It all began a little more than five years ago when Dan Stevenson and his wife Lu, who live nearby, grew fed up with the decline in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood. The corner of 11th Avenue and East 19th Street was a rough part of town, and repeated calls to the city’s public works department had failed to improve the situation. In a last-ditch attempt to elevate the energy in the area, the couple purchased a 60-centimeter stone Buddha statue from a hardware store and placed it on the corner across the street from their home.
“The corner was constantly being filled up with mattresses and couches and junk, and there was some drug usage, a lot of graffiti, people just standing around doing nothing—just depressing,” said Stevenson, who epoxied the statue to a rock to discourage vandals.
The statue had a remarkable effect, however. People stopped leaving garbage and, gradually, the local residents began cleaning up the accumulation of detritus from the area. The drug dealers and prostitutes moved elsewhere to ply their wares, and the graffiti, once removed, didn’t return.
“I would have stuck Christ up there if he would have kept the mattresses off,” said Stevenson, who claims no religious affiliation and asserts that he has little enough faith in humanity. “I don’t care who’s doing it.”
What happened next was even more unexpected. After about a year of gradual improvements to the once-notorious corner, people began to leave behind items of a different sort—flowers, fruit, even coins as Vietnamese immigrants living in the area began to visit the statue with offerings.
After a time, with Stevenson’s blessings, Buddhists members of the local community began to act as caretakers, sweeping and cleaning the area, and building a platform for the statue to sit upon. “In our religion, Buddha is not supposed to be on the ground,” said regular visitor Cuc Vo.
As more people joined in, the renovations grew more elaborate. The statue has since been painted, and a small wooden shelter constructed. Sutras sound from tiny speakers behind the Buddha, which has been joined by an image of Guanyin and other figures and decorations as the shrine has expanded. A small camera has even been added to keep an eye on things.
Initially, not everyone living nearby was pleased with the new addition to the neighborhood and the regular morning visits by local Buddhists, despite the obvious positive impact the Buddha statue has had on the corner. After a series of complaints the city authorities said they would dismantle the shrine, but supporters launched a vigorous campaign to save the landmark and eventually the city relented.
The carefully maintained monument is now visited by local Buddhists and other residents on a daily basis, bringing fruit, flowers, and other offerings. A sign has even been added, bestowing a formal name on the shrine: Phap Duyen Tu, Vietnamese for “tranquility.”
Since 2012, crime in the area has seen an 82 per cent decline, according to police statistics, with robbery reports falling from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to zero, and prostitution from three to zero. “I can’t say what to attribute it to, but these are the numbers,” said a police department official.
“It’s become this icon for the whole neighborhood,” Dan Stevenson said. “There’s a lot of people that are not Buddhist that really come and just talk in front of him, they walk their dogs, they stand there—it’s a place where people meet and talk. It’s just cool.”
“He’s a popular little guy,” Stevenson continued. “He’s got a Facebook page. He’s got a Twitter account. He’s more connected socially than I am. He’s a great little guy, I guess. But it’s amazing, an amazing thing.”