Gentrification: No Resting Place, Pt.2

West Oakland: Redeveloped and Eclipsed.

In 1930, almost twenty years before its official designation as a blighted neighborhood in 1949, the New Deal began to change the face of West Oakland. Under the auspices of the Oakland Housing Authority, one of the first housing projects in California, Peralta Villa, a concrete 35-unit multifamily residential structure that resembled barracks with no private yards and clean views for surveillance, replaced several blocks of Victorian era homes (Olmsted & Olmsted, 1994, pp. 169-171; Solari, 2001 both as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). The double-deck Cypress Freeway, built in the 1950s, created a physical barrier that helped to further isolate The Bottoms, and its construction cost the loss of blocks of homes and the permanent displacement of families (Solari, 2001 as cited in Praetzellis & Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). In 1958, the Oakland Redevelopment Agency declared half of West Oakland “blighted,” causing the destruction of homes and the displacement of over 300 families. Once the homes were demolished, the razed lots were not developed until 1966 and not finished until 1969, allowing the evolution of a “dumping ground” on the vacant lots (Hope, 1963, Oakland Tribune, 1968 as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304 ). There are competing narratives about the condition of the destroyed housing.

C. L. Dellums, uncle of Oakland’s former Mayor, His Honor Ronald Dellums, and a prominent local organizer of the era, offers an opinion on whether or not the destruction of West Oakland was necessary to save it from blight. Dellums offered, “The houses torn down were not necessarily dilapidated. . . . But that was the Housing Authority’s decision on it, so there was nothing to be done about it” (Henderson, 1973 as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). Despite earlier organization and civic participation, it seems the North American African population of West Oakland experienced an assault and decimation, dressed as progress, continued marching though West Oakland.

Broad scale clearance began in 1962 across 50-blocks called the Acorn Project. This      took out another thousand houses in West Oakland — hundreds were not even substandard by the agency’s own definitions — and uprooted 9,000 people. Replacement housing was delayed for a decade. Just to finish things off, financial institutions redlined the rest of West Oakland, leading to unchecked deterioration of the Victorian-era housing stock . . .. Altogether over 7,000 housing units were lost between 1960 and 1966 and 14,000 people were displaced. This triggered the opening of the second ghetto in East Oakland. West Oakland’s population plummeted from wartime high of around 40,000 toward its present semi-rural density nearer to 8,000. By 1970…urban renewal had shaken loose about a thousand homeless people onto the streets. (Walker, 1997, p. 20)

The effect of the end of World War II and the politics of imminent domain, with the selective use of urban renewal as a tool for urban cleansing (Walker, 1997), combined to drop the curtain on the story of 70 years of forward motion. By the 1970s, the material plenty of post World War II was no longer evident in West Oakland (Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). It also gave rise to a racial angst accompanied by the resurgence of activism in West Oakland (Heath 1976 as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). It was in part this story of inequity that gave rise to the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966. The fourth plank of the Black Panther Party program was “We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings” (Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). The Panthers and a range of less radical organizations framed a dialogue of opposition to systemic obliteration of West Oakland. According to Salazar, 2006:

Failure to meaningfully address political and social inequities in the city, coupled with the decline of Oakland as an industrial center, gave rise to the West Coast Civil Rights movement and, later, Black Liberation struggles. West Oakland, in particular, became the hotbed of social struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, epitomized by the rise and fall of the Black Panthers. (Designing a Socially Just Downtown, 2006 para. 5)

This surge of activism in the Sixties played out in greater representation in city government and the ability to effectively voice the concerns of marginalized communities. Although the city had a decade of North American African leadership, the alignment of that leadership with the black bourgeoisie and business interest did little to disturb the priorities set by white elites (Walker, 1997).

When the Cypress freeway, which walled off West Oakland, collapsed as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it fostered the beginning of a new era in West Oakland. It encouraged the cohesion of neighborhood activists who successfully lobbied against projects like the rebuilding of the Cypress along its original route, in contrast to the lack of community ability to deal with earlier government projects like the Seventh Street BART station or the Post Office that caused the demolition of family homes and forced homeowners into public housing. Eventually community organizers wrested control of the use of imminent domain in West Oakland from the hands of Oakland Redevelopment (Self, 2000 as cited in Praetzellis, 2004, pp. 280-304). However the continued assault on the countenance of West Oakland may have already reached a tipping point.

Although black control of City Hall and the school district helped enlarge the city’s black middle class, it did little for other groups, and in fact poverty climbed throughout the 1970s and ’80s” (Walsh, 1999 p.13).

Dominant land use patterns have weakened communities like West Oakland through lack of investment (in schools, transit, economic development, etc.), and have left residents with fewer options for accessible employment. Cheap real estate and lack of economic control by residents help set the stage for gentrification. (Harvey et al., 1999) Over the last decade, the rent in West Oakland has steadily crept upwards.

At the height of the bubble, many workers moved to the East Bay. They were willing to pay more than long-time Oakland residents. Tenant law at the time allowed landlords to increase the rent on vacated units. Meanwhile, narratives of persistent crime and violence along with aggressive policing in the area made the area a less desirable location for low income North American Africans as anxious for safety and security as the original inhabitants of color in The Bottoms. Many North American Africans found themselves unable to maintain rental units in West Oakland for various reasons. These reasons, which included the lack of employment, high rent, perceptions of danger, poor schools, poor environmental conditions, a climate of uncertainty in the face of massive foreclosures, the continual and systemic profiling of black youth under the color of law, and an inability to buy in the current market, inspired an exodus from Oakland by North American Africans. Another form of system- enabled displacement surfaced in West Oakland to accommodate the willing influx of dot-com dollars. Lo, 2009 says:

The number of 30-day “no cause” evictions in Oakland tripled between the years 1998 and 2002, and Oakland apartment rental prices increased nearly 100 percent. That’s according to a 2002 study by East Bay Housing Organizations, a nonprofit network of 150 organizations that support affordable housing. The same study found that people of color, seniors, disabled residents, and families with small children were most likely to be displaced by “no cause” evictions. In the late 1990s, Oakland was the seventh most expensive US city to rent in, with a poverty rate of 19 percent. (Ten Years of Just Cause Oakland, 2009, para. 16)

The rising rent in Oakland, coupled with the ease of obtaining sub-prime loans, further decimated the population of West Oakland as North American Africans migrated yet again, buying homes in Contra Costa county, the Central Valley, and beyond in pursuit of the American dream of homeownership that would disappear with the crash of the housing market. Mindus, 2012 writes:

The 2010 census showed a 25 percent drop in the African-American population since 2000. In West Oakland, the proportion of African- Americans has declined from 77% to 53%, while the number of white, Latino, and Asian residents has risen. And the neighborhood has seen a huge shift in property ownership, often due to foreclosures. Thirty-seven percent of all properties have changed hands in West Oakland since 2007.” (The Best-Laid Plans The promise—and the problems—of West Oakland, para. 20-21)

What Praetzellis (2004) described as a North American African “fluorescence” has been eclipsed but the stage has not gone dark. The area is in the final phrases of gentrification with yet another redevelopment plan underway. The West Oakland Specific Plan (Mindus 2012) plan will change the face of West Oakland yet again with an infusion of work-live spaces, mixed-use units, low-income units inside market value developments and so forth. In the words of a recent real estate advertisement, “West Oakland is situated on the Bay side of Highway 980 and is easily accessible by public transportation including BARTand 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.

End Part 2.

Related articles:

Gentrification No Resting Place Part 1

Gentrification No Resting Place Part 3






About Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD

I create; therefore I am.
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2 Responses to Gentrification: No Resting Place, Pt.2

  1. Excellent stuff. Keep up he great research.

    • anzinga says:

      Thank you Damu for reading and for the excellent insights you offered regarding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which I will incorporate into a rewrite of the material prior to any future publishing. I offer your comments below (edited) because of their importance to the work:

      “The motto of the BSCP was “Fight or be a slave.” This motto was particularly appropo because many of the early hirees by the Pullman Co. were formerly enslaved workers from the deep south and they were some of the most difficult to unionize.

      Finally in 1934 new national legislation forced the PUllman Co. to sign a contract with the BSCP and to disband the company union they had organized to fight the BSCP.

      Ultimatley the BSCP organized not just those workers employed on the PUllman cars, but those who worked on the chair cars, built by Phila.s Budd co. and all other ser vice workers on the railroads, outside the culinary crafts. Finally the PUllman Co. restructured and all sleeping car, chair car and related crat workers were hired directly by the railroads and had no relations whatsoever with the Pullman Co.”

      So as you assert it is insulting to call Brother’s of the Sleeping Car Porters, Pullman porters as Pullman was an oppressive entity that should not be allowed to impinge on the historical significance of the BSCP nor usurp the narrative of the experience by attaching itself to the organization that brought it to heel.



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