It was an empty, blighted property in the heart of a Lake Merritt retail district, a haven for the homeless and a neighborhood eyesore. Now, the former bank site at 3265 Grand Ave. has been given new life as a coffee shop and gallery called Monkey Forest Road.
Monkey Forest Road is the main street in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali, Indonesia. It's a favorite destination for business partners Arnel Alcordo and Chris Cooper, who travel frequently to Bali to bring artisan wares back to Oakland.
"We love the style of the arts and crafts we find there," says Alcordo, "and also the kindness and openness of the Balinese people."
Visit their gallery, and it's easy to see the old bones of a bank, with its spacious interior and front and side doors. A rare parking lot sits adjacent to the property, an obvious plus on a busy street where meters run $2 an hour.
Inside, the smell of fresh coffee and aromatic teas mixes seductively with exotic ceramics and other Indonesian crafts.
Bali is immersed in the arts, according to Alcordo. "We couldn't believe that every village or town had their own specialized craft. There are villages devoted to carving wood, painting and jewelry design."
As the partners began dreaming of a way to bring Balisian art to Oakland, they started looking for a property in the city. Alcordo, a former pastry chef and dancer, lived five minutes from the bank, which had been empty for several years.
He loved the location near the lake and felt a calling to clean up the blighted property.
"I wanted to improve the neighborhood and give something special to the community."
He admits that Monkey Forest Road is a work in progress. The coffee bar is busy but needs more seating, and the patio entrance is an underutilized space needing warmth.
But the gallery is drawing customers who are intrigued with the handmade Indonesian furniture and accessories, ranging from things as simple as shadow puppets and as intricate as ceramic vases, hand thrown on wheels powered by hand pedals.
Meanwhile, the neighbors are grateful to have such an eclectic new enterprise. "All the merchants have been very supportive -- very thankful that we moved in," says Alcordo, who says some have even stopped in with flowers.