West Oakland: Gentrified
“West Oakland is situated on the Bay side of Highway 980 and is easily accessible by public transportation including BART and buses. If you are an urban pioneer who is looking to buy somewhere before it really booms, look into West Oakland” (Red Oak Realty, 2012 para. 4). West Oakland is being discovered and repopulated by pioneers of a different stripe.” (Gentrification No Resting Place, Pt. 2)
I live in West Oakland. It is greener than you might expect from an urban space. There are trees: oaks, acacia, eucalyptus, and avocado; many of them are over 100 years old. Once Queen Anne and Italianate architecture graced block after block in this neighborhood. It is not a collection of tract homes even in the final throes of gentrification. There are the graceless pre-fabrications and the grotesque remodels, but the original elegance and quiet dignity of this neighborhood remains even after the newest set of settlers picks over the spoils of a neighborhood that, like an aging woman with a stubborn kind of beauty, still has stories to tell. The houses sit on large lots. There are yards, front and back, with flowers and fruit trees. The houses were once large as well, before gentrifying landlords came to make two-storied homes into flats or ill-conceived apartments where former bedrooms become odd living rooms. There is an air of resilience here as well as a grim acceptance of the change that has come to the space where the families of recently emancipated slaves settled, building a community to house their dreams of self-determination. Hull (2007) offers this description of West Oakland in 2007 based on studies conducted in the area in the years directly preceding her publication, Geographies of Hope:
West Oakland consists of some 7,000 households representing approximately 20,000 people. Seventy-four percent of residents are African American; 14% are Chicano/Latino; 10% are Asian/Pacific Islanders; 2% are White; and 1% are American Indians or “other.” This section of the city has been designated a Federal Enhanced Enterprise Community, and is characterized by all of the symptoms of intense urban poverty and the educational inequities that accompany it. The neighborhood’s income level and jobless rates in fact make its residents some of the most disadvantaged in the San Francisco Bay Area and, indeed, the nation. (Hull, 2007)
As a young woman and later as the parent of several children I lived where I lived in the Bay Area, unaware of the history of my surroundings, influenced solely by economics. I have lived in South Berkeley, East Oakland and in West Oakland. All of these areas have suffered from gentrification and displaced people of color and low-income residents who made their home in these areas. The North American African population has fallen over the last few years in each of these places.
Neighborhoods like East Oakland, West Oakland, and South Berkley traditionally had large North American African populations because North American Africans were not allowed to frequent, rent, buy or build elsewhere in the city of Oakland or Berkeley as a result of red lining by lending institutions, overt racism, and aggressive race informed policing in other parts of these cities. A contributing factor for the continued concentration of color in these areas was the affordability of these areas where one might lack civil services but one could afford to house a family. Many allude to the original diversity of these areas but I speculate that these areas provide(d) starter housing for groups who are not subject to redlining and population control. For those not encumbered by racism these spaces have represented transitional spaces that enabled movement to more desirable areas as families grew and salaries increased. North American Africans lacked such mobility. Their choices were regulated by what was open and where they were welcome. When they began to settle into and build in these areas; their intention was to build community in which to raise families. Years of racially informed practices shaped neighborhoods that became marked by poverty, civil neglect, and the attendant crime that is at home in such spaces. What also existed in these communities carved by denial was a strong sense of self-reliance, a sense of community, and a place to practice and grow cultural traditions. Out of the scraps given they fashioned a resting place to grow prosperity.
When I decided to practice art in West Oakland. It was a purposeful act. I chose to acknowledge and embrace an artistic lineage rooted in a tradition and to intersect myself into that tradition in a particular geographic space with the intention of perpetuating the tradition and continuing that artistic lineage. I came “home” on purpose to be a part of the solutions I felt the area needed. I came to be a part of the perpetually pregnant promise made by sharecroppers and day workers. I came to build something on the foundation poured by others so that tradition could continue. For the first time in my life I chose where I wanted to live with an intention of joining and helping to build a community. I chose to make home in West Oakland. I write from a hotel room having been displaced from that home because of issues directly related to some of the points I raise in this series of articles. At this point it is clear that the owner of my rental unit values profit over human compassion or ethical business dealings. I am an example of what the human cost of gentrification is in real time. Before I fell direct victim to the collateral damage inflicted by gentrification I was aware of its fall out and spoke to it: but personal experience makes us all more keenly aware of injustice. My personal experiences help to inform this article and weigh as much for me as the research included herein.
When my practice opened in West Oakland, it was not uncommon for families to live in property their family had owned for generations. That was in 1999, by 2012 it was equally as common for these properties to have been refinanced and lost during the housing crash to banks that would not originally lend money to repair or build here. There were boarded-up houses at every turn, numerous signs of construction, and a growing number of inept remodels to maximize the rent yield from former single-family homes, the signs of an investment neighborhood controlled by absent owners. Today in 2013 gentrification is a ship that has sailed through West Oakland leaving little doubt in its wake that change is here. There are few vacancies, slim pickings for sale, and signs of redevelopment at every turn. Resistance to the neighborhood being made over for people other than the traditional residents has turned to a struggle to hold on to what has not been snapped up like open frontier.
Marcel Diallo, founder of the Black Dot Collective, observed in conversation that West Oakland is one of the most studied neighborhoods in North America, following closely behind Harlem and New Orleans. Diallo, who currently lives in New Orleans, is frequently interviewed about West Oakland. We had breakfast on one of the occasions he flew into Oakland for a PBS interview. During the meal we reflected on the changes over the last decade in West Oakland. Diallo offered that the neighborhood in gentrification has become a place of convenient grace for transients traveling along the renovated Mandela corridor (where the old Cypress freeway once ran) to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and out of Oakland. He points out an expensive public art project that produced a piece of pixilated artwork, done by an artist unknown in the midst of a community full of artists, that can only be properly appreciated from a plane traveling overhead. The West Oakland Bart Station either the first or last stop in Oakland depending on your direction recently received a multi million dollar cosmopolitan makeover replete with iron sculpture that lights up in the a variety of hues in the evening hours. Although of late there is a lot of attention given to facades in the area there is less apparent consideration for the traditional residents down here on the ground, where unemployment, failing schools, a compromised environment, persistent poverty, forced reliance on black market economies, and aggressive policing remain long standing non relenting obstacles to flourishing.
Many families among the population of West Oakland live below the Federal Poverty Level. There are no employment opportunities in or within reasonable traveling distance from the area. The area prior to the crumbling of the Cypress Freeway was cut off and secluded from the downtown area and neatly divided from the rest of the city making it easy to navigate without ever driving through, let alone walking into, the neighborhood. Even in the absence of the Cypress, freeways and billboards seem to have the intent of fencing and labeling the contested area as a dark zone, an exotic tourist destination.
Our study of signage in West Oakland showed unmistakable contrasts between
outsiders’ views of the community’s needs and insiders’ expressions of interests and desires. Billboards in this community are an interesting case of outsiders inscribing a place and creating a landscape that serves as an identity marker for the inner city, especially for outsiders’ views of that community. (Hull 2007)
West Oakland has suffered an assault like newly settled territory where the colonist display little regard for the “natives” who have been identified before they were encountered as other and less. As a result of gentrification, there are now properties in West Oakland valued at $700,000.00. Affluence based influence, chic, hip, and arrogance have arrived in this recently desirable location sandwiched in between the port of Oakland and downtown. Needless to say, the housing crash has drastically changed the complexion of this neighborhood and affords us a point of stark and disparaging economic comparison between North America’s enfranchised and the unenfranchised. In West Oakland, America’s growing disparity is very clearly illustrated. In the words of the standard, “Them that got gets; them that don’t shall lose”.
Sunset: West Oakland
West Oakland enjoyed a vibrant flourishing and is a model of areas all over the nation where left to their own sufficiency former slaves built the foundations for better futures in this country that had so cruelly used them. In little known fact slaves and their descendants formed many towns to create communities of quite self-sufficient grace. Those towns have not fared well. Many of them have fallen from current memory. Some simply failed to survive as a town and died a natural death. Others are less remembered because the memories are painful and grimly illustrate a pattern of domestic terror against North American Africans. And others are buried under the narratives of movement that help to define and offer context for the North America African experience here in North America.
Black Americans have played a vital role in building this nation. Eager to live and prosper as free people, we have established our own towns since Colonial times. Many of these communities were destroyed by racial violence or injustice, while some just died out. http://www.theroot.com/multimedia/lost-black-cities
West Oakland suffered being physically and systemically sequestered from the town proper, neglected by its city representatives in a way that consistently favored development over community, and the persistence of the lack of opportunity in the peace time economy, as a result the once thriving area fell into decline and was eventually decimated by the housing crash. It is worth mentioning that predatory lending habits fueled a brief boom in West Oakland and some traditional residents did become first time homebuyers. But this boom was short-lived and ultimately benefited bankers and developers rather than individuals and certainly more than traditional residents of the area. Without doubt West Oakland suffered from the so-called housing crisis caused by the predatory loan practices of bankers who once redlined the area. In an article published in the Atlantic, A Hard Look at Gentrification, Ta Neshi Coates remarks that displacement resulting from gentrification is an inevitable end product of not owning land. It is instructive to note that between redlining and criminal financial practices the dream of homeownership for the traditional residents of West Oakland is problematized by facts on the ground:
In neighborhoods hit hard by the housing crisis, it would be cheaper for many families to buy a foreclosed home than rent an apartment. The average price of a house in those neighborhoods is less than $150,000. Monthly payments on most 30-year mortgages at that price are usually less than $1,000, while rents on many West Oakland properties approach and exceed $2,000. (Glanz, 2012)
While the goal of reaching low and moderate income people with special first time home buyers programs is laudable, and this will be an important tool for some Oaklanders, many of West Oakland’s current residents will not be able to afford these loans. According to EBALDC, home ownership programs can only work for people who earn at least 50% of the area’s median income. Since West Oakland’s median income of 23, 148 is less than 60% of the Bay Area’s median income, about half of West Oakland’s residents do not earn enough to qualify. …With loans for maintenance and rehabilitation notoriously difficult to obtain, and too low (maximum 10,000) when one is able, this is a critical problem for low-income home owners. Between 1995 and 1998, there were approximately 499 foreclosures in West Oakland. With the pressure to sell to speculators (bill boards with toll free numbers exclaiming “We buy houses fast!” and difficulty in obtaining home loans, selling quickly becomes tempting. (Todd Harvey, Desiree Espinoza, Jeremy Hays, Julia Friskin, B. D. Howard, Chris Huynh, et al)
So in fact cash heavy investor took the area for cash and even traditional residents who qualified for special programs are unable to compete with the cash in the hands of speculators.
According to a report released by the Urban Strategies Council, a nonprofit think tank, real estate investors have purchased – usually with cash – 42 percent of the 10,508 homes in Oakland that went into foreclosure between January 2007 and October 2011. Many of these investors are turning the homes into rental properties and charging rent that is significantly higher than the monthly mortgage payments many families would make if they purchased the homes. (Glanz, 2012)
Once again the standard goes: “Them that got get”. Those without get pushed closer to the edge.
What is community? How much attention should be paid to humans and their need for community and their right to define that community? What role do ordinary citizens play in the development of communities, and open or public spaces? How does the average Joe or Jill plug into a process like the West Oakland Specific Plan (west oakland specific plan project description – City of Oakland) and have the same gravitas as the developers who pack the process with their influence and capital with an eye towards establishing and maintaining lines of profit? In this time of growing inequity and changing American lifestyles that beg questions about the quality of life for the percentage of Americans who live at and beneath the federal poverty level what real effort is being made to bridge gaps in equity? What model of community fits the American myth? Is it the same model used in American reality? Is it possible for people of different incomes and lifestyles to live harmoniously in community? If so how is this to work if formerly impoverished areas are made over to accommodate upwardly mobile inhabitants and ignore the ongoing quality of life issues for those on the brink of poverty and those who live perched on the edge of existence mired in generational poverty?
Offended gentrifying parties often pose questions like, “What’s wrong with better schools, safe parks and clean streets”? I reply nothing. Not a thing is wrong with a safe clean well-lit neighborhood. Why couldn’t the neighborhood have looked like that when we could still afford the houses? Why weren’t the schools excellent, the library well stocked, and the area invested in by mainstream retailers, which in turn would have brought jobs into the area? The reason these things are not found in unenfranchised and impoverished areas turns on the fact that the areas are impoverished. It does not indicate that the previous majority wanted it that way. It is more indicative of their inability to affect the change needed at a given time because of circumstance that were created by previous legislation of the lack there of, city planning influenced by investors, neglect, and systemic racism and or classism.
Along with the influx of investors who state unabashedly they prefer to rent to people who differ in economic makeup, cultural background and by default usually ethnicity from traditional residents of the area have come piecemeal solutions aimed at comforting newcomers with band-aids that work to curb symptoms while failing to address the disease festering in the cyclical issues rooted in the area or to support the thriving of the whole neighborhood which includes those who currently live there. These measures include increased policing and the criminalization of traditional residents. They do not include the inclusion in development plans or in the lucrative contracts being vied for to complete the visual remaking of the area. Rather in both subtle and overt ways they are consistently excluded.
The desire for community by the residents of old West Oakland was frustrated by some of the same things that have helped to dissolve urban communities across the nation. Places where people grouped together with like people in the places they were allowed and could afford and attempted to build a community in which they could aspire to the American Dream in the shadow of the reality of American meritocracy. A meritocracy without equal access is a not the same as a Democracy and is not the way the American myth of equality for all wants to be viewed. The places that people of color or outside the pale were relegated to are being redeveloped for the profit of developers who have made the American Dream unattainable for a large percentage of Americans. In the case of Oakland the choices made by enfranchised leadership have favored development over community. Even during years of black leadership the city leaders have consistently favored enterprise over the equitable development of areas of color.
The dominant economic development strategies in Oakland have emphasized attracting investment over preventing displacement. Oakland’s poor self image has left it acting as though it has little clout with developers and other potential investors, leading the city to focusing on luring business in rather than making many demands. Additionally, Oakland’s poorest residents have not had the political power to create and enforce policy that protects their needs. (Todd Harvey, Desiree Espinoza, Jeremy Hays, Julia Friskin, B. D. Howard, Chris Huynh, et al, Fall 1999)
The new American model of capitalism evolving in the public sphere places responsibility on individuals for things like education, (Richard Wolff) eradication of poverty, the manufacture of prosperity, medical needs, food needs, housing, etc. — as opposed to the responsibility of the government (it is my understanding we formed a government to insure the common good not for the nurture of a public sphere shaped by elites). What is the future of community if the national concept is driven by development for profit absence consideration for humans? Wolff offers that we have the resources to put the unemployed to work, to eradicate poverty, and help to stem rapidly growing inequity, which would in turn create wealth and access for a larger portion of the American public. This would help to enlarge the pool of those with means to access the power necessary to be heard in conversations that shape public and social development and the policy decisions that shape how we all live.
The assumption that the poor and unsenfranchcised create their circumstance is absurd. Cyclical poverty, landlessness, economic unsenfranchisement, and public education in its current state of disarray perpetuate more of the same and rarely ever open themselves to being roads to the transformation of the conditions that bar access to the avenues of power and local/regional/national decision making. As a result the unsenfrancised live at the mercy of the enfranchised. In Wolff’s words the folks we once understood to be robber barons have been relanguaged as captains of industry. We live in a country that gives welfare to corporations while it actively seeks to end subsidies for the poor. We live in a time where we more actively seek to criminalize and ultimately either imprison or so radically marginalize the unenfranchised that we have arrived at a point of condemning them to cyclical issues that compromise their immediate quality of life and threaten to permanently bar access to even the freely prescribed methods of inclusion. One can’t pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps if one not only has no boots but in fact have no feet on which to stand. My personal observation is that current policies and practices encourage inequity, lead to cyclical poverty, the underdevelopment of human potential, and a permanent caste-like underclass, (informed by race and class), which exist unhomogenized in the melting pot of America. These factors are national in scope and inform the development of urban spaces across America. The issues that plague West Oakland do not exist in isolation. Even a cursory exploration reveals national trends that are disturbing when viewed in their totality.
West Oakland continues to be touted as dangerous and crime riddled. Much of its reputation is an effect of media coverage that often does not reflect the daily reality of the area yet persists in saturating the news with faces of color, in particular, the faces of young black men. In truth, young whites wander the street at hours when long-time residents are locked in at home, perhaps because whites are not as subject to the police attention that often thwarts the movement of traditional residents in this neighborhood. We have joggers, dog walkers, and BART commuters who fearlessly trek these urban streets despite the media warnings that mark this as some of the most lethal turf in Oakland and one of the most crime and poverty infested urban sites in North America. Welcome to West Oakland: home of the Lower Bottom Playaz. Here is where I practice art that I hope helps to enable a community literacy that fosters participants’ ability to author self-determined futures.
“Here” is emblematic for me. I purposefully choose this space to represent a multitude of unenfranchised places around the globe where Africans seeded like chafe, interrupted disconnected from self determination, land ownership, and a continuous narrative of themselves seek purchase in new stories of themselves. ”Here” embraces fighting from where you are, from your own living room, waging change in your own backyard. It embodied a part of the mission I voiced for my practice; “We create what we need from what we have been gifted.” “Here” felt like home as I looked around and found myself surrounded by people who looked like me, dealt with the same challenges, and shared similar dreams of roots and secure futures. “Here” represented a resting place, a shelter of love where one could put down roots and come in form the storm. Here could be home if you were willing to help build it.
Kevin Epps offers a model for gentrification in his film, Straight Outta Hunters Point. This model allows one to see similarities in the processes of gentrification as it played out in Hunters Point and the Fillmore in San Francisco. This model holds true in East and West Oakland as well as in South Berkeley. One could make a case that the process is similar across North America. The conversation about gentrification is not a linear one it becomes obscured by and can’t be separated from conversations of race, class, and economic viability. It should also include explorations of access and a fearless search for root causes that reveal systemic issues that are often as invisible as they are crippling. Without looking at the larger issues that problematize gentrification individual communities are forced to consider their plight in the absence of universal facts. Each is left to make peace with the ends and the means in isolation denying us the ability to confront the problem, which in the end is to be consigned to tilting at windmills instead of harnessing the wind. In other words we are awash in consideration of the symptoms without naming the disease.
As I consider the story of landlessness as it plays out in my life I began to understand that geographically I am where I am, because like many other North American Africans I do not control land so therefore I live where I can afford to influenced by the possibility of opportunity, and where I find comfort in community no matter how tenuous that community is in reality. As Coates says we don’t own the homes in which we live but he stops short of a contextualized exploration of why.
How can the cycle of restricted movement enacted by restricting areas of mainstream investment through use of redlining and more sinister “raisin in the sun” type scenarios that lead us to this point in time be rectified? How do we address disproportionate wealth and the subsequent access to the shaping of the public sphere accorded by a history of economic piracy that includes the transatlantic slave trade, denial of adequate education, lack of access to equitable employment, Jim Crow, systemic targeted criminalization, and a punitive carceral system that seems intent on housing more Africans than were traded in Wall Street’s slave pens, (Alexander)? What have we to offer beyond the advice to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? How do we adequately respond to the theft of generations of accumulated wealth by bankers from the most fragile of communities that do not have trust funds and are much more likely to inherit debt than financial security? Why don’t the poor revolt? What stays the tipping point?
Informed by Hazel Henderson’s theory of an “attention deficit society”, I suggest that those most affected by systemic injustice are the least able to mount an effectively organized assault on the powers that oppress them. I further suggest that inequity will continue to be a global problem until the concept of development with consciousness can be grown large enough to do combat with profit over and at the expense of human beings. Until such time being poor will remain the most difficult occupation on the planet with little chance of the large majority of us having boots or the straps with which to pull ourselves up the ladder in the American social order.
The nature of compromise inherent in our political system, the presence of billion dollar lobbyist, conservative social engineers with agendas, and ungrounded liberal politics that play out far from the cracked pavement of stressed urban centers offer little relief for those living on the ground. For those outside the process, the immediate need to secure food, shelter, clothing cast a shadow over the ability to organize and the proliferation of misinformation makes it a job in itself to find reliable information on which to base organizing were the time available in which to organize.
Our society is ordered by planning. Development is not random or happenstance. Resources are targeted to specific undertakings by agreement. Our government is a representative government. That means to me that they are elected to enact the will of those governed. Our system is broken if those most in need of its protection are locked out of the processes that guide our existence and our possibilities of flourishing. If we lack the autonomy to do for self and are neglected by the public sphere how are we to live let alone thrive? How do these facts inform the lived reality embedded in the narrative of the nation within the nation? There is room in this conversation for consideration of the national desire to avoid substantive conversations about race, class, and economic inequity in the shadow of an aggressive military presence around the world, a growing police state at home and the diminishing concept of personal rights in North America.
We started this series with a discussion of gentrification in West Oakland. In order to have that discussion I felt it was important to open it up enough for us to understand that what happened here is happening nationally. It speaks to a national consciousness that must be addressed and it is a harbinger of how we will act in a global society where the equation of inequity not only translates well but also is amplified.
Community, home, culture, and tradition are all critical aspects of quality of life for humankind. When one is stripped of the right to self determination and deprived of the fundamental elements of human-ness how do they find ground on which to stand in the narrative of the inevitable progress of the exceptional? Where is the resting place from the storm? Is it the undiscussed root causes of the problem that makes it so volatile in examination? Some of the vitriol spilled in discussions of gentrifications should serve as a bracing wake up call as shrill as that of the coal mine canary informing the naiveté of those who proclaim this as a color blind era. It should help to inform the well intended about the depth and breadth of the invisible landmines in the American public sphere for those who remain unmelted in the pot. When one can find no resting place, when one’s voice is marginalized, when one is fed only on prescriptions that do not work and have little basis in sound logic one perhaps finds it hard to imagine oneself as being welcome anywhere.
Organizing – Around specific targets, such as a particular policy, city department activity/plan, etc.; Work more closely with and monitor city offices to give them guidance on how their actions are impacting communities in danger of gentrification/displacement. · Reframe the issue of gentrification as an effect of broader regional inequity; establish regional partnerships. · Permanent Affordability: Strategies to increase the stock of affordable housing; nonprofit ownership of property; Community land trusts. · Development of neighborhood plans to guide development – push for requirement that plan be followed as a city ordinance. · Job linkage: Retaining manufacturing jobs; ensure neighborhood residents are capturing jobs that are emerging from economic development projects. Project/labor agreements – ensure that agreements include jobs for community residents. Development of more jobs which pay livable wages as well as affordable childcare for residents. · Education and Services: Renters education–educate renters about their legal rights; Creating new coalitions among homeowners and renters; increase home ownership through support services such as counseling and advocacy. · Data collection – to enable the community to measure the extent/impact of gentrification over time. (Todd Harvey, Desiree Espinoza, Jeremy Hays, Julia Friskin, B. D. Howard, Chris Huynh, et al) Aaron Glantz — June 28, 2012
Alexander, M, The New Jim Crow in the age of colorblindness
Coates, Ta-Neshi , http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/07/a-hard-look-at-gentrification/242286/
Report: Investors buy nearly half of Oakland’s foreclosed homes, https://www.baycitizen.org/news/housing/report-investors-buy-nearly-half-homes/
Harvey, Espinoza, Hays, Friskin, Howard, Huynh, et al, Fall 1999 Gentrification and West Oakland uses, Effects and Best Practices
Henderson, H, Building a Win-Win World (1996), Creating Alternative Futures (1978, 1996), The Politics of the Solar Age (1981, 1988), and Paradigms in Progress (1991, 1995).
Hull, G, http://uclinks.org/reference/research/hull_james.pdf
Wolff, R, Can Democracy Cure Capitalism