Tags: gentrification, oakland
Driving back from the store a few minutes ago, I caught a chunk of today’s Forum show about the changing demographics of Oakland. Apparently, the last census revealed something I’ve been concerned about for a while: the African American population in my hometown has declined precipitously in the last decade. There are 42% fewer African American children living in Oakland now, and approximately 20% fewer African American adults. One of the callers mentioned the arrival of whites in West Oakland as a potential for shifting the identity of that historically troubled neighborhood; however, Angela Glover Blackwell made a good point that the problem with this group is its demographic beyond race. These are young, single people, who may arrive for a few years to live a lifestyle they can’t afford in San Francisco, but they won’t invest in the community, nor will they really do much about creating bonds with their neighbors.
All of this stirred up a bunch of mixed emotions. As some of my friends (and blog readers) are aware, I’m a forth generation Oakland native. My father grew up in West Oakland — not very far from where I now live — in the 1940s and 50s, a time when that area was mainly poor Irish, but as African Americans began to move in to that part of town, he began attending schools with them and became lifelong friends with my godfather, himself African American and part of our family. As a result of growing up in that shifting community, dad brought all of us up to believe we needed to know and love our neighbors. My mom arrived here in the late fifties to attend college at Cal, then went into a thirty year career teaching and working as an administrator in the Oakland Public Schools, one of the most diverse school districts in the US. So they raised five kids in this town, all of us attending schools where we, as white people, were often the minority. And we were fine with that. My own investments in social justice, equality, and education are all direct offshoots from growing up here. I love living here not in spite of the people who surround me, but because of them.
Around the time that my friends and I started Kitchen Sink Magazine (early 2000s), things began to change in Oakland. More and more young white people were moving into Oakland neighborhoods that a decade back they would have sneered at, because rents in San Francisco kept rising, so that dream of living in a SOMA warehouse and making art was gone for good. Lots of these people claimed to be proud of living in Oakland, but they never seemed to know their neighbor’s names, or know much about local history, or to even be really interested in learning it. Many of them seemed to stay for a few years then move on to Portland, or Brooklyn, or some other place where there was less of the crime they complained about but never bothered to try and understand or do anything about (besides complaining). It was sort of gentrification lite: come in, fix up a house, then move out of it a few years later. Come in, ride your bike around, but don’t bother to say hi to the little kids riding their bikes next to you.
I don’t want to blanket paint these new arrivals, but I do want to reassert an idea I heard on the radio today. If you’re going to move into a neighborhood historically populated by a particular ethnic community, whether that’s the Mission in San Francisco or West Oakland or Chinatown, you should not blithely ignore the people who lived here before you, build your art warehouse and not invite them in, or move in and sit there hoping and praying other people like you move in too, like some sort of human shield. Get to know your neighbors. It’s not hard. When my husband and I moved into our current home a few years ago, we left a Berkeley neighborhood full of middle-class white people where nobody ever said hello to us, knocked on the door on street sweeping day to remind us to move the car, or invited us to a party. On the day we moved into our new (rented — we can’t afford to buy) house in Oakland, five or six neighbors came over, said hi, and have subsequently helped us out in many ways. And this is a neighborhood I overheard a young person at the local cafe refer to as “really sketchy”.
It’s sad to think of this place losing that feeling. I do get why people want to leave. I’ve been robbed, had a car stolen, had homes broken into here too. But I do wish those on the verge of going, especially from the African American community that’s given this city so much culture and meaning, would think about staying and working together to make it better. I still believe in the idea that Oakland can keep its culture and welcome newcomers, but only if the newcomers are willing to listen to the people who lived here before them. Let’s hope so.