The guys behind the light and sound of some of Downtown Oakland’s most successful music and art venues of the early 2000’s are now setting the stage for growth in one of the core parts of Oakland–Uptown, Downtown and the Lake Merritt district. Steve Snider, District Manager of the jointly managed Lake Merritt and Downtown Oakland community benefit districts (CBDs), and his business partner, Andrew Jones of Oakland Venue Management, have progressed over the past ten years or so from running events in Oakland spaces to making things happen in one of Oakland’s most rapidly evolving areas.
Though the journey from running nonprofit art spaces to CBD district management may be unconventional, Snider and Jones describe it as a natural transition.
“Oakland is a small town,” Jones said. “It’s big, but it’s really small and there are a lot of crossed paths and cross pollination of projects. Every single thing we’ve ever done has never been plotted out. And [CBDs are] like big venues–the financial statements for a district are almost identical to those done when running events.”
The outgoing Snider and the quieter Jones, the duo behind major Oakland venues of the early ‘00s, such as the Oakland Box Theater, 2232 MLK—and, for a brief two years–the Historic Sweet Ballroom—had operated Oakland Venue Management since 2008, and saw an opportunity to step up their activity in 2009 when CBDs entered the Oakland scene.
“At the time, we had just started street festivals,” Snider said. “We were dabbling in street festival production world and part of that work was working with various business districts in Oakland.”
According to Jones, Snider worked at the bottom of the totem pole as an administrative assistant to get access to the CBDs.
“Long story short we got our foot in the door…and they started to sort of groom us,” Snider said. “We had an opportunity to be mentored into the role over the first few years of operation.”
Now entering in their third year of exclusive management of strategy and operations for Lake Merritt and Downtown Oakland, Snider is vocal about the role CBDs play in providing baseline services to local business, workers, and residents that city governments have historically provided, but often do not anymore.
“Who is the contact in the city that can help bring some consequences to bear from behavior that is not helping the Downtown?” he asked, explaining that he sees the CBD as the becomes the eyes and ears for the police department, as well as a watchdog for absentee landlords.
It was through operating art and music venues that Snider witnessed firsthand the radical change community art spaces could impact. Though Snider said that Oakland has always had a lot of talent, the Downtown of the ‘00s didn’t take advantage of that.
“Pretty much until about 2009, downtown Oakland—which didn’t have an Uptown at the time—was a ghost town on nights and weekends,” he said. “We’re in the middle of this seven million-person metropolis, right near San Francisco, and in all the middle of this, and yet there’s tumbleweeds on Saturdays and Sundays and no one walking around on the evenings except when we’d open and have great community events,” he said.
With the opening of the Box Theater in 2001, Snider turned a formerly blighted storefront into a hub for artistic activity. Inspired by Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, he sought to use the platform of a nonprofit art space to create a new narrative with art.
“It all really snowballed after opening the door for the poetry slam,” he said.
The Box Theater was famous for its Thursday Night event series, and the list of performers and artists the space attracted is like flipping through a before they were famous yearbook. The Box Theater helped start the careers of Chinaka Hodge and Ise Lyfe, among others.
“If you put enough people in the room, a larger story will emerge when you allow people to express themselves creatively,” Snider said. “That’s what I felt my role was in Oakland, opening the doors and making a stage available and an art gallery available for people to express themselves.”
Though the trajectory of his career has transitioned to managing a growing business district , Snider says that he still dreams of creating a new incarnation of the Oakland Box Theater, which is currently a dormant nonprofit.
“We learned the hard way that people don’t fund venue-specific, they fund programs,” Snider said. “When I was doing the Box project or any of these other venues, it was so grassroots and we were working with the community arts and activist community, and you never [knew] who’s in all these skyscrapers around here…we didn’t have any relationships with those kind of folks” he said. “But we did know that…we were doing something these districts really valued, which is creating a vibrant community and activating storefronts.”
Treating the city as a venue, Jones said that he and Snider want to make Oakland a premier destination for the world.
“Certainly what were tying to do is foster an environment that’s a community based on justice, ecology, sustainability and opportunity for everybody in this whole town,” Jones said. “Of course we’re not going to do it all on our own, but we can be a player at a table. The work will probably never be done but it will be fun to try.”
The ethos of the early community venues sticks.
“Let the community artistically direct itself,” Snider said. “Provide lights and venue you’ll be incredibly inspired by the voice that the community has.”