitant to interact with the community. "It'll get better once the board gets more comfortable."

As for Davenport's incentive? He doesn't seem as concerned with luring Korean businesses or residents as he is with making life better for the people who live here. Besides helping the homeless, he also wants to start a Boys and Girls Club or create a park for the neighborhood kids.

While he clearly enjoys the challenge of his job, Davenport also understands the limitations. Despite his best efforts, not everyone is thrilled with Koreatown, particularly the name and the banners. He chose to skip passing out fliers to a couple of businesses. "They don't like the whole word Koreatown," he said. "They said this was Northgate before it was anything and that's what they want it to be. They feel as though Koreans have come in here and bought most of the stores up along Telegraph, and they bought a lot of the property, and because a lot of the property has been bought with Koreans that they're pushing them out."

It's a complex issue because most of the merchants who are upset are African American, just like Davenport. He may be Koreatown's official cheerleader, but he understands the frustration of some of the merchants, too. "I can relate to it to a certain extent because I feel like maybe in the beginning it should have been done a little bit differently to get more people in the community involved before we just came up with a name," he continued. "But, unfortunately, Koreatown, they went through all the right channels to establish what we are to this very day. So I support it 110 percent."

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