On November 19, KQED Pop, a web initiative of public media outlet KQED, ran a blog post entitled “A San Franciscan’s Guide to Living in Oakland.” The article was written by Serena Cole, a UC Berkeley art teacher and Oakland resident for the last decade. Cole listed several places she recommends for new residents forced out of San Francisco due to high rents – in other words, the very same people commonly referred to as gentrifiers and hipsters. Most of Cole’s picks were in typically gentrified areas like Piedmont, Temescal and Rockridge, although she puzzlingly included the Missouri Lounge—which is in Berkeley, btw—and a taco truck within a stone’s throw of Lake Merritt.
Where it gets interesting, though—and the reason we’re writing this article—is a paragraph Cole wrote which stated the following:
The only rule to living here is to find where to go and not to go. The places I am going to take you on a tour through will label me as ‘bougie’ by Oakland standards, but I don’t think there is anything elitist about coming home in one piece. So stay out of East Oakland and West Oakland. That doesn’t sound like it leaves much, but it does. Trust me, my friends have been violently mugged in East Oakland and had the same house robbed three times in West Oakland. But be my guest if you want to go to either for ‘cool points.’
Hold on. Full stop. Let’s back up. Did KQED’s blogger just tell recent SF transplants to avoid three-quarters of the city on general principle? Yup.
Overlooking the strong possibility that many of those said transplants might be residing in those parts of the city anyway, since rents are more affordable—West Oakland has gained 20,000 new residents, most of them white, in the last decade, and housing prices in East Oakland’s flatlands are the least-expensive in the city—on the surface, this statement not only seems elitist, but racist.
Needless to say, Oaklanders were none too happy about seeing their city dissed by a CCA grad with a “fetishized association with anything perceived of as high art, fashion, or wealth.” The blog post generated more than 200 comments, most of them negative.
Here are some of the responses to the post: “As a member of KQED, this story is disgraceful, and frankly embarrassing,” wrote Gil Batzri.
“The article conveys that we don’t count; the only people who are important, the only people who need to be protected, are ‘her’ people,” said Johanna Workman, an East Oakland resident.
“Most of the places the author writes about does not make her appear ‘bougie,’ as she writes, but negligent about Oakland,” opined “Melinda,” while “usapatri0t” dubbed the article “the whitest white person write up of Oakland ever.”
“Marissa,” a native San Franciscan who has lived in Oakland for 15 years, said, “this article is embarrassing and um, super offensive.” Mercedes Gibson, also a native Oaklander, chimed in, “if you feel like Serena, please consider ALL of Oakland East and West, and simply stay away.”
Some commenters questioned their financial support of KQED, in light of Cole’s post.
The blog post—and KQED—fared no better on social media. Radio personality, journalist, and webmaster Davey-D took the media outlet to task with a lengthy Facebook post, in which he admonished, “you guys should be ashamed of yourselves for allowing such a disparaging article that bashes on our city and its hard working residents… I guess with small minded, bigoted attitudes like the ones displayed in your article you should definitely stay out of West and East Oakland and the town in general… Middle finger to you guys for allowing that article to be published.” Davey’s post generated more than 50 comments, most of which expressed similar sentiments.
Elsewhere on Facebook, reactions were similar. Oakland resident Renee Geesler said, “Anyone who has to read an article to find cool stuff to do in Oakland should just stay the fuck out of the city, period… The offending paragraph is a perfect example of the common mentality of a bougie douchebag.”
By 4pm Tuesday, KQED was in damage control mode. An editor’s note stated: “This post has generated a lot of passionate feedback, specifically about the way it addresses East and West Oakland. We hear you! It was not our intention to dismiss these communities.”
Shortly thereafter, another editor’s note indicated the offensive paragraph had been removed, and KQED issued another blog post, which claimed the article was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek.” Sometime later, the original post was removed from the website. In its place was a note which read: “We apologize for publishing the post, which does not reflect the values or mission of KQED.”
Oakland Local contacted several elected officials seeking comment. We received an email response from Mayor Jean Quan, who said she accepted KQED’s apology “in good faith,” while noting “West Oakland is home to the Brown Sugar Kitchen (owned by Tanya Holland, named 2013’s California Chef of the Year by the California Travel Association), famed metal works and education shop The Crucible, and a fascinating rich local history. East Oakland is home to the Oakland Zoo, the Coliseum, numerous great restaurants and gorgeous parks.”
Quan added that she hoped the station would use the “misstep” as an opportunity to “come see what these fantastic parts of the city are really like, and let your audience know what you find.”
In a phone interview, District Three Councilperson Lynette Gibson McElhaney said she had concerns about negative perceptions of Oakland being reinforced through media and was upset “to read a blog post uninformed and unenlightened about the true life blood of the Town.”
Gibson McElhaney added, “it’s important that the media tell the truth of who we are. I don’t want a perpetuation of the myth of black criminality.”
She went on to note her family’s long association with West Oakland, beginning with her mother, a resident of Harbor Homes, which she called the city’s first housing project.
Gibson McElhaney called West Oakland “a touchpoint of pride,” pointing to the blues scene once centered around Esther’s Orbit Room and the 7th St. strip, the “rich history” of McClymonds High School, and DeFremery Park, a historic meeting ground for the Black Panthers, and the current location for the annual Black Cowboy Parade and Life is Living Festival, as well as the Town Park skatepark run by Keith “K-Dub” Williams.
As far as new residents are concerned, she added, “we’re looking for people to come to Oakland who will embrace Oakland and all of its parts.”
Also contacted via phone, Davey-D noted the prevalence of crime in parts of San Francisco and San Jose. “Do we tell people to stay out [of those cities?]” When Cole mentioned East Oakland, he wondered, “what part of East Oakland are you talking about? You’re talking about an expansive area that’s more than half the city.”
In Davey’s view, “that wasn’t a tongue in cheek article. She was dead serious.”
He went on to point out that in both West and East Oakland, “there’s a history of activism.” Activists, he said, purposely moved to those areas to connect with the communities living there. Davey specifically name-checked Tony Coleman of OneFam and Regina Jackson of East Oakland Youth Development Center, along with Allen Temple, all of whom, he said, “put in work… trying to contribute to a solution.”
Davey also noted that happenings such as the African Griot exhibit currently at the African American Museum and Library in West Oakland are perfect examples of the types of events that outlets like KQED should be covering. “That was just an incredible exhibit,” he said.
Oakland Local also reached out to Cole and KQED [disclosure: KQED is a media partner of OL]. While the blogger did not respond to a reporter’s emails seeking comment, we did hear from Michael Lupetin, VP of Marketing and Branding, who stated his “initial reaction is to apologize profusely,” while reiterating KQED remains “very committed to the Bay Area.”
Lupetin pointed out that KQED Pop is a new web feature, and not part of KQED’s news division, which was intended to give new voices an opportunity to be heard. Cole, he said, was a “third-party blogger” and not “the voice of KQED,” who essentially wrote an op/ed piece which fell short of KQED’s high standards for in-depth journalism. The lighthearted tone intended in the blog “did not come across,” Lupetin admitted.
“We’re local, we’re here to serve,” he added. “In this case, we failed to do that accurately.”
While the incident certainly caused embarrassment throughout KQED’s Potrero St. headquarters, “we’re actually very grateful” that it happened, Lupetin insisted. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount from the feedback” from community members and subscribers, he added, noting that many KQED staffers live in Oakland. “When you make a mistake,” he said, “you need to learn from that. We take it very seriously.”
As a result, he said, KQED would be reviewing its editorial guidelines and working with the editorial team to determine “what is appropriate content” for its pop culture blog. It was unclear at press time whether Cole would be writing any more blog posts for KQED Pop.