While there is no shortage of negative portrayals of Oakland in the media (high crime, murder rates, violent occupy rallies, etc.), lately I have been more worried about the other articles I have seen: Oakland front-and-center on the March/April issue of Via magazine as a fine dining destination, and in the New York Times’ “45 Places to Go in 2012,” in which it beat out every other North American city for the ranking of 5th. Of course it’s good to see Oakland in a positive light, and to get excited about new opportunities in our city, but do such extreme media representations fuel change that is beneficial to the whole community or just for some?
I was at an Oakland community event the other day and a woman that recently moved to Oakland was explaining to the group that gentrification wasn’t such a big issue, and that all it is, essentially, is people moving in and creating new opportunities for the people that live there.
My stomach turned, as this woman with good intentions went on to say that the people who already live in the community just need to reach out to the new business owners and create dialogue. As someone who relocated to Oakland after being pushed out of San Francisco during the dot-com boom, I was reminded of how quietly kept it was when San Francisco really started changing, how there was literally no media attention when the population of African Americans was declining, how families that had lived in San Francisco for years were being pushed out to Antioch, Richmond and Oakland, and how when the housing projects were torn down the new ones that were built had so much criteria that many families were never able to come back. Meanwhile, stories about the growing Valencia art scene, cool new technology start-ups, the booming housing market and where to dine were all over the media.
Leaving San Francisco was not easy. I truly missed the city and wanted my kids to grow up there, to have the experience of growing up with diversity, a sense of community, the autonomy you have in a big city and the San Francisco pride I carried in my heart. It took me a while to settle down in Oakland and I still missed the feeling of home, nostalgic for the San Francisco that I knew.
It finally settled in one day when I had a meeting in the city and decided to BART it, just so I could walk through the Mission. I was looking for that comfort feeling you get when you go home. Instead it was replaced with the sad and angry emptiness of loss. San Francisco had become another city, another people’s city, one that had been in the works of developers for many years. I could literally count on one hand the people I grew up with that still lived there. Reflecting on in its gentrified glory and all that it implies, I realized that it was never going to be the same, the city I knew and grew up in was lost forever—and that I couldn’t wait to get back to Oakland. I couldn’t wait to get back to our East Oakland neighborhood of 2 bedroom flat houses with kids running up and down the street chasing the ice cream truck and scraper bikes with music, and neighbors that were friendly but not nosy and working families, and single moms and everything in between. I couldn’t wait to get back home.
Oakland, I felt, had embraced us when San Francisco had abandoned us and I was excited to call it home and start a business here. Oakland would be a place to do things differently and with its diversity, rich history, a strong sense of community of progressive thinkers, aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners that Oakland would really embrace the kind of collective change that is not built on gentrification, but on collaborative community solutions and opportunities.
Excited, I made the transition from Welfare to work, joined a business incubator and started my own business. I couldn’t wait to get funding to create jobs and avenues for people like me in Oakland, people that just needed an opportunity to flourish without the boundaries and bureaucracies of welfare-to-work and unemployment job hunting. My credit was bad, but I thought, “So what?” This was Oakland—the city that attracted entrepreneurs, hosted struggling artists and had more than a handful of programs that helped minorities and low-income people start businesses.
Despite my hopes and idealistic vision, I realized so quickly that Oakland is in the midst of a shift and, just like San Francisco, positive growth and media attention puts the most vulnerable at even more risk. Once the step-child of San Francisco, making it to top ten lists and attracting entrepreneurs and artists is a double edged sword. Creating the opportunity to attract more re-development and growth is underway but, unfortunately, the underbelly of this change becomes the burden of the most vulnerable—communities of color and low-income people. Through my own business, I have the opportunity to meet with other low-income aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners that are looking to grow their business and despite the “growth and opportunities” that are underway, the same barriers that systematically exclude people exist—limited access to technology, capital, resources and social networks with resources.
A part of me gets excited for opportunities in Oakland and the other part of me gets angry all over again, feeling the realities of progressive change and thinking about the harmful effects on communities from gentrification.
Jessica Nowlan is a resident and business owner in Oakland. She founded her business, Hope Solutions in 2010 to help local businesses with payment processing and custom loyalty programs. Hope Solutions also supports community based programs that strengthen the local economy such as the Oakland Grown Card program. Jessica is passionate about social justice and is actively involved with the Center for Young Women’s Development, an organization working on issues facing young women and girls transitioning from incarceration and off of the streets as well as other community groups working working to strengthen the local economy.
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