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The Sorrows of the Gentrifier
a critical analysis of gentrification in Oakland from 2006-2013
The Background on the Dirt
“I’d buy that for a dollar!”
-amerikan folk saying
In the last month of 2006, the acting City Council unanimously approved Resolution 80319, allowing the Pulte Home Corporation to go ahead with its plans to develop the area around the 16th Street train station in the Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. The development plan consisted of 130 three-story units that carried the name Zephyr Gate, a homage to the defunct train station that was once the terminus of the transcontinental railroad.
This train station was the gateway through which West Oakland became a thriving black community. Underpaid and overworked, hundreds of black porters serviced the train cars of this railroad, attending to the numerous whims and demands of the white passengers. The Pullman Company was the largest employer of black labor in the 1920’s and the consistent employment, however humiliating, allowed black men to start families and secure housing around the terminus of the train line. Many of these workers eventually formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the first black unions to form in the United States.
Describing his time as a railcar porter on the east coast, Malcom X says: “I went bellowing up and down those train aisles. I sold sandwiches, coffee, candy, cake, and ice cream as fast as the railroad's commissary department could supply them. It didn't take me a week to learn that all you had to do was give white people a show and they'd buy anything you offered them. It was like popping your shoeshine rag. The dining car waiters and Pullman porters knew it too, and they faked their Uncle Tomming to get bigger tips. We were in that world of Negroes who are both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.”
Just as Malcolm roamed the streets of war-time Harlem on his nights off work, so too did thousands of young black men and women make the rounds in the thriving nightlife of West Oakland. The railroad brought money and security to the black diaspora, allowing them to settle and have children who would grow up to fight the white establishment in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The California Zephyr was a train created in 1949 that travelled across the entire United States. It was a symbol of post-war affluence, marketed as an experience unto itself with the kitschy and standardized aesthetics of the 1950’s. It enjoyed consistent and profitable usage until the halo of the post-war boom faded into the civil conflicts of the late 1960’s. The Zephyr stopped running in 1970 and the straight line across the country came to end.
The de-industrialization of Oakland and the CIA-backed importation of cocaine into black communities led to a dark period that has left vast scars that persist today. West Oakland was ravaged during this period, leading to a cheapening of property values and the turnover of black owned property to white real-state speculators.
From 2005 to 2006, several developers made their plans to transform the area around the train station into an upscale commuter village for people who worked in San Francisco. It was chosen because of its proximity to both the West Oakland BART station and the Bay Bridge toll plaza. Somewhere along the line, these people decided to name the new development Zephyr Gate after the long defunct train. Soon after the City Council approved their plans, construction began in 2007.
“We know it ain’t right but we do it anyway.”
In 2006, I began to sporadically spend time in a house across the street from the construction site on the corner of 12th and Wood. Almost immediately, I learned that the owner of the building only rented the house to people who were not black. He openly referred to the surrounding residents as “black animals” and wanted to establish a white enclave, hoping to cash in on the rise in property values triggered by the completion of the Zephyr Gate and the next-door Pacific Cannery Lofts, a 163 units luxury development.
The house was largely filled with punks, the few white people who would live in cramped apartments at the edge of the Bottoms. Like all cheap housing in Oakland, dozens of people cycled through this house, the majority of them white. Many of them were involved in radical initiatives and community projects, volunteering at the needle exchange or helping with Food Not Bombs. There were several people who I liked in that house at any one time, and they were genuinely good people. However, they were often accompanied by apolitical bike bros, workaholic assholes, careerists searching for their big break, and nihilist services employees too miserable to care about anything.
All of the residents knew about their openly racist landlord but accepted it because of the cheap rent. Some were critical of him and treated him with contempt, but most of the others snickered as they read the racist captions describing black people in the Do’s and Dont’s column of Vice Magazine and openly mocked the poor and homeless black population of West Oakland.
Down the street from this house was a warehouse for people associated with the Burning Man festival, where an occasional party would take place. Whenever these two houses had a party at the same time, the two crowds would mingle, the majority of them white. Together, these houses provided the appearance of white crowds across the street from the construction site for the luxury condos. My faith in the people I liked gave me a patient attitude towards their presence in this black neighborhood, however unfounded that hope may have proven to be.
I visited the house every few months throughout 2007 and each time I visited the construction had progressed further. Occasionally there would be graffiti on the structure and a few broken out windows. Sometimes a theft would be reported, but none of this stopped the development. There was no overt hostility within the house to what was being constructed outside their windows. When asked, no one said they liked it, but none of them seemed to care very much that it was happening.
Regardless of what the residents of this house did with their lives outside the neighborhood, their physical presence across the street from Zephyr Gate was important in selling the neighborhood to potential purchasers of the luxury apartments. While some of the residents defied the structural role of the young hard working gentrifier by hustling and volunteering at various projects, they still paid rent to a racist slumlord every month. In doing so, they performed their roles in the landlords plan to help transform the neighborhood and establish a white enclave. Unfortunately, their efforts have been moderately successful.
Eventually the development was complete at the end of 2007 and the neighboring housing prices increased. Around this time, Gary King was murdered by the OPD just a few miles away. As luck would have it, the economic crisis of 2008 ensured that many of the luxury apartments remained empty for some years. However, by 2010 more high paid employees were eager to buy into the commuter housing development. One review of the apartments on Yelp should be sufficient to explain what has been happening to the neighborhood since then:
“We're homeowners at Zephyr Gate and we love it. We looked for months before finding this (somewhat) hidden treasure. It really is a great value - you can't beat brand new with attached two car garage. Not to mention the close proximity to everything - I get to work in the City quicker than anyone I work with! The only drawback for some is that it is a developing neighborhood - you can't walk to markets, restaurant, etc. like you can in many other neighborhoods. On the other hand, if you're like us...we love being a part of the change. We've been there two years and it's just been amazing seeing the transformation of the neighborhood.”
Sentiments like this are not surprising, given that the marketing used to attract people to Zephyr Gate and Pacific Cannery Lofts refers to gentrification openly and in a positive light. The website for the Lofts displays the following words: “Just two blocks from what was once the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railway, Pacific Cannery Lofts are part of gentrification and rehabilitation projects that are breathing new life into the area… In addition to a parking garage for residents, there are some imaginative amenities at Pacific Cannery Lofts, including the Velo Bike Maintenance Lounge and the Laundramutt Dog Washing Station.”
None of the residents of the punk house on 12th and Wood ever had money to spend washing their dogs, nor could they ever afford to live in the two developments across the street. But without them, the Burners, the housing speculators, and the developers, the gentrification of West Oakland would never have reached its current pitch. Each group performed a vital role in the process. Without the vanguard of punks, artists, and low-paid service workers, the neighborhood would have continued to be largely poor, black, and unappealing to wealthy invaders.
Currently, there are enough white people to encourage further projects in the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is to link the hyper-gentrification of Emeryville with the edges of West Oakland, Jack London Square, and the Marina, transforming the waterfront stretch into a sterile and high-end shopping/commuting hub. While the Yelp entries makes it clear that potential buyers are concerned about all of the crime, graffiti, and old houses in the neighborhood, it certainly has not affected the prices of these apartments that have continued to rise since 2007. So what are people supposed to do then?
“The writing is on the wall.”
Although there are extreme examples in Oakland where mostly white squatters have helped establish a white presence in a poor black neighborhood that preceded gentrification, squats filled with anti-capitalists and anarchists are not the enemy in the fight against gentrification. But things become more complicated when dealing with low-income renters. Regardless of whether they are against gentrification or not, whoever begins renting in cheaper neighborhoods can trigger a wave of new residents. Displacement is a fundamental outcome of gentrification. It displaces people from one area and uses them to displace others in another.
This complicated process has many layers. It is often that an old family owned house is put on the market because the residents can no longer pay the taxes. These former neighborhood bastions are snatched up by speculators who then put them on the rental market. These speculators also purchase homes that were foreclosed on during the economic crisis. Renting these houses, often a desirable prospect because of their cheapness, increases demand, increases rental prices, and encourages speculators to acquire more houses for the rental market.
The gentrification of Oakland is being caused by the excess capital travelling across the Bay Bridge and infecting the areas near BART stations and onramps. The tech-companies, real estate companies, and developers involved in the hyper-gentrification of San Francisco are the central authors of the current predicament in Oakland and deserve the most antagonism. However, the conditions they have created in Oakland are real and objective and must be dealt with. This becomes confusing, given that being a gentrifier is both an objective fact and a subjective experience.
Gentrification follows two tracks. On the one hand, it is a conspiracy between business interests. On the other hand, it is an objective process caused by an over-accumulation of capital. The conspirators involved in gentrification are corporate entities, architectural firms, development companies, construction companies, real estate firms, local governments, local business owners, and low-level contractors of every sort. These people are responsible for starting the gentrification process. Unfortunately, their plans are implemented upon populations that often have little choice in obeying. When housing prices increase, people move to where it’s cheaper. When a gentrifying business starts hiring, people who need a job will fill out an application. In this way, the two tracks move with each other every step of the way.
The subjective process of being a self-conscious gentrifier is what I call the sorrows. Since 2006, I have seen the sorrows take many forms. In a few instances, the sorrows have driven people to renounce their position in the objective process of gentrification, become a squatter, move to the woods, or return to their hometown. In other people, the sorrows drove them to give all of their time, energy, and resources to community projects and anti-gentrification campaigns as a type of penance for their objective role as a gentrifier. In the majority of people afflicted by the sorrows, the outcome is usually inaction, paranoia, and guilt. When faced with their clear and unmistakable role, the gentrifier usually shuts down and continues on their path, unable to imagine anything other than rent, work, and comfort.
Guilt is a toxic motivator and were it the key to unlocking the struggle against gentrification, Oakland would have already experienced a veritable revolution. Guilt obscures the simple facts and allows people to continue being moved around like pawns in a game they do not control. Clarity, calmness, and an ability to listen are far more useful than guilt. But as it turns out, no one has been listening to each other in Oakland for quite some time. Seven years have elapsed since 2006 and I have not seen a fundamental change in the minds of the new people consistently arriving in Oakland. In those seven years, a vast and unquantifiable amount of anger has built up against this onslaught of new development and its corollary: the displaced young person looking for cheap rent and a job.
In the path of this nightmare entire families have fallen, especially after the economic crisis when their houses were foreclosed on. Homes that contained generations of memories have been snatched up by speculators, new young people have altered the aesthetics and rhythms of old neighborhoods, and from all angles, it appears that most of them are having a really fun time doing it. The resentment that has built up (and is now exploding) is the product of the indifference of the gentrifiers. Their world is so singular, so alien, and so economically exclusive, that everyone else looks them as a smug beasts, content with their own luxury, mute in their consciences, and terrified of everything that is not themselves.
A Google employee hermetically sealed from crime and poverty and a young service employee trying to make rent are both forced to establish themselves in hostile territory. The Google employee has vastly more resources to do so, whereas the young service employee has little and is far more susceptible to the predatory crime common in the poor neighborhoods they move into. Despite their differences, both are forced to establish worlds where people like themselves are common. But like every human, both have the option of rebelling against their roles at any moment.
Given the very brutal and specific history of Oakland, gentrification is an affront to the memory of everyone who has died on its streets. Like every major city, the drug wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s caused a drop in property values in black neighborhoods. After two generations of black people being thrown in prisons, white people began to return to newly gentrified neighborhoods across the US. This process has not stopped and the coming year will be very important for the future of Oakland.
The predatory crime that accompanies over-accumulations of capital has manifested itself in Oakland as cell-phone theft, computer theft, car theft, and muggings that affect everyone. In the Rockridge neighborhood, affluent residents are trying to establish private security patrols in response to a high-profile robbery of several commuters at the BART station. City Council member Noel Gallo, in between personally buffing out graffiti along the 880 freeway, is pushing for a city-wide 10PM curfew for people under 18. Small business owners in the city core are ecstatic at the money flowing into their registers and have little concern for what is happening around them as cameras fill every intersection and plans to build a federal surveillance system are underway.
It will be necessary to make a clear and coherent stand against gentrification. Before this can happen, the facts need to be understood in all of their simple horror. There can be no denial of what is happening, because it is happening, all of it. The situation in Oakland has gone unaddressed for far too many years and the consequences are clear. Something is not working and that needs to be fixed. Oakland is very resilient, but it is being rapidly colonized. If you are part of it, you will have to make a choice. What is more important to you? All of the factors and all of the players are as clear as day. Make your choice, soon. If there is an enemy in front of you, fight that enemy, don’t do exactly what it wants. There is no more room for your sorrows.