ELECTION ’12//OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL DIST 3//PROFILE | “Would you mind moving your car?” asked Christopher. “Don’t you fucking talk to me again,” said Chad. He was new in town but wasn’t expecting a polite suggestion resulting in a handgun against his head. He was stepping over boundaries he wasn’t aware even existed; Christopher retreated and never bothered Chad again. Chad was known real well by the cops in West Oakland, “Oh, Chad again,” was the usual response they gave when another call came through about the West Oakland native who also so happened to be running an underage prostitution ring.
Alex Miller-Cole, partner.
That business didn’t last much longer though because not long after Christopher and Chad “met,” Chad was found by his mother faced down in his pillow, brains blown out. His mother’s screams could be heard echoing in the neighborhood. A life of tragedy burned out, bad choices, some probably made for him, some made by him and he’s now dead and to this day no one knows who killed him. “He was a bad kid,” said Alex Miller-Cole, “Even the police were scared of him.”
Miller-Cole was Chad’s neighbor but is also Christopher’s husband. The soft spoken, but talkative, West Oakland resident is also running for Oakland’s District 3 council seat this year and ten years of witnessing to gang violence, drug addiction, rape, prostitution and murder has helped mold a keen sense of what his skills could do to change West Oakland. The west side was once the worst part of Oakland but has seen improvements in recent years, in part because of Miller-Cole’s contributions.
Around the corner from Miller-Cole’s home, on Myrtle Street, is a cute, petite, bright yellow house with animated green doors and a steely black fence. In 2009 that house used to be the worst house on the block, said Miller-Cole. It was a hallowed out blackened shell with wiring ripped out from its ceiling and a missing toilet that appeared to have been torn from cement flooring. Eight murders happened there between 2007 and 2009. Dog fights were common in the yard, squatters and drug users shacked up inside and drug dealers commonly did business out front.
In 2009 Miller-Cole and his husband bought it and redesigned it to the prairie house on the block it is today. “What drug dealer is going to say, ‘meet me in front of the house that looks like Mickey Mouse?’” said Miller-Cole rhetorically. It worked though, since then there has been no murders and it helped foster change on the street. Buildings across the street slapped on new paint and improved aesthetics. “There is a philosophy in design that if you make something look better, crime will go away.” Miller-Cole took that philosophy to town redesigning inside and out buildings that once attracted blight. Mead Street use to be one of the most dangerous streets in all of Oakland, notorious for shootings and murders. Another bleak house was revamped and reworked by Miller-Cole, now full of flowers and new paint. “While we were working on the house we pulled out a bag full of guns from the attic. There was blood in the bag,” said Miller-Cole.
On one side of the street is Golden Foods and along its dimmed colored green wall use to be passed out drunks and drug addicts. But now, they are gone, since various houses on the block have been upgraded. People remember this as neighbors happily wave to Miller-Cole as he drives down the street, “look guys, it’s Alex, say hi to Alex!” shouted one lady to her kids. Other streets, like Market and Myrtle, saw similar improvements all with houses with history of the same story, carrying dark secrets and public showcases of violence. Now they have new colors coated, purposely bright to ward off drug dealers and criminals. They usually sport yellow, green, purple, blue or orange and now filled with residents of different walks of life; students, elderly, parents and kids. Inside the house reflects something you find in an upper class neighborhood with granite kitchen tops, hardwood floors and finely finished cabinets and some kept at Section 8 rents. “It isn’t about gentrification, we work to keep the rent low so people who live here can afford it,” said Miller-Cole.
Miller-Cole was once known as Jesus Jair Alvarez Guerrero when he lived in Guadalajara in Mexico. Miller-Cole came to America when he was 17, not by choice, but because of the untimely death of his father whose intestine exploded from a cancerous colon tumor. As a gay man in Mexico there wasn’t much of a future for Miller-Cole despite his good grades and even being chosen to ice skate for the Mexican Olympic team (he never went to the Olympics because of a lack of money). His family, a mother and five siblings sent him to America to provide a living for them. Miller-Cole lived in the attic of a house south of San Francisco owned by a German family. There, he listened to tapes that taught him English in a British accent, read the Encyclopedia Britannica and worked San Francisco as a waiter. “I picked up an accent that had a mix between German, British and Hispanic, no one could understand anything I was saying,” joked Miller-Cole.
Miller-Cole eventually got a job working in the mail room at the San Francisco Board of Realtors and also picked up extra work there for computer technical support. That was where he met Malin Giddings whose ancestry was rooted in the Swedish royal family. She is among the rich socialites like Sharon Stone and the Getty Family. She offered him work at her house to install the MLS system for Apple computers that made its breakthrough in the 1980s. With her, Miller-Cole learned his trade in graphic design, photography and interior design. He worked for her as an executive assistant and later as a marketing director and had the opportunity of refurbishing vintage homes in the Bay Area and selling others for a high price. “She never touched anything below $12 million,” said Miller-Cole, “She was a very straight forward kind of person and my mentor. I reaped a lot of benefits with my affiliation with her.” Miller-Cole changed his name to first Alex Alvarez when working at the San Francisco Board of Realtors, which garnered him a raise and then later to Alex Cole working for Giddings. “Racism is very alive, people made fun of me because of my name [Jesus],” recalled Miller-Cole who knew well that working in the high class real estate industry that class and race were important penchants for these people. “I became Alex Miller-Cole when I married my husband, Christopher Miller.”
Around 2000, Giddings was entering retirement and Miller-Cole left to create his own business. He bought a house in West Oakland during the housing bubble and later started his own company, Cypress One Properties. But after the housing crash in 2008, business became scarce, which led to him and his husband buying recently foreclosed homes in West Oakland, like the little yellow duplex around the corner from their house. “It’s about community policing,” said Miller-Cole, “My campaign is about public safety.” Miller-Cole has expressed support for the “100 block” initiative, advocating for more police walking the neighborhoods and has shown interest in David M. Kennedy’s CEASEFIRE project, which recently has been rumored to be coming to Oakland. Miller-Cole has racked up quite a list of coalitions and boards from commissioner for the Oakland Community Policing Advisory Board, to the chair of San Pablo Corridor Coalition to Park Steward for St. Andrews Plaza. Last year, he received a $75,000 grant to renovate St. Andrew’s Plaza, one of the city’s major issues because of its attraction of crime, drug use, prostitution and public sex.
Miller-Cole doesn’t consider himself a politician; he rather be called your neighbor and friend. It’s his campaign slogan in fact. For Miller-Cole it is about understanding people and fixing the issues rather than moving them. When the city renovated other parks near San Pablo and removed the seating, it moved the crime that once infested those spots to St. Andrews. It didn’t fix anything, according to Miller-Cole, “There is a reason why these people are on the streets,” said Miller-Cole, “Public safety is jobs. Why are those kids on the corner? No education and no jobs. There is no economic development here. If you give these kids hope and empowerment then they don’t need to be on the corner selling drugs.”
Shane Bond is a contributor to the East Bay Citizen.