Mystery, commerce, local pride in that one familiar tree
on February 24, 2015
THE TREE. We know that“Oakland” comes from the name nineteenth-century Spanish ranchers gave the area: encinal, referring to a grove of oak trees. And legend has it that one particular tree, a shady specimen in front of city hall, was planted by Jack London for his wife, Charmian (or, in alternative versions, the other way around.)
But the city’s tree logo—a serpentine latticework of clean lines spreading into an interlocking canopy—is a mystery. “I’ve been here 18 years and it was on our [documents] many, many years before that,” says Karen Boyd, Oakland’s Communications Director. She says it was adapted from an older design, but that no one in the city administration can say from whence it came.
The tree has become a powerful, inescapable symbol of Oakland life—featured on billboards and advertisements, tattooed on residents’ arms, and even carved into those earrings worn by Mayor Libby Schaaf the day she turned up on a now-infamous flame-snorting motorized snail. But because of its dubious origins, it hasn’t been trademarked, and differing versions pop up regularly around town. For the city’s 150th birthday in 2002, Boyd’s office worked with an ad agency to create an updated, trademarkable logo that would solve the copycat issues once and for all. As Boyd says, “in an emergency, when you’re putting out sensitive information, life safety information —for example, if residents are evacuating their homes— the people who are receiving that information need to be very sure that it’s coming from an official source.”
But when outgoing Mayor Jean Quan was elected, she pushed for continued use of the old logo, and the update was put on pause.
As Schaaf assumes her new job, that idea has reemerged. Although no formal proposals have yet been made, Boyd says she is enthusiastic about the idea of “upgrading our design standards so that we have a more consistent look… without losing what is obviously beloved by the community.”
She attributes Oakland’s embrace of its logo to a “fierce pride” in the city, and it was that same pride that led Oaklandish founder Jeff Hull to hijack, affectionately, the city’s logo in the early 2000s. Hull, a street-artist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-back-to-artist, started the beloved apparel brand with that pride—what he calls a “renegade spirit”—in mind.
“I was interested in what is it about the town that just has all these characters,” Hull says. For that reason, the newborn Oaklandish was known at first for its series of Hull-drawn posters of local legends, such as Black Panthers founder Huey Newton, which would appear on buildings overnight.
Hull’s interest in Oakland’s under-the-radar history gradually became an obsession, Hull and friends drew crowds downtown as they projected Oaklandish slideshows about city historical figures onto abandoned buildings and in empty lots.
As Oaklandish established its reputation, Hull came up with its famous logo—which mirrors the towering branches of the Oakland tree with strong, equivalent roots –- in a flash of inspiration over breakfast on Grand Avenue. He says it was actually his childhood best friend, Fred Macondray, who thought up the idea. “We were talking about the roots of Oakland, the history, the culture, the legacy,” Hull says. “And that’s what it represented to us.”
The new posters that Hull created with the logo were a sensation. “People were very attracted to it,” Hull says. “There was a natural magnetism to the image that people responded to. The city themselves were kind of anxious about it. There’s a whole cultural arts marketing department that was trying to promote this image of Oakland, and here we were wheat pasting these posters of Sonny [Barger, head of the Oakland-based Hells Angels] and Little Bobby Hutton [an early recruit to the Black Panthers.]”
The logo became a kind of rallying point for Oaklanders anxious about maintaining the city’s uniqueness in the face of the dotcom boom. “Oh man, there’s all these new people coming to Oakland,” Hull remembers thinking. “The culture is changing, and the specific landscape is changing.”
The logo became a way to navigate, even resist, this bigger sea change: “The poster campaigns and the slideshows and the local movie screening nights were all designed in public spaces talking about the culture of Oakland, the legacy of Oakland, the history of Oakland, the spirit of Oakland,” he says. “This is us in 2000 feeling like ‘our homeland is insecure somehow.’”
Then—a wry laugh. “Of course we had no idea what would be happening 14 years later,” he adds. He’s referring, of course, to the influx of hipsters and tech refugees currently flooding into Oakland as its counter-culture star rises in concert with San Francisco rent prices.
History may be repeating itself, but in the interim, Oaklandish has transformed many times over. From guerrilla drive-ins and something called the Radio Regatta (free gondola rides on Lake Merritt and a micro-FM station broadcasting a DJ from the shore) came a gallery that also sold t-shirts; then an expanded clothing line; then a mobile unit at the Grand Lake farmer’s market; and finally a brick-and-mortar store across from city hall. These last iterations came under the guidance of Oaklandish CEO Angela Tsay. She also led the opening of the non-Oakland-specific brand ThereThere in 2010, a Dimond district store in November 2013, and new sister brand Oakland Supply Company in spring 2014. Hull, who has not been associated with Oaklandish for some time, says he is proud of the current staff’s “work and presence, and believe in their continued importance in the community.”
Oaklandish Community and Events Coordinator Spenser Cooper, an East Oakland native, says the new model has left less room for the kind of cultural organizing for which the brand was first known, citing 2013 as the year “we kind of shifted focus to opening up more stores, kind of working the retail end.” But he also points out that the downtown store still hosts a first Friday event featuring music and free beer, and that part of his job description is bringing those traditions back.
“My baby has learned to walk and walked away,” Hull says. “You must be proud of a baby that does that. And the baby doesn’t always make the same decisions you would make, but that’s part of raising something that’s independent.” Hull left the company after the Oaklandish gallery was closed down by the city in 2006 and now works at a situational design firm in San Francisco. “I respect and trust” the direction Tsay has taken the company, he says.
He also understands that working as an established, respected company instead of under the radar makes Oaklandish’s current situation much more complicated. “You’re no longer anonymous,” he says. “You’re no longer just an individual accountable for these actions. You’re gaining a broader appeal. How do you transform?”
Cooper has considered the same issue in the course of his work at Oaklandish. “We cannot pull into a parking lot at 10:30 at night with a radio transmitter and do a guerrilla drive-through,” he says. “We are an actual company, and we would immediately get thrown to the flames and fined by multiple agencies if we did something like that on the guerrilla level.” Instead, he says, the company can help the community in other ways. He, Hull, and Tsay all name Oaklandish’s Innovator’s Award program as one way it is maintaining its original spirit.
The program provides local non-profits with financial support, as well as access to the brand’s extensive social and promotional networks: Cooper estimates the company awards more than $15,000 per year. Chosen organizations also collaborate on specialty Oaklandish apparel and plan in-house events during which they receive a cut of proceeds. “That’s the way it’s giving back to the community now,” Hull says of Oaklandish, “and it’s something we couldn’t have done 10 years ago.”
The company’s most significant current challenge seems to be, as Cooper puts it, “staying true to what we’ve always done”– keeping old-timer locals happy while welcoming new people to its fan base. He says the continuing debate within the company asks, “Is this getting too much, is this getting too far away from what our roots are, what Oakland is? Or is this too isolationist?”
Cooper sees such questions as important to the company’s well-being. “Going back and forth between those two camps, I think that’s actually really healthy,” he says.
To that end, Oaklandish seems to be settling into a new role as godfather of the locally-made community. Many of its workers are Oaklanders, and most of its designing and printing happens in a Jack London Square facility. There’s even discussion about starting to manufacture cloth locally, although Tsay says that goal is “realistically three to five years out.”
Oaklandish also recently started contracting artists to sell jewelry and other accessories in its stores. It now works with more than 200 makers, among them Antietam Designs, the company behind the tree earrings Schaaf wore to her victory press conference. Tsay says the setup has been successful enough to create surprising challenges. As Oaklandish customers discover new artists, they begin to buy directly for those artists and leave out the middleman. “And that’s fine,” she says, “because it’s part of our mission for people to get to know who their local makers are so we can support them, but it means we always have to be looking for new people to sell in the store.”
Hull, who still considers himself an artist, hopes Schaaf’s administration will address the issue of unused real estate, a major obstacle for artists looking for studio, gallery, or living space, and one that Hull’s guerrilla posters and drive-ins in the early 2000s sought to highlight. “That was the beginning of Oaklandish for us,” he says, “going out and finding these spaces and using them, maximizing them.”
He also feels especially strongly about what he calls “speculative” rent pricing. “If I were the king of Oakland, anything available either in retail or residential—if a rental is available for more than a year, that’s a problem with the landlord,” he says. “And so either they’re going to pay more taxes or lower the rent and make the space available.”
Tsay, who thinks Oakland has “been suffering from a crisis of a lack of leadership,” is optimistic about Schaaf as a mayor who values artists. She also cites use of space as a top concern. “A lot of it just has to do with land use policy and where you’re going to put makers,” she says, “where physically you’re going to locate them and how the buildings are zoned and how they can have some sort of density without again displacing people in residential areas.”
Cooper agrees, saying the issue Oakland faces is “riding the line on the city level that we ride on a retail level. It’s making the climate desirable for new people to come in and spend money in Oakland, businesses to locate to Oakland. But you’re still having to work with communities who have been here for generations, make sure you’re not displacing them and not alienating them. It’s a fine line.” And it’s the same line that Oaklandish, caught between the old and the new, history and growth, roots and canopy, continues to walk.
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