At 83 years young, John W. Silver, Jr. is not settling into his golden years. Instead, the owner of J’s Ice Cream, at 67th Avenue and International Boulevard, is proving to be as resilient as the precious metal with which he shares his last name. In fact, Mr. Silver sees the three new traffic signals, three new BRT stations and 44 new ADA-compliant curb ramps, as part of his grand recipe for delectable success.
Silver has lived and worked along BRT’s International Boulevard corridor for over 35 years. Similar to BRT’s long-term investment, Mr. Silver first invested in the community as the owner of an auto body shop. He ran that business for years before expanding his entrepreneurial dream into ice cream. Sadly, Mr. Silver lost his wife in 2010 and decided to sell the body shop. During his grief, Mr. Silver even contemplated moving out of the neighborhood until Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf persuaded him otherwise. “She was honest with me,” Mr. Silver explains. “She said, we don’t have many Black businesses anymore. And I know what she’s talking about.”
Mr. Silver stayed and now exclusively operates J’s Ice Cream. From behind the counter, he remains keenly aware of the comings and goings of his neighborhood. In fact, he’s made it his business to scoop more than ice cream; he’s deeply involved in the surrounding community.
After 83 orbits around the sun, Mr. Silver can now proudly proclaim the titles of business owner, minister, little league coach, mentor, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Still what he holds closest to his heart is the lecture time at nearby Lockwood and Havenscourt schools. As he tells it, some of the older students have specifically asked their teachers to have “Uncle J” return to speak to their classes.
“They like me talking about the military,” Mr. Silver says. “I’m an ex-helicopter pilot. They want to hear about that.”
“Uncle J” stresses the importance of getting an education. “They ask me, ‘how were you lucky enough to get into something like this?’ And I say, ‘I went to school!’ That’s a good cue for them – stay in school.”
Mr. Silver’s community service is not limited to the schools. Each day that he opens the doors of his ice cream shop, he is also opening the doors of opportunity and dialogue along this stretch of the BRT corridor. He says many kids will not or cannot talk to their parents, but they will come in and talk with him. “I leave the door wide open; I say, ‘anything you want to talk to me about, let’s talk.’”
“If a child comes in here and says, ‘Uncle J, I’m hungry,’ we’ll feed him. I do that from here,” as he softly pats his heart. “I couldn’t tell him no.”
Whether it is a bag of chips or a cup of hot cocoa, Mr. Silver tries to fulfill the request. “Some of the bigger boys, they say, ‘Mr. J, we’ll come back and pay you tomorrow.’ And they always come back and pay.
I’m teaching them how to be respectable and how to develop their credit. I tell the kids, ‘ten years from now if you tell someone that you have credit with J’s Ice Cream and I’m still alive and they call me, I’ll give you a good reference.’”
Unquestionably, Mr. Silver has become a father figure to the scores of people who live between 62nd and 72nd Avenue on International Boulevard. Still he speaks most proudly of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “I’m proud of them because they’re trying to do something that’s constructive and concrete – making a difference.”
The grandfather with a heart of “silver” really perks up when he mentions his great-granddaughter who is graduating from UCLA this year. “Now, you know I’m proud,” he chuckles. “At 19? Most kids don’t stay in school! And she comes to me for advice. I’m so proud of her!”
It is easy to understand, after talking with Mr. Silver, why he remains in the neighborhood even after a car hit his building shortly before the BRT project began. “It ran through my building and did over $250,000 damage,” he says. “It slowed me down but I’m the type of person who doesn’t give up.”
He thinks the BRT will not only help his business but East Oakland, in general. “I think it will. I think [the neighborhood] is really going to move then. I’ve never been against progress in the city.”
Along with new stations, traffic signals and curb ramps, the BRT project has improved sidewalks and brought new traffic control to the intersection of 67th Avenue and International Boulevard, a main crossing for local schools. When completed in late 2019, BRT will provide transportation that is more reliable, mirroring the reliability Mr. Silver has provided to those who call this neighborhood home.