You Tell Us: Oakland, gentrification, and the hunt for cool
on July 26, 2011
When I was growing up in Oakland, I remember watching, year after year, the Rockridge shopping district becoming posh. For example, I saw the Lucky supermarket transform into a Whole Foods, also known as “Whole Paycheck,” before my eyes. Less than a mile away from Whole Paycheck is Shattuck Avenue, which gradually intersects with Telegraph Avenue in downtown. The wedge formed between the two had been a thriving Black business district as recently as the 1970’s—a woman who was born in the 1940’s reminisced to me about the roller-skating rink in the area, a gathering-place for young people, at which she can’t remember a single fight.
These are, of course, bittersweet memories, memories of strictly policed segregation, but those days also had industrial jobs which paid well enough, sometimes, to raise entire families. A recent pattern of Black flight, to new suburbs and back to the South, has coincided with the turning wind that brought whites back in droves to the cities. But there is an inevitable delay in such turnover, and the wedge between Shattuck and Telegraph has not become gentrified as much as Berkeley, San Francisco, or key neighborhoods in North Oakland, whose rents are constantly rising.
Nowadays, south of Bushrod, aside from a couple of bars and hair salons, there is no social business between Shattuck and Telegraph any longer. Further East, toward the hills, the small streets are clogged throughout the workday with pedestrians whose baguettes poke rudely from their burlap shopping bags, waiting to cross the road after caravans of young parents in environmentally friendly outdoors vehicles. If one is trying to drive from Oakland to Berkeley, the College Avenue route may take an hour; if one has the eccentricity to drive between Shattuck and Telegraph, or further west, on bombed-out-looking Market Street, it only takes fifteen minutes because most people in the area can’t afford cars and most people who can afford cars are afraid to drive there, or came to the area so recently that they haven’t discovered that post-industrial space that separates the East Bay from San Francisco, easily avoided by freeway.
The question, now, is the question of integration, just as much as it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. As the Oakland Post reported on January 7, 2011, a new Brown University report has shown that segregation has not necessarily declined in large American cities, despite “The growth of the Black middle class, the passage of time since fair housing legislation was enacted, and the evidence from surveys that white Americans are becoming more tolerant of Black neighbors,” in the words of the report’s author, John Logan.
Logan’s data is helpful in confirming a suspicion that many of us would like to put to rest, that perhaps since Dr. King’s time things have actually gotten worse in terms of social justice in America, due, in part, to growing economic inequalities and Reaganesque privatization schemes. Critic and theorist Hortense Spillers has said, poignantly, that we cannot say the name of the American antagonism we face right now, either because we don’t know its name, or because we know its name all too well.
But I would suggest that Logan fails to grasp the entire problem when he uses the word “tolerance” to describe white perceptions of Blacks in America. Non-Blacks, including but certainly not limited to whites, are investing in and repopulating the formerly-demonized “inner cities,” places like Oakland, places whose recent histories are not only colored, but defined, by their associations with Black culture and entrepreneurship. From NBA star Bill Russell to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, all the way to Tupac Shakur, Oakland has been a place crucial to the definition of Black culture in America, and Black culture, from its music to its styles to its various philosophies, has long been inseparable from American culture in general. When you observe young white folks at a bar in downtown, you can see the traces of Black style in their clothing, their haircuts, their musical tastes, their sensibilities. The irony is that these same people form an important cause for the Black exodus from the area, and not because Blacks are “intolerant” of them, but because the rents, as if by magic, are steadily rising.
If gentrification were simply a process by which the city is “cleaned up,” as it is so often described, why would so many people flock to that “inner city” which is in dire need of cleansing? What are they running from? To be exact, we not only need to ask why it is that the city of Oakland’s Black population is shrinking, but, just as crucially, why is it that so many non-Black people are coming to Oakland from other places? Why the reversal? We must ask this question not in the interest of restoring Oakland to a previous state, but in the interest of understanding how this cosmopolitan racial musical chairs phenomenon came about (most striking in the instance of a city like San Francisco, which has tried recently to give incentives to keep its few remaining Blacks in the city; Berkeley is another example of a city whose once-sizeable Black population has shrivelled as its property rates went up ).
Jerry Brown has spoken recently about restoring order to Oakland, about the supposedly dire need for more police officers (as opposed to more public schools, more public events, more things which give meaning to those who might commit crimes). I would urge you to understand that increasing the policing of Oakland without addressing the dire need for public programs which benefit everyday people, not merely the condo-dwellers and Whole Paycheck customers, will only contribute further to the divisiveness and the segregated atmosphere of the city.
Shoshone Odess Johnson was born in Oakland and raised in the Temescal district. He lived in the East Bay for 19 years. At the moment, he’s researching the politics of the chromatic at Goldsmiths, University of London. He shops locally and cooks daily.
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