Recently, I was asked, “Who can legitimately say they’re from Oakland?” My answer was rather simple: the folks who were raised in The Town. That’s it and that’s all. However, there is a much more nuanced discussion to be had about what makes someone a true citizen of Oakland. What follows is a twisted pile of pride, politics, and pain that strives to tackle why Oakland means so damn much to so many of us, the impact recent changes are having on Oakland natives, and what it takes for people to become real members of this community.
I want to start by acknowledging that it is impossible to write anything definitive about a place as dynamic and diverse as Oakland. People’s upbringings and experiences vary greatly across generation, race, class, school, neighborhood, and a myriad of other factors. It’s a rather impossible feat to generate a clear cut Oakland rubric, and that’s part of what makes this place so special. So instead, I will tell you what Oakland’s heart and soul looks like from my biased perspective as an OUSD-educated white boy whose family has lived in East Oakland for three generations. You can take this with as many grains of salt as you wish.
STRANGERS IN OUR OWN LAND
Being from Oakland is a great source of pride for most of us, but with each passing year, many of us are increasingly feeling like strangers in our own city. This is not an isolated phenomenon. We walk down streets where we used to know everyone and feel like we’re the newbies due to the sheer volume of unfamiliar and unwelcoming faces. We nod at passersby who refuse to make eye contact. We play hip-hop at Lake Merritt and are asked to turn it off, and, more recently, cited by OPD. We cruise through working class neighborhoods that used to be home to our Black, Latino, and Southeast Asian patnas and see young pale faces walking dogs as white flight doubles back on itself, seeking to lay claim to the communities they rejected before.
For those of you not from here, this may sound fickle and minute, but it’s not. And it feels eerie as hell. It’s also not an accident. Many, including Jerry Brown, have sought for years to attract more folks with money to Oakland. That didn’t necessarily seem like a terrible idea in the early 2000s when downtown was fairly empty and new development felt necessary to infuse Oakland with new energy. But that seed of an idea has crescendoed into a wave of migration and money that is transforming the face and economics of Oakland.
Nowadays my friends and I, who grew up in these streets and were educated in these schools, can’t even afford to buy homes in many parts of East Oakland. Wherever there’s decent housing stock, there are people snapping it up for cash at exorbitant mark-ups. Some, like overseas Chinese investors, are buying, renovating and flipping houses. Others are indeed looking for a home, but many of those who are moving in don’t actually want to be a part of the neighborhood around them. Rather, they want to makeover the neighborhood in their image. They are purchasing property many of us already love so they can “learn to love it,” as one carpetbagging jaycat recently wrote at the now defunct Bold Italic.
Many of the new folks who have recently parachuted into Oakland feel like the city is this exciting secret they’ve discovered. And while some neighborhoods are being Columbused (rediscovered and reimagined for privileged folks), many of their core elements are being invisibilized in the process. For instance, recent rich white migrant Steve Kopff has become infamous for insisting that his “up and coming” Funktown neighborhood is a food desert despite the plethora of Asian and Latino markets and restaurants in the area. In his (and other’s) gentrifying vision of Oakland, expensive cafes, Bi-Rite style grocery stores, yoga studios and flowering medians are the metrics of civilization. The desire to improve communities by advocating for such changes drives up prices and displaces folks who have called that community home for ages. Remember, your intentions don’t have to be malicious for your impact to be detrimental.
RACE, POWER & PRIVILEGE
And let me be clear that this isn’t all about race, but it’s definitely partly about race. Though Oakland has long been known as a chocolate city, the Oakland that native millennials grew up in was around 25-30% white, so white folks living in Oakland isn’t new. What is new is white folks re-settling areas that have been inhabited by Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islanders and other ethnic groups for generations, resulting in accelerated gentrification.
While we’re on the topic of displacement, it must be noted that the notion of being a native of Oakland (or of anywhere in this country for that matter) is inherently problematic unless you’re of Native American descent. No matter how many generations my family has lived in Oakland, I am standing on native land that was illegally and unjustly conquered by colonizers.
Some may think that Oakland’s history is irrelevant to it’s present, but the two are inextricably linked. After the land of the Ohlone people was encroached upon by Spanish missionaries, the Peralta’s, who were part of those efforts, were eventually granted control of much of the region. But after the Mexican-Civil War, Californio claims to the land were systematically disregarded by the new American government despite being recognized under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It’s worth noting that gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 and California became the domain of the US less than two weeks later.
As Oakland became increasingly settled in the wake of the 1906 earthquake, restrictive housing covenants and residential redlining legally quarantined “Negroes, Orientals, and foreign born” Oaklanders in specific neighborhoods in West Oakland and adjacent to factories in East Oakland. Then in the 1930s, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation graded neighborhoods A-D, with A grades being given to affluent white areas and D grades being given to any areas considered tainted by people of color and immigrants. These maps served as the blueprint for the newly created Federal Housing Association to determine who the FHA and banks would grant home loans to. Widely lauded for increasing homeownership in America, it denied home loans to most people of color and many of the white people who lived in their midst. It’s important to note that many European immigrants were initially targeted by these discriminatory regulations as well, but as the concept and definition of whiteness expanded, so did their opportunities.
While most white Oaklanders were able to buy houses, accrue wealth and pass those things on to their children, home ownership and meaningful development of any kind in communities of color was next to nil. When folks of color were able to rent and buy homes beyond the reaches of the FHA’s legalized discriminatory quarantine, many white folks began to flee Oakland as part of a larger abandonment of US cities known as “white flight”.
That white folks first fled folks of color, and are now displacing them, is material to this discussion. Black, Latino, and Asian folks have struggled to make a home in this city despite discrimination, and now that Oakland has earned cool points and is in the blast radius of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, those neighborhoods are once again in the crosshairs. What some will attribute to the inevitability of change is actually a reaffirmation of white supremacy. Like I said, there’s always been white folks in Oakland, and power and privilege in Oakland isn’t exclusively possessed by us, but when imported privileged white people decide to buy a home in a community of color, it will rightfully ruffle feathers. Especially when folks like Steve Kopff seek to remake that community in their image.
THE STRENGTH OF OAKLANDERS
Oakland has always been a city for tough human beings. You didn’t trek out West if you weren’t. Native folks, Spanish settlers, French trappers and traders, American and Chinese miners, Okies, Black migrants, Hells Angels, Black Panthers, Oakland Raiders, Southeast Asian refugees, Latino day laborers, Katrina survivors, OUSD graduates, activists, and victims of the War on Drugs and police brutality all affirm that toughness and resilience. All those folks had to grind to make it out here and they have left an indelible imprint on this colorful city.
The Oakland I grew up in made sure folks grew into hustlers and lovers gamed up on social justice, civic action, volunteerism, diversity, weirdness, creativity and community pride. Oakland taught us about life and death. It taught us how to overcome adversity and talk with any and every type of person we might encounter. It taught us to be street smart and navigate hairy situations. It taught us to make progress by juking the red tape and looking out for our people (however we defined that). It taught us how to fight for our lives and then get back up and hug it out. And it taught us how to be creative regardless of whether there was any money or industry backing our endeavors. That spirit is what makes Oakland glorious. As a fellow native said the other day, “Oakland is the city of the golden children.”
When you aren’t raised in a community, it’s likely that you lack its foundational values. A very specific cauldron crafted the metal we’re made of. You can’t fake the funk. And this is not a “fuck you” to anyone who isn’t from here. Many of us have welcomed amazing newcomers into our circles, but that’s because those particular folks came with open minds, respect for our culture, a willingness to practice self-awareness and to invest in community-led improvement efforts.
A MESSAGE TO THE NEWBOOTIES
When you galavant around the city with your clones and no awareness of Oakland’s history, geopolitics or collective culture, you piss people off. But of course, your money talks, and as economies emerge to support your new money and artisanal everything, the voyeurism of yesterday becomes the “I love it here and want to stay” of tomorrow. And if you have means, you can. But that doesn’t mean you’re a part of our community.
I’m sure you didn’t ride in to town with colonial intentions, but then again, you might have without knowing it. Chances are you’ve cloaked your privilege and bigotry in the coded language of “transitioning neighborhoods” and its associated pseudo-liberal vocabulary. Not everyone, but enough muhfuckas that the fabric of this city is becoming threadbare in worth as it becomes luxurious in value. And THAT is the entire problem.
Go to San Francisco and try to find a native. Do it. SF natives are like unicorns. Most of the people who made the ‘Sco a cultural outlier and world famous, iconoclastic city can no longer afford to live there. Why? Because we decided the defining evolutionary trait that counts in this world is the almighty dollar. While tech bros talk to angel investors about how their apps are changing the world for the better, their very presence is changing it for the worse. Too many San Franciscans are barely holding onto their soccer fields and are getting smoked out of their apartments—some by literal fires. You think that’s a coincidence?
My entire life, me and my folks have been boostering for Oakland in the face of widespread negative press and one-dimensional stereotypes, but I’m lightweight inclined to take it all back. I’ve talked so beautifully about Oakland because the world denied her glory, but now I want my home back. I love new watering holes and eateries as much as the next (wo)man (with disposable income), but I’ve learned the hard way that without the beautiful and resilient working class people who built this city, we have nothing. If the price we have to pay to have a crackin’ nightlife and a booming food scene is that we can’t enjoy it with the folks we grew up with, then fuck it. Take it all back. You can keep the packing peanuts.
HOW TO BECOME AN OAKLAND CITIZEN
For those of you who understand all that and are willing to listen, respect, contribute, love, build community, and raise your children with everyone else’s, then thank you. We could use your ears and heart a lot more than your money and voice. Oakland natives have our fraternity of folklore and collective memories that we hold sacred, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t become a part of this story. People don’t choose where they come from, but they have much more latitude in determining how they live. The “who is really from Oakland?” debate is static compared to the much more useful conversation about what it means to be a true citizen and steward of The Town. We can’t turn back the clock, so as long as you’re here, we have a few asks.
1) Greet people on the street. Nod, smile, say good morning, tip your hat, anything to acknowledge folks in a way that you feel comfortable with. Some of us, particularly our sisters, have very real trauma around sexual harassment, so let me be clear that this is not an excuse to holler at or disrespect women in any way. It’s just a request that you not ignore and invisibilize the people with whom you share these streets and this city. The downcast eyes looking at your phone routine is boo boo (and a great way to get robbed).
2) Get to know folks born and bred in Oakland. Learn our stories and respect the foundation we’ve laid. Remember that it was something that preceded you that drew you here.
3) Support local businesses, but not just the new shops and restaurants springing up like farm fresh organic weeds. You get extra points for patronizing family businesses that have been around for 10+ years. Remember, there was life before you arrived and it deserves your respect and support. One other important way to support The Town is by hiring Oakland residents at your place of business.
4) Don’t demonize what you don’t understand. Don’t implore people not to demonize Oakland while you yourself demonize certain neighborhoods or folks of a different race, class, age or lived experience. For example, don’t pass judgement on the youth of this city, some of whom are trying to traverse an unjust schooling system, disproportionate police harassment, unsafe streets, and a lack of economic opportunity all on top of the usual identity exploration all youth go through.
5) Get to know your neighbors. Stop to chat with and listen to folks on the block, invite them over for a BBQ, attend a community meeting, etc. Remember that you’re not just moving into a house or apartment, you’re moving into a community. That means that you have a responsibility to be open and inclusive. And that attitude will often be returned in kind.
6) Don’t be racist. Don’t cower in ignorant racist fear on neighborhood LISTSERVS and the Next Door app, and don’t call the police on neighborhood kids. If you have an issue, address it in person. Communities have successfully existed for centuries using this basic honorable principle. If you’re that scared of your neighborhood, then don’t move there. Spend time in a neighborhood before you purchase a home there. The house and the block are a package deal.
7) Send your kids to public schools, preferably the neighborhood ones. If your neighborhood school sucks, harness your privilege/expertise/commitment to support other parents who are already involved in school improvement efforts. Just remember not to use your privilege solely to access a quality education for your child and the others in the school that look like them. That doesn’t count.
8) Support the local art scene by attending concerts and art shows. Also, attend student productions at Laney College and area high schools.
9) Get to know people of different ages, cultures, races, sexual orientations, and socio-economics. When you ask people what they love most about Oakland, the majority of people say it’s the diversity. And yet that diversity is just background noise for most. It is indeed true that diversity is one of Oakland’s greatest treasures, but it should not be strictly ornamental. Embrace it, not because it’s the “right” thing to do, but because your life and community will be richer for it.
10) Stand for equity, but follow the leadership of those with a more vested interest in the issue. Don’t look down on people protesting things you don’t understand. If you purport to love this city, challenge your prejudices, humanize those who are struggling and practice solidarity with the oppressed.
A city is a living organism that needs all of its parts to work in concert to help it thrive. And sometimes that means repelling the forces that are not in alignment with the equilibrium we’re seeking to strike. It also means accepting that some change will happen and that we must learn to adapt to survive. I stand for an Oakland that is diverse, beautiful, equitable, peaceful and full of cool, crazy, brilliant, revolutionary, and affectionate people who are down to channel our creativity and resilience into finally realizing the promise of Oakland’s potential.
If you’re down to do the aforementioned things to contribute to The Town, then we can discuss your pending Oakland citizenship at our next block party. Peace.