This past weekend, I moved out of my place in Deep East Oakland. I still work at 98th and International — in a middle-school after-school program — but my residence at 82nd and MacArthur drew to its natural close, the house where I’d lived during its renovation by a housing nonprofit I volunteer with now ready for sale. I’m staying at a friend’s place by the lake for now; it’s on the old Parkway side, not the Grand Lake side, but even though it’s supposedly ungentrified territory — well, it’s worlds away from Deep East.
This morning, as I sat on my friend’s couch and penned a lengthy blog post about “Game of Thrones” and Margaret Thatcher, some workmen down the block began to play music. It was loud, with thumping basslines and catchy Spanish rhythms, loud enough to be obnoxious to neighbors. Nobody said anything for about an hour or so, and with the windows open I tapped my foot in time to the beat as I wrote. Then a woman began shouting from her own window, at first somewhat politely: “Can you please turn that music down? I’m trying to study for a test.”
It wasn’t apparent that the workmen had heard and her shouts quickly became angry. “Turn that music off! It is too fucking loud and I have a goddamn test!”
The music went off, moments later, and I could hear the discussion from the street through the window. The woman and another neighbor spoke loudly and angrily, while the workmen were quiet and deferential, not native English speakers; the woman and her neighbor cursed at the workmen, repeatedly. When the young man with whom they were speaking raised his own voice in anger — not shouting as the two neighbors were, but speaking up — the neighbors threatened to call the cops and walked away. “This generation,” the male neighbor said, as they returned to their houses. “They’re such brats.”
Two minutes later, the music returned.
Immediately, the shouting woman was back. The workmen turned the music down and then off as she cursed; she had already called the cops, she said, and they were on their way. She wanted the music to stay off, she said. The workmen walked away without a word, the Spanish rhythms silenced but the air still crackling: this neighbor insisted, loudly, on a promise that the music wouldn’t reappear. “I need you to promise me,” she shouted at their backs. “Can you promise me? Can you fucking look at me?”
They did not. The music had been off for several minutes then.
She called the cops.
“There’s a situation here,” she said. “Some young men are playing music very loudly and they refuse to turn it off.” In the course of her entire conversation with the police she gave them the workmen’s license plate numbers to run, suggested that they were illegally using handicapped placards, and never once deigned to mention that the music had turned off and stayed off for some time now. Eventually, the second neighbor joined her. “I just got off the phone with the police,” she told him.
“Good,” he said. “These people need to be reported.”
Privilege, thy name is white people.
I wrote a piece more than a year ago, about my move to Oakland. It was published at Grist, an online environmental magazine, and it got quoted in Slate, and I felt Internet-famous for a day. I talked about moving to Oakland in 2009 and discovering the opportunity here, on the less-hip side of the Bay, and I used a careless and unspecific phrase: Oakland, I said, was a “fixer-upper kind of town.”
There are things in Oakland that need repair and investment, both social and capital. The streets in the flatlands could use some attention. Even the feds agree that the police force needs an overhaul. I’ve spent time laboring to improve some of the housing stock, not for home-flippers or wealthy new buyers but as part of a nonprofit that helps lower-income elderly and disabled people with home maintenance and upkeep; it exposed me to a lot of wonderful, old-school Oaklanders, and it made me regret my incautious words. I grew up in Cleveland; I know what it is for a formerly wealthy industrial town to be hurting economically. To call it a “fixer-upper,” though, implied that the solution could be found in the civic version of a new coat of paint, that new restaurants or farmers’ markets or food trucks could be an answer in themselves.
They are not.
All of those examples are based on food, because food is trendy right now, and food justice is a real thing.
From my house in Deep East it was half an hour by bus to the nearest real grocery store, each way. I was only feeding myself; my groceries are easy enough to carry on public transit. To feed a family in those circumstances must be a bitch, but then, grocery stores and wealth track each other fairly closely around here, just as public transit and wealth do.
Strange, given that decent food and available transportation are two of the most pressing needs of lower-income people, but then I guess that’s just what privilege is all about: when you can choose not to bother with the expense and hassle of a car and you can also live anywhere you want, why not go for density and deliciousness? Yes, you could live somewhere farther out and afford a car, but this is so much nicer; this has so many amenities.
Your amenities, however, are other people’s lifelines. And now that you’ve moved in, those people can’t afford the neighborhood anymore. They’re pushed to less desirable places, without BART stations or late-night bus lines or stores that sell fresh produce, and while you just feel liberated without the burden of a car these people wish they could afford one.
It would be such a nice amenity.
I’ve been reading this series so far, and many of the comments. It’s mostly interesting, and occasionally horrifying, which is a pretty good ratio for the Internet. Some people seem to believe that you can talk about gentrification without talking about race, but these people are wrong: housing policy has always been a tool to maintain white supremacy, to create intergenerational wealth amongst white folks and to ensure the entrenchment of poverty amongst black folks. Even the poorest white people in America have benefitted by not being black, in very tangible financial ways.
Gentrification is not entirely white, but it is almost entirely white.
It’s impossible to talk about Oakland without talking about crime, and law enforcement. Oakland has a high violent crime rate. Most of the perpetrators, and most of the victims, are young black men. Noting this fact is not racist, but philosophizing that blackness is somehow determinate to Oakland’s criminality — while holding that whiteness is incidental to gentrification — well, that is very much racist, indeed.
It is possible to be white, move to Oakland, and not be a gentrifier, to contribute to the actual community instead of imagining — and using one’s privilege to engineer — something sanitized and whiter and “better”.
Forcing poor people of color to move to Richmond may improve Oakland’s “image”, it might move it up in rankings by Forbes or the New York Times, but it doesn’t actually solve any of the deep, fundamental problems of crime, of a racist police force, of poverty.
Fortunately, all you have to do to be a non-gentrifying white person is listen.
Not to me — I’m white, too, on food stamps more often than not but still privileged.
Stop listening to me and go out and listen to your neighbors.
Go to Deep East. Don’t drive there — take the bus, the 1 or the 40 all the way down the avenues. Don’t bring headphones. Ask people what they think about Oakland. You’ll find a lot of opinions. Consider them.
Volunteer to fix up a house with Rebuilding Together, and get to know the homeowner. Most of them are sweet old ladies with stories of Oakland stretching back decades. They’ll tell you about how they bought their house in the fifties, or the sixties or the seventies, before Oakland’s manufacturing economy imploded and lower-skilled workers couldn’t find well-paying jobs anymore.
Go to an Oakland public school, an elementary school or a middle school or a high school. Volunteer as a tutor. If you speak a second language, volunteer to translate for parents. Volunteer at an after-school program, to teach something from your career field. Chaperone kids on a field trip to UC Berkeley, and tell them what it was like for you to go to college. Talk to them about graduate school.
Use your privilege — your political voice — to pressure OPD into reform. When a person of color pens an essay about how white people shouldn’t call the cops unless they want to alienate their neighbors of color, don’t write her off as juvenile or immature or ignorant: there’s a good chance she’s had more experience with the police than you have, and her sentiments, while not necessarily solution-oriented, come from an honest and informed place. Try to understand that place, and use that information and understanding to help those persecuted by an authority whose racist violence is all too often implicitly sanctioned by white people.
And the next time a Hispanic person refuses to pinkie-swear that he’ll never bother you again, don’t call the cops on him. In fact, the next time someone on your block is blaring music loudly, approach them and treat them like a person, rather than reaching for your white privilege before your common humanity.
You’re a decent person. You’re not a racist. I get it: none of us are, anymore. In a community like Oakland, where white people tend towards the educated and liberal, racism and gentrification are just things that happen, things outside of ourselves, because even though we’re white people we’re not that kind of white person.
But what if we are?
Editor’s Note: This essay was written in response to a recent gentrification series. We welcome more thoughts from community members. Follow the entire series at http://oaklandlocal.com/?s=gentrification