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You Tell Us: Are gentrification and media attention good for Oakland?

on March 12, 2012

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.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

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  1. MarleenLee on March 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    I am completely missing from your article how you think gentrification is bad for Oakland.

  2. Nfalls on March 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Is gentrification good for Oakland? Hell yes! Most of the people who are opposed to it aren’t even from here. I was born, raised, and currently reside here. And, I remember how desolate the Oakland of my youth was. The anti-gentrification crowd has had their way for years, and it’s gotten us nowhere. Did you know that Bay St. in Emeryville was originally intended for West Oakland? Well, it was. But, the hippies in the city counsel balked on it. Why? Because it was considered gentrification. So there’s all of that tax revenue left on the table. Our loss = Emeryville’s gain. I think it’s time for a new, pro-business approach if we have any chance of evolving as a city.

  3. JChan on March 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    One person’s gentrification is another’s return to what they grew up with. The Oakland I knew in involved trips to places my family couldn’t afford but loved seeing. We’d regularly visit Emporium Capwell (now Sears)—I loved the popcorn aroma and my grandparents would dig through the bargain basement looking for a deal. We’d cross the street and look at the jewelry outside I.Magnin (now Cafe Madrid) and wouldn’t dare step in because it felt too upscale. We’d saunter down 20th to Navlets (now the Great Western Power Company climbing gym) and take in all the plants and gardening tools. Circle back to JJ Newberry (now empty) for more browsing and hop on a short bus ride to Chinatown and visit my family at work where I would fold pink bakery boxes until my pre-elementary school fingers were papercut enough that I couldn’t take it anymore, then we’d take the #18 back home, ogling at the bustling shops and restaurants along the way.

    I still live here by the way, I run my own business and own my own home. I really enjoy the booming restaurant scene because the money I used to spend in SF I can now keep within Oakland. I used to eat in SF weekly, now, it’s a rare occasion.

  4. […] To read the rest of this op-ed by Oakland resident and business owner Jessica Nowlan, visit […]

  5. Anca on March 12, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    I came to Oakland in the early 80’s as an immigrant, went to Oakland’s public schools (elementary and junior high). Now I live in Oakland and run a small business here.

    I remember the downtown Oakland in the 80’s, full of bustle and business, and I want to see it become that again. I guess I’m part of the gentrification, and so I don’t see it as a bad thing that businesses are opening downtown and I can walk somewhere for dinner after dark, even if it is past several dimly-lit blocks where muggings still happen on a regular basis.

    I do think it’s important for Oakland to maintain that characteristic diversity that makes it the ultimate melting pot. But you don’t do that by keeping out “gentrification” – you do that by including the people who live here in educational and business enterprises.

  6. Len Raphael on March 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I can appreciate your love hate of gentrification, having lived in all different sections of town since the early 70’s and at different times being priced out of decent housing where my family and I lived.

    It won’t make you feel any better but it does help to put the changes in perspective that you’re seeing by talking to people who lived here in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s as some of my neighbors and older friends have. They will describe a downtown that in the 40’s and 50’s was booming until it got killed by a combo of white flight and the attractiveness of the burbs to everyone who could get in.

    Anathema to local progressives is the possibility that the high percentage of low income people in Oakland puts an unsustainable burden on city services that in turn makes life hellish for low income people living here.

    I don’t want to see Oakland become SF, but I worry much less about that then Oakland turning into a gated version of Stockton with well to do areas paying for their own security services, using mostly private schools, maintaining their own street trees etc.

    An Oakland that’s just a bedroom community for people with good jobs in SF or SJ or San Leandro or Fremont but prefer the weather and restaurants etc. here.

    With the poor sections of town getting just enough city services to keep from boiling over into the gated areas.

    Policy decisions or the lack thereof at the city level affects the outcomes.

    When city officials decide to divert services from already under served well to do areas to very needy poor areas, whether they be cops or libraries or pools, a powerful backlash will be created against even maintaining current levels of services.

    Not simple how to solve that, with a big part of it reducing what we pay in benefits and wages for muni employees, weeding out the ineffectual politically powerful non profits, and prioritizing overall.

    But part of it is to force the burbs and surrounding cities to build their share of affordable housing and let gentrification here reach a new equilibrium.

    -Len Raphael, Temescal since 1970

    • Jess on March 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      I agree with everything in your comment. I have family that were here for I Magnin, Key Route, and the other great years of Oakland downtown. I’m too young to have experienced that but it’s impressive.

      I don’t pretend to understand what happened in the 60’s with Oakland’s wealthy moving to Orinda and beyond. But I do know that we have a real imbalance in our town today — there is too high a concentration of people on welfare and too few jobs. We’re a schizophrenic combination of Detroit and the Hamptons (or something).

      I dislike the ongoing “activist” nature of Oakland city government. Solving major countrywide problems like healthcare at the city level is expensive and ineffective. We have many city programs with little oversight that may have been started with good intentions but nobody is willing to cancel if they don’t achieve their stated goals. The shouting matches at city council meetings succeed in keeping me away.

      What I want is simple — respect for each other and a mutual goal of building up our city together. Let’s not start with large and lofty goals, but instead get basic city services going with community ownership. Clean up a park, make it clear that we stand together against people vandalizing it, pick up trash, etc.

      The divisive politics and name calling inherent in terms like “gentrifier” don’t help us achieve these goals. There is no war here that can be won by fighting more. Instead, banding together for small, common goals is what we need. Once we solve them, we can tackle the bigger ones.

  7. Tim on March 13, 2012 at 9:31 am

    This whole “controversy” is absurd. Downtown Oakland was a ghost town in the 80’s and 90’s – that was the whole point of Jerry Brown’s 10k initiative, to get actual human beings to be downtown after 5 pm. Having nice housing and nice restaurants downtown is an unalloyed good – hopefully it continues to improve and takes off when the economy really gets going again.

  8. Matthew on March 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    A strong dose of gentrification would be good for all of Oakland. I agree that Oakland should not become SF, but there is no chance of that for a variety of reasons.

    SF is a playground for the rich. It’s a bubble world made possible by its geography and the safe, sleepy peninsula communities. Oakland’s gentrification will not turn it into SF. The difference in geography and surrounding communities alone will ensure that.

    My perspective is biased. I am one of those gentrifiers. I am planning to move to Oakland after living in SF for several years. I even commute to the burbs for my tech job.

    Yet I will gladly be paying local taxes and patronizing local businesses. The increased tax revenue helps the whole city and the poor most of all. The increased customer base for local businesses helps enterprising locals and creates jobs for those without a fancy resume or degree. All of this is good for Oakland, including its current residents.

    I think the biggest risk in Oakland’s gentrification is that well-to-do parents will put their kids into private school rather than work to improve the public schools – part of the Stockton scenario that Len Raphael talked about.

  9. livegreen on March 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I find it ironic that an article critical about gentrification is written by somebody who is a very very recent part of it. And that the author finds it’s ok for her because she’s against it.

    I’m sorry but that’s not very insightful.

    As several of your guests have referred to, Oakland has been changing and changing over the years. Many of the hipster locations were hip before. Just because there was a period of desolation in between doesn’t mean we should accept the desolation as either the history of Oakland or the way things should be.

    Oakland’s white flight changed the way Oakland will be forever. It also enabled the subsequent boom in low income housing (official and unofficial). We can argue the theoretical pros and cons but at this point it is just fact.

    That, and Oakland needs a tax base. To support everybody, poor, middle class and rich. To support our city services for black, latino, asian, native american and caucasian.

    Finally, it is important to remember that much of the current black flight is NOT because of gentrification. Blacks are simply not looking at new restaurants (affordable and expensive alike) and saying “I’m scared of that so I have to leave”. And the cost of living in Oakland has not gone up recently, it is gone DOWN (witness that Oakland is ground zero for forclosures in the Bay Area).

    No. Many blacks are leaving because of the high crime rates in many neighborhoods while wanting safer neighborhoods and schools for their families. The same things anybody would want, regardless of their ethnic or economic backgrounds.

  10. cgzgun on March 13, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    I think we are a looong way from turning into San Francisco, so that concern is a bit premature, and more importantly we DESPERATELY need the property and sales taxes that come with gentrification to support our city services. .

  11. Jess on March 14, 2012 at 11:19 am

    I appreciate this article, and also think the comments section is more insightful than the article itself.

    I’m a long-time Oakland resident and small business owner. I think Len has put his finger on the real danger, since I am dealing with the same decisions.

    My wife and I are getting ready to have children and are asking the “public vs. private school” question. We have neighbors on our block who are having kids also. We’ve already been discussing how we’ll team up to support each others’ kids (transportation, after-school care, etc.) I also volunteer in Oakland schools, though rarely.

    For the sake of all of us, I encourage parents to try to improve our schools. Schools and community organizations like churches are the common ground for every resident. We need unity and mutual support to keep Len’s “gated community” scenario from happening here.

    • livegreen on March 14, 2012 at 8:46 pm

      Actually Oakland schools are steadily improving. There r many good ones, and some of the most improved are also the most diverse…

      • Len Raphael on March 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

        Over the years, I’ve seen some of the most self described progressive parents chose to either move out of Oakland to places, god forbid 🙂 like Castro Valley with uniformly decent schools; others move from East O to North O to find safer areas to raise kids.

        I was surprised to hear one ultra progressive friend tell me sheepishly how they put their child in an Oakland charter school. I asked how that reconciled with his opposition to charter schools and he chuckled. Something to the effect the welfare of one’s kid is more important than one’s principles.

        • livegreen on March 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm

          I agree with your critique Len. What’s even more surprising and disappointing about such hypocrisy is that they’re not even correct: they could easily move to an area inside Oakland where schools are good &/or improving -or-

          if they’re located where a school is not as good eg. “program improving” schools they get priority in placement at another school.

          And I’m not even talking about schools that are in between but steadily improving, where far left liberals -or anybody- could contribute, volunteer and help what teachers and other parents are already doing. (Otherwise they wouldn’t be improving).

          Clearly some theoretical, conceptual liberals are often book & NY Times smart and reality foolish. Clearly action speaks more clearly than words.

        • Jess on March 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm

          I think it’s all about critical mass. If enough parents care and support each other, the school can weather challenges like poverty or lack of funds. Without that critical mass, even the richest schools will foster poorly-behaved kids. (Look at the amount of drug use that is rampant in Piedmont City schools due to the combination of adult wealth and lack of attention paid to their kids.)

          I feel for your friend. Without a unified core of parents, it is too difficult for any one parent to stand on their own.

      • Jess on March 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm

        livegreen, I agree and hope that the school in my neighborhood improves enough by the time our kids are ready to attend. I plan to volunteer and donate in order to make that as likely as possible.

        At the same time, I do see significant challenges. Our school (Piedmont Ave Elementary) has had some troubling fights in the past few years. Violence is like a disease, and I won’t have my kids regularly exposed to it. I grew up in a rougher school and got in a lot of fights. At times, I was very close to picking up a weapon myself due to constant harassment from others. As an adult, I realized a lot of those kids were exposed to violence or neglect at home, so they acted out that way in school.

        Also, there is the issue of parental involvement. I want to be part of a school where everyone is expected to participate. Many private schools require some minimum volunteering on behalf of parents, regardless of how much you pay. I like that idea and wish it applied to public schools.

        Finally, the large number of students dropped off from cars is an issue. I don’t have a car and walk/bike everywhere. It’s an intentional lifestyle choice so that I can be involved with my neighbors and “think smaller”. Most students at this school arrive by car from a wide area. I think the distance means it’s difficult to have kids participate in after-school sports or just hanging out together.

        I plan to address all these issues by:

        * Volunteering more in local schools
        * Keep getting to know neighbors and offer support for their kids
        * Assess where schools are at when it gets closer to the time for my kids to attend

        Until that day, everything is just hypothetical.

  12. Oakland Space Academy on March 15, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    …Because gentrification encompasses some increases in supply (but not enough), many people wrongly assume new development causes it. But gentrification actually occurs when supply is not allowed to increase as much as demand, raising prices. The primary solution is to increase the supply of housing (and commercial spaces)…

  13. Len Raphael on March 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Article in today’s Trib about Bobby Seale’s home captures the contradictions of gentrification.
    Article quoting Seale:
    “But the aging activist, who now lives in Contra Costa County with his wife of more than three decades, doesn’t begrudge the newcomers.

    “People move. Humans move. Power to the people, whether they’re black, white, blue, whatever.” ”

    Len Raphael

  14. Charlotte on March 26, 2012 at 6:32 am

    The point about gentrification that hasn’t been addressed is this: gentrification allows those with a higher economic and social status to benefit off of the marginalization of poor, elderly and usually people of color. If that makes you feel good about yourself, then you have some soul searching to do. It is surprising to see that the staff favorite comments are those in support of gentrification and that the staff @ is mostly white. Correlation?

  15. Charlotte on March 26, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Correction: after reviewing the staff, is racially diverse.

    I stand by the need for a financially and socially inclusive means of improving Oakland.

    • Shayne on May 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm

      Perhaps the most telling aspect was assumption of the race of the staff. The need for a financially and socially inclusive means of improvement for Oakland is obvious, how that will happen is the key. Unfortunately, it takes members of a community to improve it, and that just doesnt happen a lot of the time.

  16. OaktownAndrew on March 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    It is ironic that the author, who moved from her native SF to Oakland and set up a business in Oakland, now resents all the people moving to Oakland.

    Does she similarly resent all the new potential clients for her business? Does she resent the taxes being paid to support the City, schools, public services? Or does she merely resent the facts that the new people don’t look like her, act like her or come from same background?

    Gentrification is just capitalism at work. People will go to places that are either desirable and/or affordable. I welcome every new Oakland resident regardless of race, class, sexual orientation or creed so long as he/she will be a productive member of society, not commit crimes, pay taxes and support local businesses.

    I could care less if you call it gentrication.

    • BW on April 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Yeah, I kind of think the author is being hypocritical. Also, it’s going to be a long, long time before Oakland turns into SF, if that ever happens at all. Go to any local newspaper website, read an article about Oakland, then read the comments section. It’s usually insulting. Just because Uptown and Temescal are booming right now, doesn’t mean everything is going downhill. To me at least, it seems like more revenue for Oakland – which we need a lot more of. I can’t recall, but I think we just lost Clorox and MTC is definitely moving to SF in a year or two. We need more businesses coming in to make up for the ones that are leaving.

  17. Gabrielle on May 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    As a young woman and Oakland native, I have mixed feelings about the gentrification that is taking place throughout my community. I recognize the validity of the claim that this gentrification will bring new-found resources, socioeconomic advantages, and fresh concepts and ideas to a city that has seen a steady increase in the violence that plagues our ‘hoods. But, as a social activist and resident, I question the direct impact that these gentrified neighborhoods have on the ghettos they replace. My reflections are based upon my experiences alone — and in my experience, I have yet to see the gentrification of neighborhoods — like the Temescal district, for instance — directly benefit the impoverished community members who live alongside such areas. I understand that gentrification may be necessary for the evolution or progression of a community, but I firmly believe that it is imperative that such gentrification benefit the community being altered.

    • Shayne on May 25, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Perhaps safety and cleanliness is a direct benefit?

  18. Andrew on June 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I guess gentrification is only when other people move in.

  19. James on August 10, 2012 at 3:57 am

    When the mission was built who was living there ate the time? From what I recall it was Irish and German when it was developed. My point being is that change is constant in everyone’s life and the usa is a business. If the city can get more tax dollars than there business is growing. There are and were Mexican Americans that made huge profits selling off there properties in the mission. The City profits the property owner profit. If you want to sit on money go ahead but dont get mad at someone or a group of poeple making money. I left SF because its not a real city. I live in LA where many people actually work and dont have trust funds and I have the luxury to call my home where I want to be. I didnt want to live in oakland to me its a sister city. Theres just a bunch of rich people generally on vacation in SF now adays. and yes going to academy of art is vacation generally. Theres nothing wrong with being rich and for me SF is where I was born and when I do have a pile of money i will visit but not live. Mainly because Im a believer that people who get ripped off are lame. I have a friend who owns a flat on the panhandle he got it from his parents my bet he will eventually sell it, to a people who will be ripped off…lol

  20. Hank on October 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    If you don’t like gentrification…move to Detroit and live in zero_gentrification bliss!

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