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The Gentrifier’s Guide to Getting Along

An open letter from a child of Oakland.

The author (second row, third from left) with preschool classmates in North Oakland, October 1987.

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

 

I’ll begin by saying that I understand.

I’m an Oakland native, reared in all parts of the Town: the Hills, the North Pole, Jingletown, Jack London, Funktown, the Deep East. I have lived everywhere from the Bottoms to the San Leandro border. In the early days, Mom and I lived right off of Fruitvale, on East 17th Street, one of a few black families in a primarily Mexican neighborhood. It was there that I began to appreciate the finer things: limon and salsa picante on deep-fried corn chip wheels, whole fish served with the head on at Alvita’s Mexican Restaurant, a Jaliscan spot where my kin gathered for weekly Sunday dinners. At that time, Pop’s home was near 55th Avenue, a short walk from Della and Norm’s Restaurant. Della was a warm woman with a foul mouth and a huge smile who, to this day, is the only short-order cook to get my morning eggs just the way I like them. When her marriage to Norm went the way of many and she hooked up with Al, the sign hanging in front of the place changed overnight. Della and Al’s still had my favorite grits–to–turkey sausage ratio.

Mom and Pop had differing opinions on who fried catfish and snapper the best in the Town. Dad preferred Dixon’s Fish and Poultry near the intersection of 98th and East 14th Street, in deep East Oakland. After church let out, you could find members of nearly every Baptist congregation queuing up, sharing politics and the gossip of the day, working ardently to avoid greasing their finest garb.

When Mom was in the mood for fish, we’d brave the terribly long line that snaked out of the mouth of Emma’s Seafood & Poultry Shack off San Pablo, in what was known in those days as Ghost Town—which you may now mistakenly call Emeryville. (Believe me when I say that there was nothing in Emeryville then, nothing.) Emma’s served just-caught snapper and perch, which you selected and then waited forever to have cooked. But when you finally bit into the fish, steam spilled out, and the cornmeal-and-flour batter reminded you that this taste was well worth the wait.

There used to be a place called T.J.’s Gingerbread House, right beneath the freeway on the West Oakland–Jack London Square border. T.J.’s provided both the cuisine (boiled, garlicky crawdads were the specialty) and the atmosphere for Oakland’s elite to treat themselves. Here, nervous bachelors made proposals, emerging entrepreneurs negotiated contracts, and proud mothers held mortarboards while their graduates shoveled leftover hush puppies into to-go containers.

T.J.’s always had a booth at the official start of summer in the Town: Festival at the Lake, where all of Oakland strutted its stuff. Here, you could connect with long-lost relatives; see Chinatown’s best dragons; hear jazz legends like the recently passed Khalil Shaheed; perfect your Senegalese and Liberian drum and dance in workshops taught by Naomi Washington Diouf and Zak Diouf; get your face painted at the Oakland Parks and Rec booth; and sign up for Arts Camp at Feather River. Festival at the Lake was the dangling carrot of a field trip that teachers employed to keep Eastlake and Roosevelt and Montera students in check all year. It was like First Fridays on homeopathic steroids. It was our annual reminder of how amazing our city was, even when no one else agreed, when the rest of the world talked about our violence, our blight, and our losing sports teams. In those days, it took real chutzpah to say that you were proud of being from here and really mean it. Being from Oakland wasn’t something that you could put on or take off at whim; Oaklandish wasn’t even making T-shirts yet.

Emma’s, Alvita’s, Dixon’s, Della and Norm’s/Al’s, T.J.’s, Festival at the Lake: They are all gone now. All of them.

That’s why I say to you, new neighbor, that I understand. How could you know, lacking any hard evidence or native memory, that the Town existed before you arrived? That there were people and restaurants and careers and movements and ways of being that did not include you? We had a life here— a life rich in culture, politics, art, and friendship, if not always in capital.

Yeah, I understand what you’re going through. I, like you, am not afraid to gather up all of my things and try my hand at a brand-new city. If asked, I’ll admit (in a very low and slightly embarrassed voice) that I, too, am a gentrifier. I have sat on my Bed-Stuy stoop in Brooklyn and marveled at people and norms unfamiliar to me. I have feigned authenticity, making like I was from there by virtue of the dollars I spent, the friends I made, the art I created. At this very moment, I pay rent in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park, which—with the new restaurants decorated in exposed brick and reclaimed wood, the mustachioed cinephile neighbors next door, the new art galleries springing up everywhere—is rapidly becoming hipster central. Give it 10 years, and folks’ll barely recall that Leimert Park was once a black arts and commerce district. I know all the signs—I’ve seen them before.

I know that you, our new block companion, aren’t bad, inherently. I know that you don’t have malice in your heart as you sunbathe on your lawn, a display of privilege as clear and bright as the midafternoon West Oakland sun. You bring something new: I get it. You’re a carpenter who builds exclusively in sustainable materials. You’re volunteering your time with an urban farm. Heck, you teach for America. It’s not that you don’t contribute. It’s that you don’t know that when Pop head-nods at you from our porch and you don’t respond, you are perpetrating perhaps the greatest of hood faux pas. You have been robbed of your laptop and wallet, yet you still seem blithely unaware of how and why you’re a target.

But I know why.

I’ll give you a clue: It isn’t because you’re white or naïve or stick out like a sore thumb (though at times you are and do, especially when your head is buried in that iPhone). It’s because you’re an unknown. Your harsh treatment is a reminder that resources are scarce, and if someone’s getting rolled, it’s gonna be the newcomer, the stranger, the person the hood doesn’t completely trust.

 

It’s important for you to know that you didn’t end up here by happenstance. That West Oakland Victorian, that Sobrante Park condo, that North Oakland loft—all of them had previous lives. It took a slow and concerted purging of the folks who had been there before to clear room for you. In the two decades between 1990 and 2011, Oakland saw its percentage of black residents plummet from 43 percent to 26 percent. Perhaps you’ll have a better sense of why you get disdainful stares from some folks if you perceive how systematically their friends, brothers, lovers, and parents were ousted so that you could arrive.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Welfare Reform Act, one clause of which, the so-called One-Strike Rule, allowed landlords to evict tenants if they (or anyone related to them) were suspected of any crime, whether or not the accused person was ever found guilty. At the same time, in the midst of the first dot-com boom, rents were on the rise all over Oakland, incentivizing property owners who rented homes to people with Section 8 vouchers to stop doing so. These vouchers provide decent housing for people who need it at a significantly discounted rate—low-income tenants pay an affordable fee, while HUD funds, administered by local agencies, make up the difference. But as market rates rose in the late ’90s, the gap grew between what the government would pay and what landlords could ask. And so Section 8 renters were booted to the curb. Exacerbating the situation was a shift in how these HUD funds were allowed to be used—with a focus on encouraging the impoverished to relocate to areas with more “opportunities.” Buzzwords like “mobility” and “portability” were embraced by housing authorities all over the Bay Area, who advised many voucher users to relocate to the suburbs. Tenants who had lived in their homes for generations had little choice but to leave, uprooting their families to Stockton, Merced, Antioch, Dublin.

Also around this time, state laws changed the way that youth were prosecuted. Many were charged and sentenced as adults and relocated to facilities miles away, including the jail in Santa Rita and prisons as far distant as Folsom, Chowchilla, and Susanville, near the Nevada border. Add to this California’s infamous three-strikes law and, all of a sudden, classrooms like mine at Cole Middle School (once an arts magnet, now a de facto police station within the Oakland Unified School District) saw underserved kids, failed in many ways by both the justice system and the education system, shipped off to prisons. Their mothers and grandmothers, wanting to live closer to their locked-up family members, relocated. All of this created more space for you.

 

The core of what this means is that your new neighbors, we folks who have been here, who remember Oakland before we were Michelin starred, Decemberists headlined, or Times approved, are traumatized. We are hurt, confused, angry, and disillusioned. We lost people, we lost homes, we lost agency, we lost our favorite eateries—we even lost the ability to name our hoods. Nobody used to call North Oakland “Temescal,” and Uptown only became Uptown after developers courted by Mayor Jerry Brown dubbed it so. It’s still Downtown to us.

At the same time, so much new has popped up around us. All of the bars. All of the restaurants. All of the things that folks point to now as cool or worthwhile, things that few of us had a hand in creating, institutions that drive property values so high we can’t afford to live here anymore. Can you imagine how frustrating that is? How entirely disorienting it is to be in a city that you’ve always loved, against all odds, and to feel like you don’t belong?

So, you want to fit in, huh? You want to get along? Here’s what I’d suggest: Get to know your neighbors. Do the basics—the same way you’d act if you moved to Paris or Jakarta. Learn the language. Study the social cues. If that middle-aged black man waves from his stoop on Myrtle Street, he’s saying hello. Say hello back. It’ll go a long way, I promise. Engage in politics in a respectful way. Make your issues the issues we’ve been mobilizing around for years: the success of students in our underfunded schools, the benefits of community policing, the removal of ecological hazards in our highly industrialized neighborhoods.

Don’t point out the obvious in first encounters, like “Our neighborhood is full of drug dealers” or “There’s no grocery store here.” We know. We’ve been here. It’s not news to us that we live in a food desert or that illicit activities occur in our midst. But we also know that many hustlers are on the block out of necessity, not style. If you want to help them—and us—don’t just call the cops and wipe your hands. Help get at the roots of the problems that these young people symbolize: They need better jobs, better educations, and an Oakland Police Department that’s more reflective of the community it purports to serve. If you want to get involved, become an active and reliable mentor at places like McClymonds and Castlemont High Schools, or give money and time to community-operated efforts like People’s Grocery. These small acts won’t make you one of us, immediately, but they will be acknowledged by us for what they are: part of the rites and responsibilities that make you a true Oaklander.

And remember: We’re not instinctively bigots, just like you’re not a bigot. There are plenty of white Oaklanders who grew up here, alongside people of color, on our blocks, and feel just as frustrated with this new iteration of Oakland. We want to know you. We want to make friends we can trust, whom we can invite into our city in a way that feels respectful and natural. We’ll probably never fling wide our doors: Let’s face it, being Oakland born and bred makes us a little more gritty than that. But many of us are descendants of folks who arrived via train during the great migration, via boat or rail as first- or second-generation Americans, or even by BART when we could no longer afford the rent in San Francisco—yeah, just like you.

Many of us understand.

We hope that you will, too.

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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Follow Chinaka Hodge on Twitter @chinakahodge