By Sandhya Jha

I hung out at the intersection of La Mission and the Mission. I was hanging out at the intersection of the past and the future.

A couple of months ago, I went to a fundraiser with a good friend of mine at a Mexican restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. The organization was YWU, Young Workers United, which organizes restaurant workers in the city, particularly Spanish-speaking restaurant workers, and helps them mobilize for fair wages and sick leave and safe working conditions. I’m a huge fan, because these are the folks that unions can’t get to and restaurants take horrific advantage of. It was a good cause and good people and GOOOOOOOOOD food. It’s also good for me to hang out in places where English isn’t the standard language of operations, because it’s easy for me to forget the privilege I have daily because I speak the dominant culture’s language fluently.

The thing is, the dominant culture had rented the bar upstairs.

When the YWU party was in full swing, I didn’t notice it as much, but when they slowed their roll for a minute to show a brief film about YWU, I noticed it a lot more: every couple of minutes a just-grungy-enough-to-be-trendy White person would poke his head around the corner and a wave of punk music would flood the room, drifting down from the club directly above the restaurant. They would realize their mistake and close the door (or not) and climb the steep stairs to their real destination.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who lives in the Bay Area, but La Mission is on an inexorable march towards middle-class Whiteness. The Bratt brothers made that movie for a reason: the community they grew up in is in its death throes. Those hipster kids are taking over; even the taquerias that are forever old are packed with trendy middle class kids and increasingly by moneyed ex-frat boys, too. They’re not just coming in for an urban adventure on a Friday night any more; they’re there all week.

It’s one of a million casualties of gentrification across the nation (or, as my truth-telling friends at POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE call it, gentriF**Kation).

A friend of mine recently reminded me that those people who work at Google and Facebook are not bad people trying to destroy the culture of San Francisco. I agreed that gentrification wasn’t an issue that was created by any given individual, nor could it be fixed by any given individual.

Yet, the reason a number of my friends were part of the protest against the Google buses in San Francisco recently is because a corporation is aiding lots and lots of individuals in their individual pursuits that end up adding up to gentrification instead of recognizing their impact on the community and participating in community-based solutions to a community problem. (In policy terms, the company is creating a negative externality born by a community that does not receive public benefits.)

I remember facilitating, maybe a year ago, a group of young progressive/radical South Asians to talk about spirituality and affordable housing. The downest, most radical guy in the group showed us a video his organization had made on gentrification. It was tight. Then he dropped this bomb on the group: “We may all be brown and down, but it doesn’t matter where any of us in this room move in Oakland: we’re gentrifiers, too.”

I complain about how San Francisco is a lost cause for the people who are fighting to preserve the historic culture and also affordable housing for poor people there; not just the Mission but the whole city seems to me to be on an inexorable march towards gentrification, and even some of the most committed activists there don’t pretend they’re going to stop the rolling tide; they’re just trying to slow it.

But I’m not sure how far behind Oakland is. We definitely have two Oaklands, and the rich Oakland keeps encroaching on the poor and also expecting the neighborhoods bend to their will. Will we end up with more and more intensely contrasting neighborhoods, with the eruption that will almost inevitably result? Or will people who have called Oakland home for generations simply get pushed past the wealthy surrounding communities way out to the “affordable” locations that then require a 2-hour commute each way to return to the low-wage service jobs that a wealthy Oakland will still require?

comedian recently joked that he didn’t want so much gentrification, just enough so that he could get creme brulee. The challenge of gentrification is that at first it looks pretty awesome. Poor people don’t like blight. They don’t like living in fear. They don’t like gunshots. They don’t like living in food deserts. So when people with connections and access to power bring in more city investment in roads and force deadbeat landlords to maintain properties and increased police engagement in the community, that’s pretty awesome.

But the joke becomes less funny at a certain point in the redevelopment process. I find myself thinking about a man speaking to the mayor at one of her listening sessions two months ago. He was formerly homeless and living in transitional housing on the edge of Oakland’s recently redeveloped Uptown neighborhood which used to be more dangerous and more blighted. “Ms. Quan,” he said, “a lot of us here are old. We can’t walk the six blocks to the bus to the grocery store, and we DEFINITELY can’t walk the six blocks back weighed down with groceries. Taco Bell’s a cheap option, but it’s closed for renovations. You want us, on our fixed incomes, to go to the restaurant down the block from us? It sells $14 hamburgers. I bet they’re good, but they’re $14.”

I don’t know what the solution is, and I know that I’m part of the problem I’m trying to solve. I did joke to a friend who is gentrifying North Oakland that I didn’t displace anyone since my building used to be a warehouse, so I’m okay on the gentrification front. But I know that in reality my willingness and ability to buy a middle-class condo in Oakland changed the culture of the city and perpetuated the market for middle-class housing that requires certain infrastructure standards while my friends in Deep East, the Fruitvale and West can’t get access to the same amount of city infrastructure support.

My favorite alt country song goes “sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.” When it comes to gentrification, I may at one point have been the YWU member in the Mexican restaurant, but mostly I’m the White hipster heading upstairs to the punk concert.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

6 Responses

  1. Adrian

    I agree that gentrification is rapidly spreading across Oakland, but there is still a large part of the city that is still very poor. Oakland may have gentrified in the past couple of years, but there are still A LOT of shootings and homicides and the violent crime rate has actually gone up in the past couple years. Oakland had the 2nd highest violent crime rate among cities greater than 250,000 in 2012. Detroit was number 1. Also, I do not know what this author is talking about when she says that the Deep East gets less infrastructure support than other wealthier neighborhoods, like perhaps Rockridge and Montclair. Sure, the homes are better maintained in these areas, but the roads are just as bad, if not worse, than many areas of East Oakland. The truth is that all of Oakland is exposed to inadequate police services, limited library services, and awful roads. The difference is that some neighborhoods are wealthier and more shielded from the problems of Oakland’s flats. I live in Oakland and I have not seen much change in East or West Oakland. I can say that Uptown, Lake Merrit, and Temescal have gentrified a lot in the past decade. However, I think gentrification has been mostly positive in these areas. Barely anybody lived close to Uptown in the 1990s, and Downtown Oakland used to be a complete ghosttown on the weekends. Temescal used to be dangerous and sketchy, while now it attracts families. I will agree that in many of these areas these new businesses do not represent the diversity of Oakland. Sometimes it feels more like Idaho in some cafes than the Bay Area. Affordable housing is a huge problem, especially for the middle class. Rockridge is so expensive that even the wealthy can’t afford it anymore and Temescal is not far behind. I do mostly agree with this author, but I would like some fact-checking in regard to the services given to different neighborhoods in Oakland. Also, if Oakland is going to solve this problem and keep a city that is diverse and interesting, then all of Oakland has to play a role. If it becomes a “flats” issue or a “hills” issue, then it will never be solved. Gentrification is a problem and while San Francisco might not be an option anymore for people not reaping the tech boom, Oakland can still be a city that is diverse both economically and racially.

    Reply
  2. Mitchell

    As poor Tevye says in :”Fiddler on the Roof”: “I know it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no honor, either.” The folks at Poor Magazine might want to think about that.

    Incikdentally, walk into upscale places uptown like Flora or Luka’s, and you’ll see Oakland’s racial and ethnic diversity in full glory; you just won’t see poor people. One needn’t be white to recognize that rising property values aren’t a problem, but a sign of civic health!

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  3. urbanite

    Cities all over the country are experiencing a similar transition – San Francisco’s is simply on steroids. But there are many more of us who recognize the intrinsic value of living in places that are transit accessible, have access to retail/restaurants, and offer apartments and a variety of diverse housing options, without having to drive forever to get somewhere…so its supply and demand. And demand for these types of places is up. The neighborhoods in question in your story were initially not poor places – but working /middle class. They were damaged later also similar to national trends – federal subsidy making highway building cheap, redlining/racism, mortgage interest deduction, etc.

    I agree that alot of oakland’s neighborhoods welcome re-investment, but with a better sense of how that investment is applied. What we all have to answer is how to maintain the economic diversity, without being afraid of change within our city centers. Because Cities transition. I keep hearing the term “historic resident” by oakland anti-gentrification folks. ok – what does that constitute, which history do you prefer; 20 years ago, fifty or what? What do you label a “historic resident” who’s child went off to college, and now comes back to operate in a different economic bracket? So I think anti-gentrification folks make a mistake when they respond in an ad hoc way, seeking justification from an individual developer or landlord. But really at issue are the larger policy solutions, ie regional tax sharing, making it easier to fund and built transit and the types of neighborhoods we want to live in, shifting development mitigations through CEQA to actually improve the environment rather than extend left turn pockets, and better public infrastructure financing. Lets really build cities again.

    We have an opportunity in Oakland to orchestrate a balance, not only by attracting some great infill development in the current boom + permitting a lot more housing quickly (thereby meeting demand effectively and keeping costs of older housing stock low) but also getting smarter than the next city. In many parts of the Bay Area, the issue is anti-urbanism, anti-renter – egads just look at berkeley’s shattuck, full of vacant lots that should be housing. I say Oakland should show the way how to be a great, vibrant, diverse URBAN place … and focus on making it the kind of place companies and businesses want to locate and hiring our local residents, and investing in our schools, parks and libraries.

    Reply
  4. Len Raphael

    Adrian, actually Temescal was not a dangerous place 20, 30 years ago. Nor was it’s racial composition a whole bunch different than it is now. Crime went up as it attracted more affluent residents.

    Reply
  5. r2d2ii

    Too bad the author is so uninformed. There’s a guy called Karl Marx who wrote a book about money and accumulation and the social and economic consequences called “Kapital.” Worth a read. Many ideas therein have been updated. Journals include The Monthly Review and Left Business Observer.

    There are the official religions of the U.S.A. called by many names such as “the Free Market”, “Capitalism”, “Finance”, the “Corporation.”

    I think this all has much more to do with the problems of social and economic inequality than something called “gentrification.”

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  6. Jerry

    Gentrification is just another code word used by the left that is aimed to discriminate and ostracize whites. It seems that the only whites accepted by blacks when it comes to sharing neighborhoods is white women, families, males and especially gays need not bother. Isn’t diversity wonderful?

    It’s interesting that an ‘historically black neighborhood’ must be preserved at all costs but an ‘historically white neighborhood’ must be destroyed by federal law.

    Blacks incessantly complain that white folk don’t care about their communities. But when whites move in and improve the quality of the neighborhood, blacks throw a hissy fit.

    It’s pointless trying to help people who won’t or can’t help themselves.

    Reply

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