The culture — or authenticity, depending on who you talk to – of some of the Bay’s great cities may be slipping away in favor of people who don’t really care about the places they’re moving to. This was made clear to me after reading a racist and tone-deaf essay in The Bold Italic titled “I Had To Hate Oakland Before I Could Learn To Love It,” in which a transplant from Texas spends about a thousand words boo-hooing about feeling lonely in the hills of Oakland and not living in San Francisco.
I, like many readers, did not feel bad for the author because it didn’t seem like she tried to integrate herself. There are plenty of places where people are not civically engaged, but if you’re planning on moving to Oakland or you already live here, you have a responsibility to be informed and get involved. Whether it’s taking up a cause, talking to your neighbors, or making friends with your local bartender, there are a zillion different ways to be active in your community — and not just an angry online commenter in an echo chamber of discontent.
San Francisco may be well on its way to favoring one population over another, and Oakland is hitting a tipping point. Industry is changing; the cost of living has risen sharply to make the Town one of the top 10 most expensive cities in the country last year and the seventh most expensive city for renters in 2013; and populations are ebbing and flowing. Census data from 2000 and 2010 show that Oakland’s white and Latino/Hispanic populations increased 3 percent while the African-American population decreased approximately 8 percent. The San Jose Mercury News reported that, despite accounting for 28 percent of its population, black people comprised 62 percent of police stops in Oakland in 2014.
Cities aren’t static and population changes have happened in Oakland for decades. North Oakland used to be a predominately Italian and Irish neighborhood in the 1940s before becoming home to the Black Panther Party and eventually the more mixed neighborhood of today. West Oakland has seen large Latino, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino communities over the years, before WWII and shipyard jobs brought thousands of African-Americans to Oakland. Still, it’s difficult to compare past and present population movements — especially when many of the newcomers to Oakland back in the day were working-class folks.
Instead of responding to viral articles that pander to white transplants and fuel anger, we need to remember that Oakland is a diverse community and has been for a long, long time. There are people here with myriad backgrounds, incomes, jobs, dreams, and interests — I don’t claim to represent all these things. I am white, college-educated, unmarried and childless, doing well for myself and carry various associated privileges. I’ve lived in Oakland for almost 10 years and grew up in the East Bay, but there are not nearly enough native Oakland voices being heard in ongoing discussion on gentrification, class, and race. The group I’m proud to represent are those who are concerned with social issues, love our community, and want to see progress — not unmetered change.
That being said, it’s OK to move here, and it’s OK to feel out of place. It isn’t easy moving to a new city, even if the city has innumerable options to get involved. What isn’t OK is whining about how no one knows you when you’re not trying be known. There are so many ways to do so.
The easiest way to support your community is to go out and have fun! Oakland is next to the largest regional parks district in the US, has a nice lake at its heart, hosts farmers markets and free museum days, and is super bike friendly. It also has an amazing community of underground artists, performers, and musicians who will expand your mind or just drop your jaw. Drop into a slew of galleries during Art Murmur, watch burlesque and sword swallowing at Tourettes Without Regrets, see some amateur porn with 500 strangers at East Bay Express’ Briefs competition, or listen to some underground hip hop. You will not see some of this stuff anywhere else, and the money you spend on a ticket not only helps performers continue their work, but supports the badass local venues willing to put on events others are too wary to host.
The Bold Italic author is likely a minority in a city with a long, progressive history and innumerable organizations actively stumping for civil rights. But it’s up to everyone who lives here to be the change they want to see. Pay attention to what’s going on, read the news, check in with what pisses you off and join the people who are doing something about it. At the most basic level, going out and meeting new people can be a fun challenge. That’s how you engage in community and ensure progress, not shiny change that sweeps real issues under the rug.
The issue of change disguised as progress should concern everyone living here, because Oakland still has a lot of problems in addition to gentrification: a high murder rate, not enough police, a city government that has long stagnated, and low teacher retention. It’s really easy to gloss over those issues when your standard for progress is more restaurants and bars with $12 cocktails. Yes, it’s great that otherwise vacant storefronts are being filled and those stores are bringing money to a beleaguered city. But if those new businesses are only serving a small fraction of the population (those with money or niche interests), we’re only further marginalizing people.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have artisan shops, specialty stores or fancy cocktails (I enjoy all these things). What I am saying is that we should be wary of a city government and culture that encourages a certain kind of business but doesn’t impose affordable housing requirements on private developers. This is a surefire way to kick existing residents out of a neighborhood that is changing. This is not progress.
Oakland, like any other major city, is built upon layers and layers of good and evil. That fact alone is what appeals to some residents. People in the Town have long had the burden of repping their home to outsiders who only knew its bad reputation and sports teams. Now that more people are seeing the light, we face the risk of having more people move here who don’t understand history or responsibility, or who continue to feed the dominate paradigm of Oakland being scary. I don’t have an answer to this quandary. Maybe someone should develop a pamphlet for new residents. Or maybe the new residents can exercise their basic technical skills and find a few dozen organizations headquartered in Oakland and could use some help. Here are a few to start you off, because it takes a village:
Oakland Museum of California