July/August 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 6

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Looking Forward to the 2014 Annual Meeting

Evolving Oakland:
Five Years Living in a Gentrified, Occupied, and Artified City

Cynthia Ganote, Saint Mary’s College of California, and Sheila Katz, University of Houston

Oakland, California, is a city that inspires deep emotion and strong reactions. Both of us are transplants to Oakland, but in the five years we have lived here, Oakland has become a beloved home that has earned our staunch loyalty. Its rich cultural history, diverse population, outstanding food and art scenes, beautiful cityscape, Bay views, and urban lake sanctuary makes Oakland our chosen home amongst Bay Area cities. Yet Oakland is full of contradictions: amazing wealth exists alongside entrenched poverty and beautiful art is created amidst decaying infrastructure. The city government is complex, inefficient, and often frustrating. Oakland is a city that inspires multiple narratives and many of us latch onto our favorite and run with it.

Oakland Cityscape

The most recent Oakland narrative is this: the storied vision of San Francisco as a place for artists, activists, and the widely discussed creative class is the Oakland of today. As the super-gentrification occurring in San Francisco (see Stover, “Understanding Super-Gentrification in San Francisco,” April 2014, Footnotes) pushes out so many residents (long-time, low- and middle-income, and young residents without tech-industry incomes), people of all backgrounds are moving to Oakland in droves. Because of this trend, Oakland regularly appears in New York Times articles, being hailed as “Brooklyn by the Bay”1 one of the top five places to visit in the world,2 with new neighborhoods developing where abandoned buildings once existed,3 whose residents sport a notable “street style.”4

But another narrative exists around Oakland, too: Isn’t that the city where you can walk out of your house and be shot at any random moment? As residents of Oakland, we are informed of this very thing by both residents of the Bay Area and other parts of the United States. People attempt to tell us about our own city, but they have clearly never visited Oakland. They never talk about its diversity of people, incredible neighborhoods, amazing food, or unpretentious attitude. Instead, they talk about their perceptions of horrible crime, how frightened they would be to enter such a city, and how they could not bring themselves to buy a condo or single-family home in Oakland, given the “being shot every time you walk out your door” problem. Tempted to respond with, “Oh, you shouldn’t go there, then,” most of the time we resist and instead explain why we are so in love with our city.

Rapid Change

Perhaps these divergent narratives come from the fact that Oakland is rapidly changing. Over the last five years, Oakland has evolved immensely through ongoing gentrification, the Occupy movement protests, numerous incidents of police brutality, development of community benefit districts, and persistent inequality. Oakland is often thought of in comparison to San Francisco, but Oakland has always had its own flavor, vibe, and community dynamics, which are far different from those of its more famous neighbor. Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse major cities in the country, more ethnically and economically diverse than San Francisco.

Oakland’s diversity is due in large part to the Second Great Migration, when African Americans moved from the Deep South to Oakland for plentiful war-industry jobs during World War II. This pattern, along with the migration of Mexican Americans from the Southwest, continued throughout the 20th century as migration and immigration to Oakland expanded. This history strongly shapes the culture that attracts residents to Oakland today. While Oakland is often externally defined by its crime rates, the last five years illustrate how crime is only one piece of the puzzle. Community organizing and protesting, new neighborhoods and businesses emerging to provide needed services, and artists creating the Art Murmur and First Friday events are other important, emergent pieces of the puzzle. Ongoing inequality and rampant gentrification are other critical pieces.

The Occupy Movement

Below, Cynthia presents a short narrative of her experience with the Occupy Oakland movement.

I counter outsiders’ fears of Oakland by waxing poetic about how my zip code (94610) is one of the top five most diverse zips in the United States. I discuss how Lake Merritt and its natural beauty takes my breath away every time I drive home from work, how my walking neighborhood contains restaurants with cuisines from so many cultures, how friendly my neighbors are, and how young and old, rich and poor people from all around the world live in Oakland. Walking around Oakland, you can see any number of “I hella heart Oakland!” and “Oaklandish” t-shirts; these and other visual reminders let you know that many Oakland residents hold a deep-seated loyalty to our city. (One of my proudest moments came recently when my hip San Francisco friend said, apropos of nothing: “Okay, I admit it! Oakland has become cooler than San Francisco.” This was a watershed moment.)

The Oakland narratives created by outsiders, compared to those of Oakland residents, were particularly striking during the Occupy Oakland protests. In the fall of 2011, as I watched mainstream media accounts of Occupy Oakland, a dissonant feeling would rise up. Corporate-backed U.S. media outlets continuously reported on the “leaderless movement” with “no central message” and depicted crowds looking like a scary mob riot, throwing rocks, tagging storefronts, and breaking bank windows. “That’s not my experience!” I yelled back. When any of my students parroted those same messages in class, I could not yell (except in my head), and I had to develop more sophisticated ways to convey how dissonant the mainstream depictions were from my personal experiences with Occupy Oakland. “That’s not my experience!” became my common refrain.

My actual experience is more complicated. As a sociologist and a qualitative methodologist, I could convey a systematic ethnographic account of the Occupy movement, but I won’t do that here. In this space, I give you my standpoint on the Occupy Oakland movement. As a resident of Oakland, CA, I visited the Occupy Oakland camp many times, although I did not consider myself an Occupier. (I was not hardcore enough, nor there enough, and I never slept outside, but I was in solidarity with the Occupy movement.) Someone asked me, “When you look at Occupy Oakland through the eyes of women, what do you see?” My response comes from an American, Southern-white, progressive, academic, indie-culture loving, feminist perspective.

In contrast with the “scary mob riot” image presented in the media, at the citywide Oakland General Strike, which was called for by Occupy Oakland in fall 2011, I experienced a spirit of love, companionship, and solidarity. I saw “Grandmothers for Peace,” with older women pushing toddlers in strollers, “Kindergarten Teachers for the 99%” holding signs and marching around the city, as well as “Veterans for Peace” and “Jews for Justice” signs. Some signs represented the need for universal healthcare, or for quality public schools for all children, or a demand to end the war in Afghanistan. Others were there to represent their union’s solidarity with Occupy. Still others were there representing a communist organization, or a socialist organization, or the Green party, or Doctors without Borders, or Planned Parenthood—just about any Bay Area organization with a vision of a world where all people have access to the resources they need to live a life of dignity was represented. I saw many other college professors, along with journalists, activists, artists, nurses, teachers, community organizers (including former members of the Black Panther Party), students, hip-hop artists, nonprofit workers, and performers.

Seeing grandmothers, kindergarten teachers, children, performers, and community organizers all together, representing and envisioning a world without violence and with quality resources for all, was beautiful. In collaboration, we created for that moment the type of society we wanted to be part of, laughing, talking, singing, dancing, hugging, crying, and chanting with each other as we walked the streets of downtown Oakland. People in office buildings looked down and made heart and thumbs up gestures and clapping as we passed. As refrains of “Who are the 99? We are the 99!” and “Tell me what you want, what you really want: Justice!” rang through the city streets, I felt a camaraderie with these thousandsof people I had never met before and might not meet again. It was magical. The central message, really, was love and solidarity in community. The spirit, the vision, the sense of community, and the embodiment of a different world, a peaceful world we could create together left a mark on my psyche. This beauty is at the heart of my Oakland narrative, and no dominant narrative can pry it from me. 

Oakland at the Meeting

On the “Evolving Oakland Walking Tour” at the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will explore the gentrified and artified narratives in Oakland surrounding the formation of community benefit and business improvement districts. Finally, in the “Evolving Oakland” regional session, we will explore the gentrification and inequality in Oakland alongside community engagement and grassroots activism. Throughout, we explore the questions:

Who is defining the Oakland narrative—outsiders or Oakland residents?

The emerging perception is that Oakland is “getting better”…but for whom?

Cynthia Ganote is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Saint Mary’s College of California in the East Bay. She is a member of the 2014 Local Arrangements Committee. Sheila Katz, formerly at Sonoma State University, is transitioning to the Sociology Department at the University of Houston, and is chair of the 2014 Local Arrangements Committee.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/fashion/oakland-california-brooklyn-by-the-bay.html?_r=0
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/travel/45-places-to-go-in-2012.html?pagewanted=all
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/travel/in-oakland-calif-the-uptown-neighborhood-blooms.html
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/fashion/street-style-in-oakland-california.html

 

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