Gentrification: No Resting Place, Pt.1



noun \ˌjen-trə-fə-ˈkā-shən\

: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

Gentrification is a process in which a populated area is “discovered” and gentrified. Gentrified means to make suitable for affluent populations. It is a process that has recognizable phases as identified in Kevin Epps 2003 film Straight out of Hunters Point.

The taxonomy noted by Epps allows us to see a national pattern of displacing communities of color in order to allow for “development” by outside interest. Historically outside forces shape communities of color in a number of ways, among them, redlining, outright refusal to sell to people of color, and police harassment or lack of protection for those who think to act other wise. West Oakland is an excellent example of a once thriving community shaped  by constraints.

In a series of articles dealing with gentrification in West Oakland I would like to examine how such systemic enactments of racism and classism  have contributed to the West Oakland that is splashed across the nightly news, as well as enabled the dissolution of a neighborhood.

The issues that plague the long time residents of West Oakland are the issues that shape the society we live in, contribute to the existence of a perpetual underclass, undercut efforts of communities of color joining equitably in civic dialogues that shape their lived realties and migrates the likelihood of change.

West Oakland is contested ground. It is emblematic of other spaces stained by race and the desperate struggles people undertake to live unfettered lives. It is emblematic of spaces across this country where North American Africans have found no resting place in their search for the promised  forty acres and a mule.

West Oakland: A Story of Agency, Constraint, and Creativity

Gertrude Stein once remarked of Oakland; “There is no there, there.” Her remark was made in response to her discovery that her childhood home had been torn down. Over the years her quote has been misconstrued to mean there is no Oakland. In reality, it was an expression of loss; an articulation of the moment one realizes the geographical “there” of childhood is no longer there. The loss is centered in the space where geography and identity collide to help us frame who we are and to anchor us in a continuity. I wonder how many of West Oakland’s former residents resonate with the intention of Stein’s statement when they reflect on West Oakland and it’s tumultuous journey from desired destination to blighted ghetto and back to desired location.

Oakland is a major California port city on the east side of San Francisco Bay and is thus referred to as part of the “East Bay.” The entire Bay region, including San Francisco on the west side of the bay, is known as the Bay Area. Oakland is the eighth largest city in the state, with a population of 390,724. Formally incorporated in 1852, Oakland is the county seat of Alameda County. The city saw its earliest North American Africans during the gold rush. The wooded bay town was a staging post for cargo and for people traveling from the Bay Area to the Sierra Foothills.

Within Oakland, territorial designations begin with East, West, and North. Each of these directional areas is then further broken down into neighborhoods. Turfs lie within neighborhoods that serve to further stratify the populations within the larger designations.

West Oakland is composed of neighborhoods with colorful and descriptive names like Campbell Village, a housing project that is bordered by Campbell Street and The Acorn, another housing project. Both of these projects were the product of redevelopment that destroyed family homes and displaced the families that lived in them. Ghost Town is another West Oakland neighborhood, so named to describe the area after imminent domain forced so many families from their homes that it looked like a ghost town. Then, there is The Lower Bottoms. The name supports multiple interpretations. It is at once a description of elemental strength, as in the bottom or foundation, and also the least favorable designation of geographical hierarchy and social class. Euphemistically it is on the wrong side of the tracks. The Lower Bottoms is one of the oldest areas of Oakland,  marking where Oakland grew up out of the waters of the San Francisco Bay and where North American Africans sowed hopeful seeds of self-determination that took root and flourished.

Oakland’s North American African population grew as a result of two Northern migrations. The first of these migrations occurred shortly after emancipation and was influenced by the expansion of rail service. Although a minor boom in population occurred as a result of the 1906 earthquake, the second major migration was in response to the shipyards hiring men of color in World War II as well as the number of jobs that became open to people of color as a result of preparation for the war. All of these events colluded to make West Oakland a preferential destination.

The Bottoms in West Oakland was once a desirable destination for North American Africans recently freed from chattel slavery. Ex-slaves and Pullman Porters wrote a chapter in this neighborhood’s history. This chapter, like many that followed, is informed by race.

In 1869 (four years after the ratification of the 13th amendment that finally freed the last descendants of Africans held in bondage in the Southern United States), many North American Africans left the plantations, tenant farms, rural byways and the countryside, migrating to other parts of the country and looking to establish self-determined lives. For many who had experienced little beyond tending the land, the prospect of a life in the city conjured the possibility of a more cosmopolitan way of life. Many relocated in the East and Midwest. Others moved further West and some of them settled in Oakland.

In 1869 the Central Pacific railroad placed a terminus in West Oakland. The Pullman Palace Car Company opened its door in the terminus the same year. The Pullman Palace hired North American Africans exclusively as porters. The porters helped to create the intended illusion of a genteel Victorian home, down to the element of service provided by North American African servants. Even though the Pullman Cars effectively recreated the racist nuances of servitude, there was no shortage of applicants for the jobs. The job of porter offered men, whose movement had been restricted, a chance to travel, and it paid a wage upon which a man could support a family. For many it must have seemed a chance for dignity, self-sufficiency and a self-directed life free of constraint. The Oakland Central Pacific terminus became a hub for sleeping car porters, most of them employed by The Pullman Company, and many of them brought their families to the blossoming town that already had a North American African church and school (Praetzellis and Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304).

During the post-Civil War era, North American Africans actively exercised the civil rights earned by the Colored Conventions of the 1850s and the 1860s. Men could vote, schools had been desegregated, blacks could testify in court, and they formed numerous political and cultural associations. There are detailed archaeological histories of affluent North American African households that mimicked the gentility of Victorian homes across the country as well as the homes of European Americans who also lived in West Oakland in its infancy (Praetzellis, 2001, as cited in Praetzellis 2004, pp. 280-304 ). This same source reveals that a great number of North American African houses took boarders, people outside their immediate family, and speculates that it was a common way to add to household income. This perhaps also offered a way to help newcomers find purchase in a new life where one’s labor contributed to one’s own well-being and to the comfort of one’s family.

The neighborhood endured the depression of 1893 and continued to grow. From 1880 to 1900 the North American African population went from 600 to over 1,000. Seventh Street was being transformed into a North American African business district that enjoyed the commerce of a “stratified, complex and rich” community (Crouchett, Bunch, & Winnacker, 1989, p.15 as cited in Praetzellis 2004, pp. 280-304).

The ruin left in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that leveled the city across the bay from Oakland acted as a boon for the East Bay and helped to develop the Port of Oakland. Preparation for World War I opened jobs to North American Africans and continued to grow the Seventh Street business district, which also became one of America’s hottest jazz centers. The progressiveness of the North American African West Oakland community welcomed the International Universal Negro Improvement Association, (UNIA), (Allen, 1994, p. 69; Crouchett, Bunch, & Winnacker, 1989, p. 32 as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304), and would eventually become the home of The Black Panther Party, a radical self-help group.

However, the progressive movement of North American Africans in Oakland was tempered by racism. Racism, the fear of integration, police intimidation, systemic constraint and the actions of Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency and Housing Authority are as much responsible for the growth of West Oakland as they are complicit in its decline (Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). The city of Oakland passed ordinances to restrict Northern American Africans from buying property in certain areas considered white by tradition. They were allowed to purchase homes in West Oakland, and thus there was a concentration of North American Africans in West Oakland, although this firmly middle class area remained multi-ethnic (Crouchett, Bunch, & Winnacker, 1989 as cited in Praetzellis 2004, pp. 280-304).

A rich social scene blossomed in West Oakland partially as a result of the restrictions placed on the movement of North American Africans. Although North American Africans were prohibited from performing in downtown cabarets or in some white areas of West Oakland, and were barred from Musicians Local 6 in San Francisco, these restrictions helped to create one of the richest cultural districts on the West Coast of America. European Americans slummed on Seventh Street and frequented other locations in West Oakland where North American African Jazz was played and lovers of the form congregated. Seventh Street was the nexus of such activity and, as many Jazz histories assert, became the Mecca of Jazz music on the West Coast, second only to Los Angeles after the demise of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco at the end of 1921 (Collins, 1997b as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304).

This activity was strengthened by traveling sleeping car porters who helped to build affection for “race music” by carrying recordings from one place to another as they traveled (Collins, 1997b as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). The sleeping car porters also helped to bring news and other important information from across the United States to the growing community of color. They also helped to inform the political climate in the area. They had a union office on Seventh Street, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the wherewithal to lead a strike in the year following the depression of 1893. They are often referred to as Pullman Porters however Pullman was the name of a prominent rail company. The men referred to themselves as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and in fact worked for various rail companies while united under a common banner to fight for equitable conditions for all porters.

North American Africans musicians formed Local 648 in 1924 and subsequently founded Local 669 in Oakland. Even though West Oakland remained an integrated neighborhood until white flight of the 1940s, the African American African population there lived very insular lives in a community where the participants provided the needs and encouraged the growth of the community in the shadow of systemically enforced segregation and aggressive policing.

Marvin X Jackmon, (Marvin X), West Coast Black Arts Movement icon and my mentor, grew up in West Oakland. His father owned a florist shop on Seventh Street in its heyday. Marvin’s freely offered stories of his childhood in West Oakland, as well as the first-hand accounts of other traditional residents as documented in a documentary art collaboration, Tales of Forgotten Glory, featuring the photo’s of photographer Jonathon Eubanks and a collection of narratives gathered by Opal Palmer-Adisa (Palmer-Adisa & Eubanks, 1989), inform my writing.

I had the fortune to meet some of the senior citizens from Tales of Forgotten Glory and their families at an installation of this work at the Prescott Joseph Center in West Oakland. It is instructive to note that many of Palmer- Adisa’s subjects no longer reside in West Oakland. The list of participants illuminates the accomplishments of early residents and highlights their dedication to community as well. Palmer-Adisa’s interviews include stories of Marcela Ford, a co-founder of the African American Museum in Oakland; Ananis Willis, owner of Willis Cleaners, the first black dry cleaning company owner in Oakland; Margaret Wright, called by many “the Mayor of Myrtle Street”; famous dancer and choreographer Ruth Beckford; Fritz Pointer, writer and brother of the famous Pointer Sisters; labor historian Joe Johnson; and the daughters of the founder of Beth Eden, a landmark church in the West Oakland community; and the Esther Marbry of Esther’s Orbit Room, one of the historic supper clubs on Seventh Street. The beautiful black and white photography contributed to the project by Jonathon Eubanks, also known as the Black Panther’s photographer, offer a window into an era gone by but not forgotten.

Esther’s Orbit Room, Slim Jenkins’s Joint and The Lincoln Theater are a historical part of the West Coast Chitlin’ Circuit that provided venues to North American African artists who traveled the routes of exodus from the South to the East through the Mid-West and the West carrying the news of the nation constrained within the nation in the “race music” of Jazz and Blues. Seventh Street played its part in creating a space to practice a cultural continuity by being the home of numerous businesses that supported that enterprise. It was the home of Bob Geddin’s recording company one of the first North American African owned recording plants in the Bay Area  (West Oakland Blues Society, 2012).

Oakland’s Seventh Street was the entertainment center for the African American community and a social center on any night of the week. The world famous Slim Jenkins Supper Club, which included a restaurant, bar and a showroom, was known as West Oakland’s high-class blues and jazz club. Seventh Street had something for everyone; from high class Slim Jenkins to hole- in-the- wall clubs. These clubs were lined up and down the street and were packed every Friday & Saturday night.

Many other businesses made their home on Seventh Street, including Wolf Records. Paul Reed and his family opened Reed Record Shop where music lovers could pick up the latest blues, jazz or gospel hits. Bob Geddins, the Godfather of Oakland Blues, was the owner of Big Town Records, a recording studio located on the corner of Seventh and Center Streets. During the war era, Big Town Records had moderate success recording local gospel artists. In 1946, after meeting singer and guitarist Lowell Folsom, Bob Geddins’ of Big Town Records made the switch to blues, and Oakland made its mark on the musical map forever (West Oakland Blues Society, 2012).

Marvin recalls selling a collection of North American African newspapers as a way of earning money as a youth. He sold Jet, Ebony, Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Detroit Black Dispatch and others. He also wrote in the children’s section of the Oakland Tribune. He used to play in the train yards as a child (Jackmon, 2010). He recalls the gentrified area where until  recently , The Black Dot Performance Cafe and Gallery (closed due to gentrification issues) stood, as a red light district. The hotel that used to let rooms for a few minutes at a time to accommodate the trade is still standing on Pine Street. He remembers the Seventh Street of his childhood as a busy black enterprise zone that supplied the needs of the North American African community that depended on it for its entertainment, a source of jobs, and a place of commerce. He recalls the restaurants that live only in legend: Pearl’s, The Barn, and Ester’s. Marvin recasts The Bottoms as the Harlem of the West and regales me with tales from the time that Seventh Street never closed. A number of well know artists benefited from the area’s prolific music scene.

The music played and recorded on Seventh Street produced some of today’s most popular artists, including B. B. King, Little Milton, Lowell Folsom, James Brown, Jimmy McCracklin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Prince, M. C. Hammer and even country star Allen Jackson. Allen Jackson recorded a song written by K. C. Douglas and Bob Geddins called “Mercury Blues” that went platinum for Jackson (West Oakland Blues Society, 2012).

Marvin Jackmon’s tales of Mr. Freeman’s Lincoln Theater, White’s Pool Hall and, of course, his father’s own shop Jackmon’s Florist (Jackmon, 1998) are now stories about defunct landmarks of a West Oakland from a bygone era. Marvin’s stories, and the first-hand account’s of others paint the North American Africans of the area as industrious, literate, knowledgeable and concerned about issues and the condition of their race though out the Diaspora. From this source I gathered a sense of continuity in North American African expressive art forms, their vital importance in building and sustaining community, and their particular importance to West Oakland. I also gathered a sense of continuity from founding days to the present times in the area’s perception of aggressive policing and systemic containment. Jackmon (1968) illuminates the issue of race relations and police harassment in his play, Flowers for the Trashman. The Lower Bottom Playaz, my theater troupe, produced Jackmon’s classic work in 2010. The work is disturbingly timely, suggesting that the constraints that shaped life for the original residents of color in this area have not changed substantially. From all accounts, the Bottoms in West Oakland California, in its glory days, was an institution within itself and developed to meet the needs of its residents. In a demonstration of applied agency they created a community, enlivened it with art, engaged it with activism, and recall it in oral history and in literature that continues to capture the imagination and minister to the lived realities of current residents.

End part One.