An exploration of the physical frontiers that define race in America

Wide swath of opinion on Oakland’s ongoing transformation

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An early Occupy Oakland meeting held on October 27,2011 (Photo Credit: Hartford & Strong via Creative Commons License)

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in September 2011 in New York City, and gained nationwide and worldwide support over the following months. As a UC Berkeley student, I had a front row seat to one of the movement’s active branches. Weekly Occupy protests took hold of our campus and a row of tents lined our famous Sproul Plaza.

Berkeley may be known for being radical, but the real Occupy action took place just a few miles down Piedmont Avenue in the city of Oakland. This past summer, Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times chronicled Oakland’s position as the final frontier of the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland raged on well into the summer, with pockets of both organized and organic protest popping up all over the city long after the movement had died in New York and Berkeley.

But why did the movement take such strong hold in Oakland? Mahler suggests that Oakland’s ongoing economic transformation may have had a role to play:

Maybe because Occupy Oakland, whether its leaders have articulated it or not, isn’t a protest against what Oakland is, but rather what it’s in danger of becoming. Oakland may be broke, but all of the wealth being generated in its immediate vicinity needs someplace to go, and some of that wealth is already beginning to find its way to Oakland, to a place that has long been the catch basin of America’s radical energies and personalities.

This passage hints at the notion of gentrification, in which rebuilding spurs the movement of affluent people to formerly dilapidated environments, often displacing poorer tenants. Mahler’s article paints the picture of an Oakland, once a hotbed of free-spirited radicalism, that will be unable to stave off capitalistic development:

Oakland is simply too geographically well positioned and financially underexploited not to absorb the creative, professional and entrepreneurial overflow from more expensive places like San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Berkeley. And as it continues to develop its own gritty-chic cachet, there’s a good chance Oakland might become more than just a default option for some of the Bay Area’s nouveau riche.

Mahler’s well-written depiction of Oakland and his elevated platform as a New York Times writer shed significant light on the under-reported debate regarding Oakland’s economic transformation. Some brief online sleuthing unearths a wide variety of viewpoints on the nature of Oakland’s changes.

There are those who embrace Oakland’s newfound economic prosperity. Sam McManis of the Sacramento Bee described the city’s transformation glowingly in a recent article: “Art, music, fine dining and trendy shopping have sprouted like so many roses in what once was considered a weed-choked vacant lot of a city.” The rest of MacManis’ piece breaks down emerging, trendy neighborhoods in Oakland for potential tourists, offering recommendations in areas of the city that are “all reasonably safe and reflecting the character of a true, thriving neighborhood.”

In contrast, there are those who urge us to fight against Oakland’s economic change. An in-depth post on Bay of Rage, a self-described “Anti-Capitalist Clearinghouse”, an unidentified author describes Oakland’s revolutionary history and urges readers to “attack and organize against” the city’s development efforts. The post carries clear bias in its viewpoint, but also offers a glimpse at the sheer vitriol that Oakland’s change can elicit from the city’s more anti-establishment residents.

There are also those who do not believe that Oakland is changing at all. Randy Shaw, proprietor of the left-leaning online daily, suggests that Oakland has purportedly been threatened by gentrification for decades: “I’ve heard about Oakland’s imminent “gentrification” since the early 1980’s…[but] Oakland is a majority-tenant city that has laws in place to prevent the type of wholesale displacement that accompanies many gentrified communities.” Shaw believes that Oakland’s potential for economic wealth does not necessarily portend wholesale changes for the city, primarily because of the city’s progressive policy.

Even after reading the variety of opinions on Oakland’s potential for transformation, I am still having a difficult time deciding where I stand on this issue. On one hand, it is undeniable that my attitude towards Oakland has changed over the past few years. Whether it’s going to a concert at the revitalized Fox Theatre, grabbing a world-famous sandwich at Bakesale Betty, or catching a Warriors game at Oracle Arena, it is clear that Oakland’s development has drawn me, a college kid from Marin County, to the city more often than I would have expected. But it is also clear that parts of Oakland, whether protected by city law or inundated with gang violence, will likely remain impervious to the outside world. It seems as if Oakland, even under the blessing and/or curse of economic prosperity, will likely retain its quirky, hodgepodge heritage and culture.


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