Alfonso Dominguez Holds It Down for the Town
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this 33-year-old entrepreneur is revitalizing Oakland by building its creative community from the ground up.
By Melissa Pandika
On any given night, chic 20- and 30-somethings walk up and down Broadway Avenue in Old Oakland, a historic district lined with bars, restaurants and gingerbread-trimmed Victorian storefronts. “Seeing people walk down Broadway feeling safe … I’m, like, ‘Yes,’” says 36-year-old entrepreneur Alfonso Dominguez. Just a few years earlier, Broadway teemed with kids “ready to rob”; Dominguez was jumped while walking with his then-girlfriend.
Much of Oakland has undergone a similar revival over the past five or so years, emerging as a sanctuary for San Francisco’s creative class as the tech boom and high rents price them out — earning the nickname Brooklyn by the Bay. That’s due in large part to efforts by people like Dominguez to build a community for creatives.
It’s a rough-ass city … but it has gorgeous parks … beautiful neighborhoods. It has so much potential, it’s ridiculous.
— Alfonso Dominguez
Dominguez wants to grow a creative community with enough economic clout to keep dollars within the struggling city. Today, he owns a bar and restaurant, and is a co-founder of Popuphood, a small-business incubator. Last year, he launched the Oakland Music Festival — Oakland’s soulful, streetwise alternative to San Francisco’s hipster haven music fest, Outside Lands. Although Oakland still struggles with crime and budget problems, the goal is to transform the city into a destination spot, attracting artists and much-needed visitor dollars.
The impresario joins other visionaries who want to transform cities through placemaking, or the creation of public spaces. Margarita Barry, founder of I Am Young Detroit, provides marketing, design and other support to entrepreneurs under 35 in that city. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Schwartz’s Broad Community Connections aims to revitalize New Orleans’ Broad Street corridor with a fresh food hub, community garden, and a partnership between local artists and retailers to create neon signage.
They say history has all the answers we forget … amphitheaters, plazas.
— Alfonso Dominguez
Dominguez has a boyish half-smile and a slicked-back greaser ’do. He speaks in a soft baritone from his home in leafy downtown Oakland, where he lives with his wife and nearly toddling son, not far from the rough-and-tumble East Oakland streets where he grew up with his parents — both Mexican immigrants — and three sisters.
Dominguez’s Oakland is the gritty Town to the gleaming City by the Bay, a port city with a population of about 400,000. “I don’t know what it is,” he says. “It’s a rough-ass city … but it has gorgeous parks, beautiful hills, beautiful neighborhoods. It has so much potential, it’s ridiculous.”
He seemed destined to rebuild it. Hailing from a family of artists, Dominguez majored in architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and studied in Florence for a year, where he watched in awe as pedestrians strolled the plazas every night — a contrast to his own city’s car-filled streets, desolate after dark. “They say history has all the answers we forget,” he says. Europeans originally “built cities for pedestrians … amphitheaters, plazas.”
He came to a realization: “We need to revitalize downtown [Oakland]. … The infrastructure is there.” He began by co-opening Tamarindo Antojeria, a Mexican tapas restaurant in Old Oakland, with his mother, armed with some experience helping his parents run their restaurant.
Inspired by Florence’s chic sartorial sense, Dominguez then opened a high-end denim store, Drift — sans fashion retail experience. Decked in his flyest duds, he religiously attended denim trade shows, pitching skeptical suppliers. He emailed them photos of his store’s haute decor to fight “the perception that Oakland was down and out … [and prove] that Oakland people care about style.” A year later, he underwent a similar process to open FIVEten Studio, a showroom for upscale, locally designed furniture.
But the 2008 recession shuttered those businesses; Tamarindo Antojeria barely survived. So in 2011, Dominguez teamed up with friend and urban planner Sarah Filley. A month later, they launched Popuphood, which allows fledgling businesses to occupy storefronts for six months free. Successful ventures can operate permanently. Today, five retailers have taken up permanent residence in Old Oakland, from an upscale vintage boutique to a Japanese kitchenware and barware store.
The free Oakland Music Festival app offers a lineup, vendor information and festival map.
Dominguez has since stepped down from Popuphood to devote more time to other projects, including the Oakland Music Festival (OMF). He launched in 2013 — again, utterly green. “I just Googled it,” he laughed. He searched for artists he liked, visited their record labels’ websites and emailed their booking agents. “I had every artist in the palm of my hand. … It was a pot of gold.”
Well, not quite. Dominguez lost money from the first OMF when it was rained out. This time, he’s prepared with more sponsors, including Yelp and Lagunitas Brewing Company. Scheduled for today, September 27, the festival features local art, as well as mostly local hip-hop and R&B musicians. “The overarching goal is to really brand the creatives and call out the renaissance of the city.”
Not everyone embraces his ideas. Some, for example, criticize the OMF lineup as too hood, too progressive. “I tend to be early to the party,” Dominguez insists. Others doubt whether Oakland, seen as on the cusp of revival for some time, really will have its time in the sun.
It’s very easy for people to talk shit. I like the challenge.
More serious are questions around gentrification. Calvin Williams, a program coordinator of the Urban Strategies Council, pointed out in a recent Impact Hub Oakland panel that more than 10,000 homes were foreclosed in the city since 2007. Forty-two percent were bought by real estate investment firms, and 93 percent of those homes were in low-income neighborhoods. Others worry that the new, upscale businesses benefit only a select few. “It really bugs me when people talk about the new bars and the fancy restaurants — that’s not real revitalization,” said another panelist, local developer Alan Dones.
Dominguez acknowledges that an artistic renaissance could raise prices and attract wealthy residents who might price out local creatives. He doesn’t have a solution — “I’m just here to raise the question,” he says. He says he’s focused on bringing in visitor dollars to fund the Oakland government so that it can create rent control and other policies.
“It’s very easy for people to talk shit,” Dominguez says. But “I like the challenge, proving them wrong. People are very complacent.” Maybe not for long, if Dominguez keeps shaking up the Town.
- Melissa PandikaContact Melissa Pandika