WRITTEN BY GREG YANG / PHOTOGRAPHED BY LUKE ATWOOD ABIOL
7th West is the type of place where you might find yourself getting down to Afrobeat music with a five-dollar beer or zenning out to a pop-up yoga session. It’s where murals by Oakland’s infamous TDK Crew line the walls and old school arcade games illuminate every corner. It’s a futuristic YMCA built for Oakland’s artists, hipsters, musicians, and weirdos.
A bar, restaurant, and venue space located on the famous Seventh Street of West Oakland, 7th West is the brainchild of four Oakland business owners: Pancho Kachingwe, a cofounder of The Hatch; Assan Jethmal, founder of Good Mother Gallery; and Kevin Pelgone and Donna Brinkman, formerly of the Overlook Lounge.
“We want 7th West to be the place where people can come together and be able to express themselves wholeheartedly without fear of judgment or repercussion,” Kevin says.
It’s the type of space that the Bay Area has been missing. But take a closer look and you’ll realize it’s the type of space that has long been removed from the very street it sits on.
Seventh Street was once a cultural haven for African-Americans with the likes of Nat King Cole, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Duke Ellington coming to perform at the thriving dance halls, cafes, and jazz clubs that filled the block. Cadillacs cruised along the boulevard. High rollers were decked out in fur coats down to the toes. Seventh Street was more than just a street in Oakland, it was Broadway.
But as West Oakland went through urban renewal and redevelopment, Seventh Street began to fall apart. Night clubs shut down, employment dwindled, and residents were left with boarded up windows, empty lots and the screeching of BART trains throughout the night.
For 7th West to open here, of all places, was not going to be an easy mission. “Everyone said we were crazy for opening in West Oakland,” Pancho says. The fall of Seventh Street left a community with little to no resources. And change, as always, can be a scary thing.
But Pancho, Assan, Kevin, and Donna see 7th West as more than just a business of hosting parties and selling drinks. They see 7th West as a community-driven space. An opportunity to promote art and creativity. An opportunity to give back to a neighborhood that has had everything taken away.
A few months ago, 7th West hosted a drag event called “HOE is Brunch.” Among the crowd were families with toddlers. In the middle of the brunch, a half-naked man busted out an NSFW drag show. Yet, there wasn’t a single complaint. Instead, the families with toddlers cheered in support.
That moment reminded Kevin of exactly what kind of place 7th West is. On the surface, it’s a bar, restaurant, and venue space. But, beyond that and more importantly, 7th West is a space where everyone—no matter what skin color, sexual orientation, or background—can congregate, dance, and express themselves.
To the founders, 7th West is a constant balance of knowing the neighborhood around you while staying authentic to yourself. Kevin explains it as two different ways of opening up shop:
“When it comes to the area you’re serving, do you connect with the community in a way that’s tacit or screaming out loud?” he says. “When you scream out loud, that becomes pandering. I don’t want to pander.”
Staying authentic to yourself is a lofty statement. But, when Kevin explains his intent, he does so in a way that demonstrates just how aware he is of 7th West’s presence and responsibility.
“Our core values are authenticity, transparency, community-centeredness, and sustainable economic growth,” he says, “for us, our staff, and our community.”
Kevin sees 7th West as a blank canvas for him, Pancho, Assan, and Donna. All four are people of color: Kevin is Filipino, Pancho is Zimbabwean, Assan is Filipino-Indian, and Donna is Jamaican-Scottish-Filipino. It’s a canvas that cannot be dictated by one color, one ethnicity, or one demographic.
“People wish we would just represent one culture or one demographic,” Pancho says, “but that’s not us and that’s not real either.”
“We’re not here to create a safe space. We’re here to create a brave space.”
And while they each contribute something to 7th West, they also understand that it’s meant to be a place that serves the community around them, one that has too often been forgotten and dismissed. They’ve intentionally set menu items at affordable price points. Their events are representative of their customers. They believe in offering a fair wage to the people they employ.
“We pay full rate plus tips,” Kevin says. “We don’t have to. Our profit margins definitely suffer, but we’re not going to be true to ourselves if we don’t participate in these types of programs at every level, for our employees to our contractors to our clientele.”
At a higher level, the owners of 7th West are interested in creating initiatives that will help those they’ve welcomed into their space. As a start, they are creating a social impact report that will document all the lessons learned in opening 7th West. It’s about opening the doors and building sustainable ways for growth. From the bartender who has hopes of opening his own place, to the artist who has dreams of putting together a gallery space, the goal is to guide individuals in turning their ideas and dreams into an actual business, including figuring out capital and learning how to secure permits.
“We want to stay true to who we are,” Kevin says. “But we also know that we’re providing a space for the community. This is also a blank canvas for them.” 7th West is one of those places that reminds you of what it feels like to be a kid again. It’s a feeling we have to be reminded of every once in a while – the feeling of letting loose and not caring for what others think or perceive of you, because denying yourself that feeling means you aren’t really living.
“We’re not here to create a safe space,” Kevin says. “We’re here to create a brave space.”
Life has a funny way of making us think we need to be or act a certain way, but in this Town, in this time, and in this space, different is okay.
Assan Jethmal, Donna Brinkman, Kevin Pelgone, and Pancho Kachigwe are the owners of 7th West located at 1255 7th Street in West Oakland. The bar is open daily until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 2am Friday and Saturday, with special events on the calendar. 7thwest.com / IG: @7thwestoakland
Published November 2019