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This Corporate-Funded Skate Park Nailed It in a City Wary of All Things Corporate

How Levi’s won over a Bay Area community

Levi Strauss Senior Global Marketing Manager Erik Wolsky met Oakland artist and teacher Keith “K-Dub” Williams at an event in San Francisco’s FTC Skate Shop earlier this year. Williams, who stands about 6’5” with long dreadlocks, a scruffy beard, and wide shoulders, laid out his dream of rebuilding “Town Park,” an all-wood skate park in West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, into a more permanent, professional cement design. When Wolsky heard Williams explain it, he loved the idea and vowed to help.

“To have a corporation like that look at Oakland and want to invest in Oakland and Oakland youth and recreation and activity speaks to the good nature of what they’re trying to do as a brand reaching out in action sports,” Williams says of the project that was celebrated at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the park this past Saturday.

Town Park came together thanks to Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, SITE Design Group, and the Oakland Parks Department. Yet, Levi’s involvement stands out the most given recent conversations about the relationship between corporations and communities in the Bay Area.

In January, after a memo from Google leaked, local activists blocked two private shuttle buses in protest. In February, more than 400 city employees marched from the San Francisco Department of Human Resources to Twitter headquarters chanting, “Twitter, you're no good. Pay your taxes like you should.” The union workers were upset about a payroll tax break that Twitter received in 2011 that will cost the city $56 million over six years.

In April, protestors picketed outside the home of Google executive Jack Halprin after he allegedly used Ellis Act evictions to remove tenants of a small apartment building in the Mission. And just last month, video of an argument between Dropbox employees and local teenagers over access to Mission Playground’s soccer field went viral. Though the argument actually stemmed from an unfortunate city’s Recreation and Park Department policy, the behavior of the “tech bros” in the video served as a metaphor for corporate interactions with existing communities.

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, black leather jacket-wearing Levi’s president James Curleigh joked that his company was the original San Francisco startup more than 150 years ago. Company representative Matt Sharkey talked about the failure of some tech startups to become a true part of the Bay Area. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and give back to the community,” he said. “And I think some that are here are doing that stuff; I think others less so.”

Of course, the Bay’s big tech companies have made a concerted effort in philanthropy, and there is no such thing as bad charity. But USA Today dubbing Mark Zuckerburg’s $500 million gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation as “the philanthropic pledge heard around the world of charity” was not off the mark. Some tech titans’ gifts seem constructed for the PR boon.

The skate-park project in Oakland isn’t Levi’s only one. The company has built others in India and Bolivia. But the project in Oakland had distinct challenges given the larger political context. For Levi’s, it’s as simple as working with a community and not just alongside it.

“Levi’s had no other initiative in Oakland except to support the community. We weren’t trying to get in good with the community before we open an office out here, or do anything along those lines,” says Sharkey. “We really just wanted to support what K-Dub had already been doing and make it last forever.”

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