The intersection of Mandela Parkway and West Grand Avenue is usually just a spot I drive through on the way to another part of Oakland. Mandela is littered with huge, ancient warehouses that house the history of Oakland’s legendary makers. The warehouses were factories that turned raw steel into products that the whole world still uses.

American Steel Studios occupies two of those massive warehouses that today provides affordable space (and lots of it) for artists and entrepreneurs to create (70% of the Burning Man sculptures are created within those walls). But last Thursday, the space became a night-long epicenter of Oakland’s maker and artist community when it held the 12th annual BALLE Conference, bringing together an appropriately eclectic collection of entrepreneurs and local merchants from across the US. 

BALLE stands for Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and the organization is all about supporting local, small-scale retailers and makers. The event couldn’t have happened without the partnership of innovators like Vend and other enterprises focused on cultivating small-business and creative retail communities in Oakland and across the US. Oakland was a perfect location for an event celebrating creation, as the city’s burgeoning maker movement has been gaining recognition all around the country.

As eclectic as West Oakland’s people are, they all share a passion for fostering their community. The common thread running through all the vendors and attendees at the BALLE Conference was a localist frame of mind. As the global economy becomes more and more widespread and anonymous, artisans like Adrienne L. Wiley at Covet Boutique have found a place where a small-scale, love-what-I’m-doing kind of business can succeed. Adrienne opened her first shop in 2009 featuring her own line of unique, handmade jewelry, and thanks to the support of a vibrant local community, she opened her second in 2011. 

Beyond the local retailers attending the event, BALLE’s localist philosophy extended to performance groups as well. One of the most perfect manifestations of Oakland’s unparalleled eccentricity is the Tourettes Without Regrets show. Every first Thursday at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, a horde of sexy/nerdy slam poets, contortionists, unicycle-riding taser jugglers, and burlesque dancers hurl their creativity at anyone brave enough to attend. Tourettes Without Regrets was founded by modern-day vaudevillian Jamie DeWolf, who draws performers from all over the community.

DeWolf built a name for himself as a controversial slam poet, filmmaker, comedian, and outspoken critic of Scientology. (As the great grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, he certainly has a unique perspective on the subject.) He started what he calls “the Fight Club of underground art” after being banned himself from open mics in his hometown. Oakland welcomed his brand of raw, unfiltered performances, and he’s able to collect enough like-minded artists to put on monthly shows. As a resident of Oakland, he’s a fantastic example of someone who’s been able to create an outlet that previously didn’t exist.

From the Qilombo Community Social Center on San Pablo Avenue to Kilovolt Coffee on Mandela, Oakland’s enterprising community is on its way up, and its spirit is irrepressible. This kind of passion is important to keep alive, and the BALLE event was an awesome compilation of what Oakland’s maker community is up to these days. It’s comforting to know that new software companies like Vend are down to do the behind-the-scenes work to foster the growth of local retailers and their communities.

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