Ben Jameson-Ellsmore Publishes Essay on PLATFORM

Curbside Castle: Architecture and Aspiration at an Oakland Homeless Encampment

Ben Jameson-Ellsmore

The Fifth Street Natives homeless encampment spills from the sidewalk into the road on the north side of Fifth Street, one block from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station in West Oakland, California. It is a dense, cohesive assemblage of scavenged materials forming a canyon wall in the street (figure 1 and 2). Scrap materials are bound together and leaned against utility poles and chain link fences, forming physical barriers around the encampment. Decorated with colorful hand-painted canvases, its façade shields a cluster of tarp-draped tents. In a neighborhood crisscrossed by transportation infrastructure connecting with large parking lots and warehouses for big rigs, the sounds of passing vehicles permeate the structure’s thin walls (figure 3). Nestled precariously in this liminal zone between industrial and residential districts, between a public street and a private lot, the encampment fights every day for its right to exist (figure 2).

Figure 1. The Fifth Street Natives Encampment (left) framed by Fifth Street, a raised BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) line, the Interstate 880, and an upscale apartment complex in the distance, Oakland, California, 2021. Photograph by Ben Jameson-Ellsmore.

Figure 2. An aerial view of the Fifth Street encampment, including Castle and its neighbors arranged in a strip stretching from West Mandela Parkway (upper left) to Kirkham Street (lower right). Screenshot from Google Earth.

Figure 3. The view passing by the encampment on Fifth Street. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) can be seen and heard hurdling by, routinely interrupting conversations and sleep, Oakland, California, 2021. Photograph by Ben Jameson-Ellsmore.

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