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The North Pole web series addresses displacement in Oakland with humor

on October 16, 2017

Dania Cabello was born and raised in North Oakland, and has lived in the same 20-block radius her entire life. But in recent years, Cabello has noticed a shift in her neighborhood. Large condos have been built, people on her street have been evicted, and businesses have closed, including her parents’ own shop. For the past year, Cabello produced a new web series titled The North Pole, which uses humor as a tool to address issues like eviction and displacement that reflect the experiences of Cabello and her neighbors.

The North Pole, released on YouTube in September, is a political comedy about how gentrification affects communities in Oakland. Cabello uses the metaphor of how climate change has affected the North Pole, where melting ice caps and warming ocean temperatures have forced polar bears to migrate and fight for survival under the changing conditions. In The North Pole series, many longtime residents of North Oakland face a similar fate: Move out or be pushed out. For the creators of the show, the analogy between these two polar ice caps isn’t just convenient or catchy, but a man-made reality. “It’s a violent shift in our natural habitat,” Cabello said. “The North Pole” is an actual nickname for the neighborhood where she lives, Cabello said.

The series consists of seven nine-minute episodes chronicling the lives of four friends, each played by actors with roots in the Bay Area. The show’s protagonist, Nina, played by Reyna Amaya, grew up in North Oakland and works as a teacher in a charter school. Nina is the leader of the pack; she is smart, bossy and motivated to stave off the effects of gentrification on her neighborhood.

Donte Clark plays Marcus, Nina’s best friend and roommate, whose family was priced out of Oakland and forced to move to the outer suburbs of Antioch. In episode three, Marcus takes his roommates to his mother’s new home for a family reunion. At the party, Marcus’s family talks of how they’ve suffered from water restrictions and extreme temperatures in Antioch. “The suburbs used to be a place where the rich folks wanted to live. Now it’s where the poor folks are forced to live,” Marcus’ mother tells Nina.

Clark grew up in Richmond, where he still lives and works as an actor and spoken word artist. Clark’s poetry addresses issues that he sees in Richmond, particularly injustices that lead to gun violence, he said. Clark said gentrification in Richmond leads to the remodeling and increased rent prices of affordable housing in predominantly black communities. Gentrification is “more than just folks being pushed out. It’s folks not having the political or financial power to dictate what goes on in a community that is inhabited by that people,” Clark said.

Benny (Santiago Rosas) is Marcus and Nina’s best friend, whose character provides much of the comedic relief in high-stress scenes. In episode four, Nina uses a detailed chart to explain to Marcus and Benny how melting ice caps in the North Pole are causing polar bears to leave their natural habitat, just as evictions have forced Nina’s neighbors to leave Oakland. Benny, sitting on the couch with his long curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, exhales a puff of smoke from a marijuana vape pen and says, “Yo, you make science hella fun, Nina, for real.”

The three childhood friends meet Finn (Eli Marienthal) when rent prices go up and Nina and Marcus are forced to find a new roommate. At first, Nina is skeptical of Finn. Nina, Marcus, and Benny are native to Oakland and are people of color, but Finn is a white guy from Minnesota who moved to Oakland to work at an environmental start-up named GreenGos. Finn seems to have good intentions, but his naïveté about Oakland history and culture rubs Nina the wrong way. When Nina discovers GreenGos is funded by oil companies and has plans to change Oakland for the worse, Finn is forced to think critically about his role as a newcomer.

Oakland activists and performers including Boots Riley, Mistah Fab, and W. Kamau Bell, shake things up in cameo appearances. In episode six, former Black Panther Party leader Ericka Huggins plays Nina’s Uber-driving grandmother. Nina, feeling alienated by the changes occurring on her block and defeated by the lack of support from her friends, seeks consolation and takes a ride in grandma’s car. “You need to have a vision, Nina,” the former Panther says to her on-screen granddaughter. “Folks will only walk somewhere new with you when they can see where you’re taking them.”

Several scenes were shot in Cabello’s own home, and the episodes were based on real events that occurred on her block. As Nina and her grandmother drive through the neighborhood, Nina sees a crowd of people outside of a house with a “For Sale” sign out front. The host of the open house, a white man in a suit and tie, walks down the steps of the home to address the mostly white crowd of potential buyers gathered on the sidewalk. “Shit! Did you see that?” Nina cries. “Doña Rita just got an eviction notice yesterday and these gringos are already swarming to take her house. These fools are kicking everybody out.”

Doña Rita’s story was based on an eviction that actually occurred a few houses down from Cabello’s home. “It was surreal,” Cabello said, “watching a production, a performance, of things I had lived a year ago, that I live. When they pack up and go home, these are the same things that are actually happening.”

Cabello’s neighborhood is one of the most heavily gentrified neighborhoods in the city, which is apparent by the decrease of black homeownership. A report published in 2014 by Causa Justa :: Just Cause, a housing rights organization, notes that because the black population of Oakland is quickly disappearing, the economic investments and benefits that come with gentrification are not benefiting the people who may need it the most.

According to 2014 data conducted by the Alameda County Public Health Department, African American homeownership decreased from 50 to 20 percent of total homeowners in North Oakland between 1990 and 2011. US Census data shows the number of African American households in North Oakland decreased by more than 2,000 during those years. That data also shows that while the entire population of Oakland increased by 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2016, the African American population has decreased from 43 to 26 percent between 1990 and 2011.

In some areas, shop owners have benefitted from the wave of newcomers. Ronile Lathi, a member of the Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association for over twenty years, said there has been an influx of millennials to the neighborhood, and that businesses have been faring well. “We have a really nice mix now of retail and food service, which I think does well for the Avenue, and right now we seem to be pretty stable,” Lathi said.

But Cabello doesn’t think the benefits of economic growth are reaching all members of the Oakland community. “There’s an influx of new money into this neighborhood that is making it a lot more expensive to survive here,” Cabello said. “There’s this combination of displacement of people who can no longer afford to live here, and an influx of an entirely new culture, or species, that don’t recognize the damage that’s being done by creating new spaces.”

Cabello’s parents, political refugees from Chile, moved to North Oakland and opened a store called Baby World in 1983. Baby World started as a small used clothing booth at the Coliseum Flea Market and grew to become a successful children’s store with a of couple locations in the Temescal and Rockridge neighborhoods. In the last few years, Cabello said, sales at Baby World dropped as internet sales increased and rent hikes caused loyal customers to move out of the neighborhood. In March, 2017, Cabello’s parents closed the doors to the Baby World at the corner of 44th Street and Telegraph Avenue for the last time. The 8,000 square foot space that housed the last remaining Baby World is now up for lease.

Blanche Richardson, co-owner of Marcus Books on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, said she has witnessed the displacement of her black neighbors. Richardson’s parents opened Marcus Books in San Francisco in the 1960’s. Twenty years later, they opened the second location in Oakland. Because the black population in North Oakland has decreased, Richardson said, her customers have to travel greater distances to come to the store.

Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, executive director of the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District (BID) association, said Temescal has undergone a huge transformation over the last 25 years: There has been a decrease in crime, and many new restaurants and shops have opened up on Telegraph Avenue. But new and different problems have come with the transformation, she said. One problem businesses are facing is that many employees have longer commute times because they can no longer afford to live in Temescal.

Churchgoers have a longer commute, too. Memorial Tabernacale Church and Beebe Memorial Cathedral, two historically black churches in the neighborhood, are experiencing issues with providing parking for their commuting visitors. “A lot of their congregation used to be in the neighborhood, used to all live surrounding the churches. And now we’re running into an interesting problem of parking for when the services come in, because now everybody lives out in Antioch, and Concord, and Pittsburg, and commutes in for their services once a month or once a week,” de Benedictis-Kessner said.

Small businesses in Rockridge, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Oakland, have struggled to stay open amidst the rising rent prices. The 2011 and 2016 City of Oakland Quarterly Economic Dashboards show a steady increase in median single-family home price and rent average between those years, and commercial rents have seen similar inclines. Chris Jackson, director of the Rockridge District Association, said that he’s seen retail rents go from $2.50 to $8 per square foot, and that sales growth is not keeping up. Rockridge Rags on College Avenue, in business since 1981, recently closed because “the consignment business just was not generating enough revenue to keep it going,” Jackson said.

Jackson attributes declining sales to changes in the way people shop. In an area where “people who are coming in here and are spending a minimum of a million dollars for a home,” Jackson said, “even on two professional incomes, that doesn’t leave people much income for the frivolous things. So they’re going to shop online, they’re going to the big box store to pick up what they need, as opposed to have to pay what the smaller retailers are having to charge for their specialty items.”

Sharon Lungo, executive director of Ruckus Society, a non-violent protest training organization, has lived in Eastlake in Oakland for ten years. At the premiere of The North Pole at Grand Lake Theatre in September, Lungo felt what she saw onscreen reflected her experience in her own neighborhood. “I’ve witnessed the up-scale and gentrification, and so to see that portrayed with the use of humor is really powerful,” Lungo said. “I think that laughter is a very healing thing and so it’s important to bring that into our work and to make sure that we’re utilizing it as medicine.”

Lungo said gentrification has most affected the affordability of living in Oakland. “I’m probably about a year from being priced out of my home,” she said. “To see that people in my community that are my friends and my loved ones, have been forced to leave our community, and to try to find housing 30 minutes or an hour away, or even out of state, to try to find affordable housing has been really hard.”

Movement Generation, an Oakland non-profit that supports land and labor advocacy through trainings and workshops, executive produced The North Pole and hosted a workshop that inspired the storyline. At a Movement Generation writing workshop, Cabello and the series’ other creators developed its central analogy—relating the migration of polar bears to the displacement of North Oakland residents.

Josh Healey, writer and producer of The North Pole and a staff member at Movement Generation, sought to creatively reflect the experiences of Oakland residents. It was important for Oaklanders “to see a story where they see themselves represented,” Healey said.

Healey also hopes people from other cities will relate to it. “You know this isn’t the story. There isn’t one story of a city. There’s no one story of a neighborhood,” Healey said. “I hope that people outside of Oakland see the parallels to what’s going on in their neighborhoods and their cities because it is every big city in America, really.”

Yvan Iturriaga, director of The North Pole, said that people of color are not often portrayed like this on Hollywood screens. For him, it was important to depict characters who are underrepresented in media. “We need more media and more shows that show folks of color not as victims but as protagonists, as active participants in their life,” said Iturriaga. He hopes the combination of humor, politics, and the depiction of Oakland residents onscreen will help make gentrification a more accessible topic of conversation.

For Cabello, the story behind The North Pole won’t stop when the series is over, because it continues to affect her and her neighbors every day. Cabello hopes the show will “get people who are new to these neighborhoods to engage with us differently,” she said. Newcomers don’t “make eye contact and don’t give you that subtle nod that you give when you walk by somebody in the town. It’s a recognition that’s like ‘I see you.’ I don’t have to know you, but I see you.”

The next The North Pole screening and Q&A with the filmmakers will take place at The New Parkway theater on October 29. The full series is online here.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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