This past Thursday evening, Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong sang medleys at an acoustic benefit with Sammy Hagar, James Hetfield, and Joe Satriani. The next day, he browsed for plaids and vintage tees at Nick St. Mary’s Elder & Pine in Oakland’s Temescal. Things are changing faster than we can write about them.

The most astonishing part about Armstrong’s surprise appearance at Elder & Pine during its one-year-anniversary kegger was the nonchalance of it. Not a single fan asked for an autograph.

“He comes in all the time,” St. Mary said, passing slices of kale-and-mushroom pizza to customers. “It’s cool to have someone like that supporting us.”

To my amusement, Oakland is starting to feel like Vegas: a little bit of everything, everything for sale, and free stuff, if you know where to look.

Five years ago, I thought gentrification was an elaborate conspiracy to get rid of black folks. Then I had an unusual conversation with Ralph Nelson, lead singer of Retromeca and 30-year East Bay resident. Aside from Ken Burns, Nelson’s brother Stanley is the foremost documentarian in the country, and his sister Jill is a bestselling novelist.

The Nelsons were raised in Harlem, so I tossed him that familiar softball about there being too many white people Uptown these days. His response shocked me.

“Gentrification is good,” he said, with the utmost sincerity, a slight smile on his warm, thin face. “The Bay Area needs more density, and then we’ll keep building upward, just like Manhattan.”

“What about all the people who are getting pushed out because they can’t afford the neighborhood anymore?”

“There are always cheaper and pricier areas,” he said, “sometimes the scuzzy ones are expensive!”

I’m still not over this conversation. It made me think, and reflect, and debate with myself.

I began to see that opposing gentrification (which is to say, almost all architecture) is to accept a specifically narrow Marxist reading of “class” which reduces the word to “financial worth” and removes it of its implications of taste, sensibility, and style. It assumes that development is necessarily a predatory endeavor and that the poor are defenseless against it, neither of which is true. The poor (or “the people”) develop in their own ways: through self-expression and occupation. Investors follow.

What if Nelson is right? What if the pressure caused by the increasing price of everything, especially real estate, creates a new kind of civic life, more inclusive and more anxious, at the same time? What if Black Arts (Think of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin barely making rent in the Lower East Side) are the cutting edge of art, and art is the symptom of gentrification!?

And what if gentrification is the wrong word, so overused that its meaning has been rubbed out, like an old coin whose only value is in its metal?

The word itself refers to the European nobles, who held land in the name of God. Are the newcomers nobility? When Billie Joe Armstrong sang “Welcome to Paradise” about West Oakland, was he making himself an aristocrat?

Celebrities and multi-millionaires are visiting the 40th Street Strip with increasing frequency as tourist-friendly businesses pop up amidst abandoned industrial spaces and seemingly random institutions. The hodgepodge bizarreness, the evaporating veneer of poverty right next to glitzy consumption, is the secret of the recipe.

The fermenting stretch of 40th between Telegraph and Broadway, near Bruce Lee’s first martial arts studio, features a jumble of constructions: a literally crumbling former home audio store with a large parking lot, a half-block of self-serve car wash, two perennially-packed eateries with punny names, an adolescent drug rehab center, a boxing gym, a pizza place owned by East Africans (grandfathered into the hype of the strip, it may be the only Black-owned business there, so far), an eerily clean, welcoming, and professional punk venue, a bike shop, and a number of nondescript, trash-strewn buildings.

The aptly-named Moran Supply shop displays an imaginative selection of toilets, offering a gray concrete ledge for coffee-sippers who prefer its odd vibes to the adjacent public parklet, which, like Manhattan’s High Line park, has transformed stagnant space into a place to be, for free.

It is this self-conscious publicness, this thorough dedication to open, sponsored space, that makes 40th Street socially distinct from Berkeley’s Gilman Street, whose eponymous punk venue was the launching pad for Green Day, NOFX and The Killers.

 

Update: More comments by the author here.

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7 Responses

  1. Dana

    I don’t think this Is news. He’s been an East Bay resident for years. And they started out in the East Bay. Let’s cool our jets.

    Reply
  2. Steve

    A couple of factual issues.

    The Killers are from Las Vegas and I could be wrong but I doubt they ever played Gilman. They certainly didn’t get their start or popularity there.

    Moran supply is aptly named because that’s the name of the family that owns it. Moron is spelled M-O-R-O-N if that’s what you were after.

    As someone who owns an eerily clean and professional record store on 40th I’d also like to dispute the level of “glitz” present on the two or three blocks that have businesses sprouting up on them after a decade plus of empty storefronts or nasty laundromats. Our definition of glitz and knowledge of the hardworking and earnest people who started those businesses might differ though.

    However I can say that one local man who happens to be a successful musician who shops on this street does not a flood of celebrities and millionaires make. The neighborhood is “up and coming” but I wouldn’t call it a playground for the rich just yet.

    Reply
  3. walt whitman

    What a weird comparison of 40th St shopping district and the 924 Gilman. It’s almost like the author doesn’t know what the Gilman is.

    FWIW: Berkeley’s Gilman Street was not a launching pad for the Killers. The Killers are from Las Vegas.

    Reply
  4. Mary

    WHAT? Really??? Billy Joe Armstrong in Temescal is a sign of gentrification? As you slip in at the end…Green Day got its start at Gilman Street. Are you going to tear down everyone who makes it and then comes home to shop small local businesses in their old haunts? Would you prefer that now that he has money he sticks to Rodeo Drive? (He’d look pretty funny performing in Gucci, actually…) Seriously…Do you think it’s better for the community that people who improve their situation cut all ties to people and places they knew before?

    Reply
  5. Stevo

    How else can Oakland Local stir up the topic pot of gentrification? Add a pinch of TMZ.

    As a “news source” named after Oakland you should really know more about Oakland before publishing a piece like this.

    Reply
  6. Ordinary Folk

    Elder & Pine? Rodeo Drive? How about Ross Dress for Less? Some people have a bizarre notion of the common touch!

    Reply

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