With development looming, old Burley’s hangs on

By MARTIN RICARD
Oaklandnorth.net, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
November 26, 2008

There’s an invisible line on West MacArthur Boulevard that divides it these days into two different worlds. On one side of Telegraph Avenue, in the up-and-coming Temescal district, the corridor is full of activity. Up near Broadway and Piedmont Avenue, a new Kaiser facility is being erected, which once built, will literally become a beacon of light for that part of North Oakland.

On the other side, a lone church shares another two blocks with a dilapidated motel strip, boarded-up homes, wilted trees that look like they haven’t been trimmed in a while, and trash strewn along the sidewalk.

Then there’s Burley’s Auto Detail Shop, a tiny powder-blue garage hidden in the corner of a huge asphalt lot that on most days is full of cars. An awning hangs slightly sunken over the waiting area in front of the office, where customers can kick back in lawn chairs. Sometimes people barbeque on the smoker that sits on the corner nearest the intersection.

Owned by Mary Syon and her family for nearly 35 years, the auto detail shop at West MacArthur and Martin Luther King Way has survived the good times and the bad, is one of the longest-standing businesses in that neighborhood, and represents a community at a crossroads.

The area is undergoing a transition with the massive pending development—just a block away—of a 624-unit “transit village,” to be built around the MacArthur BART station, filling an entire city block with new commercial space, affordable housing, and a parking structure.. And that worries business owners like Syon, because her future is not certain and places like hers—no pretty facade, no employees in suits, cars of all kinds pulling up dirty all the time—are not part of the development plan.

“I know they can put condos here,” said Syon, 62. “But I’d like to stay here because my business is important. I made it important. It’s not just one of those car washes on the corner.”

A ‘complete’ auto detail shop

Burley’s first opened on E. 14th Street and 5th Avenue in East Oakland. Mary and Burley Syon had moved to Oakland from Houston at the urging of Burley’s brother, who had been in the auto detail business himself for years and wanted them to join him in the industry.

At first, the business only did car washes. But it got so busy that the Syons decided to open a second shop at its current location. Burley Syon has since died, and Mary Syon, who was trained in auto detailing from her years working at car dealerships, took over sole ownership of the business.

It became a staple in the neighborhood. And when the East Oakland location was sold, the clientele kept flocking to the North Oakland spot, where they could get a car wash, shampooed interior, spot removal and cleaned wheels—the whole nine.

Burley’s is a “complete” auto detail shop, as Syon puts it—punctuating the “complete” in her best sales pitch voice, because of the miracles she can perform on cars.

“If I can bring it back,” she says, “I will.”

It looked like a miracle was the only thing that could bring back the van Syon was cleaning one recent afternoon.

On most days, she stops by the shop in her pickup truck just to check on her employees, her petite frame dressed in a jacket, pants and heels—“I wear them because I gotta keep on moving, I can’t sit down”—her long, wavy dark hair draped over her face.

But on this overcast day, she had on dress leather boots and what looked like a white lab coat, which was stained with the grime she was removing from the van’s interior.

She was crouched headfirst in the vehicle, scrubbing it all the way through.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I can’t really describe it, this car is so bad.”

A mother with several small children had brought the van in to have the interior cleaned, Syon said. She was not exaggerating when she said the floor looked as black as oil, a result of the kids’ wreaking havoc in the back seat.

Syon was scrubbing each crevice of the van with a white rag, solvent and degreaser. Her employee, Charles Taylor, lent her a hand every once in a while on the heavy stuff. After a while, the beige color of the interior began to reappear.

Struggling to hold on

This is why Syon is so fearful of what could happen to her business.

For years, she has built a rapport with her customers that is based on her kindness and attention to detail. They don’t seem to mind the fact that the building’s paint is starting to chip away, that the picture is often shoddy on the television customers watch while they’re waiting for their cars, or that Burley’s is still cash only–no credit cards.

Mary Syon takes a break from cleaning a van to get a piece of fried chicken from a loyal customer.

Mary Syon takes a break from cleaning a van to get a piece of fried chicken from a loyal customer.

She also has built up her business on the principle that everyone deserves a chance. She often employs people who just got out of prison or off drugs. After working for Miss Mary, as they all call her, many of them have gone on to work at dealerships, or start auto detail shops of their own.

“When I came here and met her, she made me have self-confidence in myself again,” said Lovella, who graduated from junior college and had a job but lost it all due to her drug habit. Lovella, who didn’t give her last name for this story, now works as Syon’s right-hand woman, making sure everything runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis.

In recent years, Syon said, the business has been struggling. After she semi-retired from running the business full-time five years ago and turned it over to new management, drug dealers began to use her shop for their own business.

She had to come back and take over things once again, but it hasn’t been easy. She shooed away the drug dealers but filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and now most of the business’ revenues go to paying back taxes.

What worries her most are the developers who have expressed interest in buying her out of her property in anticipation of the coming MacArthur transit village and because of the cheap land. One developer offered her $400,000 for the entire property. Another developer had plans to build an 18-unit housing complex on the land right next to Burley’s, which would have overshadowed the small shop. The city initially wanted that developer to acquire the shop and expand the project all the way to the corner, but Syon has declined to sell; she says  she has too much vested in the business and in the community.

‘Land of despair’

The Longfellow neighborhood comprises West MacArthur and a number of other historic streets below of Telegraph, and is bordered by Highway 24 to the east and to the south, 47th Street to the north, and Adeline Street and part of San Pablo Avenue to the west.

The area has had its share of problems, but it hasn’t been all bad. At one point, Longfellow had a thriving community, first with Italian and then with predominantly black families. Now it also includes whites, Latinos and Asians. There are businesses along Martin Luther King: Marcus Books, the Bay Area’s only black-owned bookstore; Eli’s Mile High Club, a former blues bar that reopened recently under new management; and Café Dejena, an Eritrean-owned spot that is part of a renovated commercial building.

In the late 1960s, Highway 24 was built and the MacArthur BART station at MacArthur and Telegraph opened. The Rockridge station on College Avenue opened the following decade, setting off an infusion of commercial activity surrounding that area. The MacArthur BART station, however, had a devastating effect on the black communities that lived and worked near it. Separated from the neighborhoods above Telegraph, residents and businesses in the area—of low and moderate income—were denied opportunities to maintain or improve their properties. The lack of private lender support during the 1970s and 1980s compounded the deterioration of those communities.

Those effects are still being felt today, mainly because the area hasn’t grown much economically in 40 years. More than half the households in Longfellow earn less than $30,000 a year, according to the latest Census figures. Crime is a major issue. There are no grocery stores or banks nearby. And while developers are beginning to invest in the area—take the new multistory Horizon condominium complex, for example, opening on Martin Luther King near West MacArthur—the sagging housing market has halted some projects even before they got off the ground.

“I call this the land of despair,” said Walter Miles, a longtime community organizer who has lived in North Oakland for more than 30 years. He is referring to the blight, but also businesses like Burley’s that haven’t changed in appearance over time.

“In order for an area to change, it has to change its character,” he said. “And if it don’t grow, it can fade away and die.”

Miles and many of his neighbors are hoping the MacArthur transit village, which has been in the planning stages since 1992, gets developed soon.   And some of the other ailing businesses along West MacArthur welcome the project.

Noi Sipaseut, manager at A’s Tune Up, said he thinks the transit village will be good for business. Then again, he said, it could be bad if the people involved in the development don’t take into consideration the concerns and character of the existing community.

“You don’t know until you go through it,” he said, while spray-painting several car parts in his work uniform.

Mike Patel, the manager of the Sleepy Hollow Motel, just on the other side of Highway 24, said the project would most likely be good for the area.  His family-owned motel, which has been at its location for 35 years, will actually be displaced when the transit village gets built to make room for the project. He said he doesn’t know where he or the motel will go. That isn’t his concern, though.

Whether the project can eventually improve the area is his main concern.

“I feel like it’s an awesome project,” he said. “But just think about it. Who’s going to pay $200,000 to $300,000 when safety is always an issue?”

As he spoke, he stood behind a clear Plexiglas window at the front-office counter, a common feature in all the motels along West MacArthur, and an indication that the safety concerns are real.

So as the coming of the transit village project brings the anticipation for change to the neighborhood, there is skepticism of whether it could also bring in more of the same.

“At times it feels like it has improved. But at other times it feels like it’s not going anywhere,” Patel says of the neighborhood. “We as property owners are forced to change our properties just so we can comply with the city as well as our own betterment. But after doing that we don’t see changes from the city.”

That is why community leaders believe there needs to be a balance struck between supporting the city’s redevelopment efforts and taking care of struggling business owners and residents who want to improve their properties but just don’t have the financial means.

“I believe that everybody has good intentions,” said Edric Kwan, co-founder of West Street Watch, a nearby grassroots neighborhood group. “They want to see something positive for the community. And what many folks forget is that we all share the same goals, but there might be a different path toward that goal.”

Because the transit village not only will impact the block next to the BART station but also the surrounding area, Kwan says he understands how the project has the potential to marginalize certain businesses such as Burley’s. With newer development, the older buildings just look outdated, almost out of place.

‘Like a family’

Syon said she is trying to secure a loan to remodel her property, although she hasn’t quite figured out how. She would also like to work with the city to help revitalize the area. If she can purchase the other piece of land that abuts her business—she leases it right now for more space to wash cars—she would like to launch a full-fledged auto-detail training program for ex-felons, to give them the necessary skills they need to become responsible citizens again in society.

Until then, she continues to run her business the same way she has for years.

Employee Charles Taylor prepares to hang some carpets to dry.

Employee Charles Taylor prepares to hang some carpets to dry.

On that recent afternoon, when she was cleaning the van, about two hours had passed when her employee Charles Taylor shouted, “One down!” He was referring to the van he had been cleaning right next to Syon’s project.

But she quickly reminded him that he wasn’t quite done yet.

“Did you put some carpet cleaner on there?” she called out, asking him if he remembered to make sure the van’s carpets were completely dry.

“No,” he replied. “I ain’t got to that yet.”

Syon was antsy; she had to finish everything no later than four thirty. They had only a couple hours left.

“Extract the carpets,” she said, giving out the orders, sharp as a drill sergeant. “Extract, extract, extract.”

Taylor immediately got to work drying the carpets, first scrubbing them with a brush, then sucking out the rest of the water with a vacuum.

The other employees, meanwhile, were busy washing cars on the other side of the lot. Each had his own story of how he got to Burley’s.

There was Jamie Thomas, 50, who has been working for Burley’s since he was 17. After going to the unemployment office every day and being denied work, he said, he would walk by Burley’s on his way back home. Eventually, he was offered a job there. He hasn’t left since.

“I just love my job. It’s like a family,” said Thomas, a thin man with high cheekbones, short salt-and-pepper hair tucked underneath a baseball cap and a few teeth missing. “We’re going to have ups and downs, but we can all come together as one to make things work.”

Over in another corner was Sharrell Johnson, 47. She was wearing a cutoff shirt that accented her broad shoulders and sporting an Alek Wek-style shaved head. She got a referral from her boyfriend eight years ago to work at Burley’s. She mainly washes cars, but she is being trained by Syon how to do more technical tasks as well.

For example, Miss M, as Johnson refers to Syon, recently taught her how to always use suds and not much water when shampooing a car. “That’s so there will be less you have to do,” Johnson explained.

Then there are the former employees. Syon hasn’t had the best relationships with all of them, but many do come back because she has helped them along the way.

That was the case with 27-year-old Jason Harvey, who showed up recently just to check on Syon. When he was in school, he had a hard time making ends meet. Through a friend of Miss Mary’s, he landed a job there cleaning wheels. Now he works for a computer rental company.

All of a sudden, as the sun began to set, Syon poked her head out of the van she was cleaning, asking for the time. A quarter to five, someone said.

“Oh, I gotta go,” she said.

She looked around for Harvey, who’d already left. “I was busy,” Syon said, sounding crestfallen. “He wanted a hug.”

Oh, well, she said to herself out loud. They always come back.

Those are the types of moments that will be missed if places like Burley’s aren’t around anymore, some think.  But big changes are needed if Burley’s and the surrounding area are going to survive.

“This means a lot to me, because I get to help people,” Syon said of the work she does. “I feel like God sent me here for a reason. So I can’t leave, because the job’s not done yet.”

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