When the photographer epli came up with the project “Here. Before. Art From A Contested Space,” she had one goal foremost in mind—to spark an honest conversation about gentrification between new residents of West Oakland and the “traditional” residents rooted in the neighborhood.
In an emotional, often-heated town hall forum at DeFremery Park on Saturday evening, that honesty was on full display, particularly from local African Americans who have seen their historic neighborhood transforming before their eyes.
Upon moving to West Oakland in 2008, epli (pronounced E. P. Lee) was struck by an unsettling tension amid the rapid changes in the neighborhood, and she decided to devote her art to addressing gentrification. The photographer — whose artistic handle uses initials of her name, Elizabeth Pastorfield-Li – had an “aha” moment when she discovered photographer Wendy Ewald. Ewald’s work often “turns the camera around” by having the subjects take pictures of themselves.
“That is how this should be done,” epli told herself. After recruiting participants from within the community, she armed five long-time West Oakland residents this past spring with digital cameras, challenging them to explore gentrification and its relation to themselves.
The photographer prompted the neighborhood artists with a series of cues. For example, one portrait depicts how residents thought gentrifiers viewed them; another, how their community does so; and finally, how they view themselves. With each, epli had her finger on the trigger but she let each participant choose the subject matter and frame the shots themselves.
In his depiction of how he thought outsiders viewed him, 15-year-old Kristopher McCoy took a photograph with a monitor drawn around his ankle, a replica of the one he wore for two months after getting out of juvenile hall. “It’s saying, ‘Don’t judge me,’ because you don’t know me,” he said. His other portraits show a confident teen growing into a man in West Oakland, mentoring his younger cousins and cruising around on his vibrant red-and-blue bike.
Another photographer, Leander Muhammad, who has lived in West Oakland for all of his 35 years, got involved after he saw a flyer looking for participants and was immediately intrigued. “It just hit me like lightning,” he said. “Good, there’s somebody talking about this, because this is a dialogue that we need to have among people in our community.”
That dialogue would be the culmination of the project in a very literal sense. After an opportunity for West Oaklanders new and old to mingle and to view the exhibit, the five neighborhood artists sat down to talk about the gentrification of their neighborhood.
Among them was Ayodele Nzinga, the founder of the theater company Lower Bottom Playaz. Speaking to new residents, she said, “My problem with this isn’t that you are here. My problem is, where am I to go?” Nzinga said she sees a host of issues amid the influx of newcomers, one of them being that the changes to the neighborhood haven’t benefitted the residents already there.
McClymonds High School, she said, remains underfunded, jobs for the undereducated remain scarce, and efforts to clean up street level crime haven’t addressed any of the structural issues that drive young men to the corner.
“A lot of money comes through West Oakland, but I don’t see it filtering down,” Nzinga said. “Often I’m asked, ‘What’s wrong with clean streets and brighter lights and more police?’” she said, adding, “Nothing, and nothing has been wrong with those things for 30 years.”
Antoine Hunter, a resident for more than 30 years and founder of the Urban Jazz Dance Company, struck a slightly more optimistic tone. He called Oakland “a really small town with a really big heart.” He said he sees opportunity for “regeneration” in the changes that are underway. The project, he added, was a reminder to take a look at what he is contributing to his community.
“Am I really working hard enough?” Hunter asked. “And are you willing to work harder to teach each other and to understand each other?”
Amid calls for dialogue and understanding, residents expressed a palpable fear that the influx of newcomers spells the end of the cultural heart of Oakland’s black community. After the microphone was opened up to the audience, one resident of 15 years, who experienced the effects of gentrification on the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco before moving to Oakland, saw no hope for her community.
“As much as people want to live together, it’s not the case for any American city,” she said. “When you wanted to be in the suburbs, we were in the inner cities. Now you guys decided that you want to live in cities, so we go out to the suburbs.”
An elderly lifelong West Oakland resident decried what he called “the ungodly whore of money… creating this dissension and sense of displacement.” He shouted, “Cut off that money!” before relinquishing the microphone.
One white resident, Justin Quimby, who has lived in West Oakland for seven years, explained why he is drawn to the neighborhood. After living in cities all over the country, he feels “more of a sense of community” than anywhere else. “I’d hate to see it become a drastically different place,” he said.
His friend Taylor Keep, a white resident of The Lower Bottoms for the last three-and-a-half years, expressed similar enthusiasm about where he and his family live. He said he has been welcomed by his neighbors, and hasn’t felt the tensions in the same way epli did upon arriving. Keep added that he wants to be a part of the neighborhood in a positive way, but he’s also aware of the inherent contradictions that accompany his skin color.
“There’s no way to contribute without being here,” Keep said. “But being here is its own assault on certain things.”
By the time the forum ended, just two of the targeted “gentrifiers”—new, white residents—had spoken. For epli, the fact the discussion didn’t necessarily represent the plurality of the attendees wasn’t an inherent problem.
“I would’ve liked more actual dialogue,” she said. “But I think my role was to create the situation and to let people fill it in.” epli would love to see such situations on a regular basis and said that if any community members wanted to take up the mantle for organizing meetings, clearly the interest is there. “The end goal isn’t getting everybody to be friends and have potlucks,” she said.
“The goal is talking to each other, and having those talks in the most authentic way possible.”