Space is the Place: Tales of Gentrification in OaklandPosted: March 13, 2011
Last night The Corner Collective, the radical black art collective I am a part of with my homies Crunch and Tracy, decided to go out to the bottoms after we heard that it was reggae night at Revolution Cafe. I was excited to hear that the cafe, which is the only coffeeshop and one of the few businesses in West Oakland, was staying open later and hosting events in the neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of spaces for the residents of west Oakland to go to and hang out at. There aren’t even a lot of schools anymore, due to the budget cuts closing them down or turning them into a police station like they did to Cole Middle school. The budget cuts are disproportionately effecting youth of color in Oakland and the k-12 sector. Schools and after school programs are closing down, while Oakland Police continue to gain more power through their continual funding and the gang injunctions, which allow them to target and profile brown and black youth in North Oakland and the Fruitvale. There aren’t a lot of safe spaces for youth and people of color to hang out at, where the threat and hassle of the police isn’t an issue. Again, this is why I was excited to learn that Revolution Cafe in West Oakland, a historically working-class black neighborhood and home to the Black Panthers, was staying open later and having free reggae nights for the people in the community. And this is why The Corner Collective decided to go and get our puff and sway on to the rhythm. We are interested in building more artistic and social spaces for the people of Oakland, especially people of color, and we are interested in being a part of cultural spaces that already exist and are doing that work.
This is why we were shocked when we pulled up to the cafe and were greeted by a crowd of white punk rock kids and hipsters dancing to ska music. This wasn’t our version of a ‘reggae’ night in West Oakland. I understand that West Oakland is changing. It’s been changing for years now. For a long time it was largely black and then working-class latino families living in the neighborhood. But the recent years have been met with a large influx of white professionals and punk/traveler kids in the neighborhood, who have been quick to carve up a lot of space without really understanding what that means to the working-class black and brown residents in the neighborhood or even Oakland as a historical city. Revolution Cafe has been in existence for years now and owned by a long time resident of Oakland. The Panthers used to hang out there. It has always been a community space, but the community is changing and that was obvious last night. James Baldwin once said ‘urban renewal means negro removal.’ And I can’t help but look around West Oakland and wonder where did all the black people go?
When we entered the place we immediately retreated to the back patio to sip on some libations and mentally prepare ourselves to go back inside. The back patio wasn’t much nicer. We were met with cold stares by kids with denim studded vests. It reeked of bad beer and there was broken glass all on the ground. I had never seen the patio so dirty. We begin to get our smoke on when this white man walked up to us, and asked if he could ‘get a hit off of that.’ I looked up at him like ‘are you out of your damn mind’. There was no, ‘excuse me guys I don’t mean to interrupt but could I please get a hit off of your piece’. No manners…nothing even close. Just give me. I was like man you bold you already have taken over our spaces now you demanding trees too without even a please. We were the only brown faces in that patio, and the first thing you do when you approach us is to ask for something. There was no hello. No introduction. I was disgusted. A few seconds went by where I just looked at him then I replied clearly ‘no’. And he had the audacity to scoff at me ‘really no’ and walk away angry like I was the rude one. I couldn’t believe it. We laughed about it amongst ourselves, but there was something really disturbing to me about the way this man felt he could treat us, and make us feel in this space. We stayed for a few minutes more, but the largely white male punk rock folks who we were sharing the back patio space with, begin to play fight resulting in more broken glass and bodies being shoved in our direction. The overall energy felt aggressive and particularly hostile towards us so we left with feelings of marginalization. I felt angry that we, as radical young black people, were being pushed out of this historical space in West Oakland. And I felt angry that there aren’t more underground spaces for young people of color to hang out in, and feel comfortable in; where the vibrant cultural and political history of Oakland can be celebrated and continued. And I am left wondering if the punk rock kids, who were drinking their PBR’s in the front of the cafe, are aware of this rich political and cultural Oakland history.
Now don’t get me wrong I am not trying to race bait these young white people and overly simplify the situation that these are just some privilege white kids moving into our neighborhood and I don’t like it. The situation of gentrification and the redevelopment of Oakland is more complicated than that. I am also not saying that they shouldn’t be there, but it was difficult for me to wrap my head around why they were the only ones there in this space. And why myself and my two friends, Tracy who is born and raised in East Oakland, had to feel marginalized in this space and forced to leave, because we didn’t feel safe by their hostile attitude towards us. We also prefer to not kick it and relate to each other by slapping each other in the back of each others heads and breaking beer bottles inside a cafe in our community. Maybe these are just cultural differences, but I felt like it was so difficult to co-exist in that space and feel safe and welcomed. I understand that a lot of these punk kids, who are moving into West Oakland, aren’t just trust fund kids who like slumming it in the ghetto. Some are. But a lot are also working-class, and West Oakland is still a more affordable neighborhood than others. I understand that. That said, the economic capital they are missing is made up for with all the cultural capital and freedom they access through their racial privilege. They are not as vulnerable to the police like the youth of color hanging out on the block, because there are no spaces for them to be at. They are able to more freely move in and out of space. When we were leaving last night I was amazed at the masses of young white people hanging out on 7th street with their dogs drinking beer with no worries about cop harassment. Meanwhile, we had a cop follow my car for a few blocks giving me a tremendous amount of anxiety. The street has changed so much. A former partner of mine used to live off of 7th street. We would often hang out on the block people watching, and talking to the neighbors. It looked much different even two years ago.
I found myself thinking of brilliant and controversial jazz musician Sun Ra’s classic space age film and commentary on race Space is the Place. The plot is centered around Sun Ra trying to organize black people to leave the United States and settle on a new planet. Garveyite message aside, there were moments last night where I asked myself and my friends ‘where are our public spaces?’ Do we need to get a space ship and move to another planet, where the hipsters might not invade like they are doing in Oakland and Brooklyn. I am not for removing myself, and I am not trying to counteract the hostility and privilege of these white youth with more hostility. However, I don’t want to allow myself to feel marginalized in spaces that I feel like I have a right to be in. I think its important that we intervene in these existing spaces and make them more open to everyone in the community again. And we can do this in a positive way that isn’t just trying to marginalize others. But it is important that white youth also understand the history of Oakland and the new spaces they are occupying. It is important that their comfort in living in the hood doesn’t result in them approaching my friends and I, and demanding things from us in disrespectful ways. But what is more important, and which was made clear to me last night, is that we need to start building and making new spaces for all of the communities we are a part of. Spaces that are safe and reflect our political and cultural perspectives. This was something the Panthers were good at; creating spaces for the community to be in through their survival programs. There are political critiques of it now, because the Panther work degenerated into solely providing social services, which are needed, but is not the sole task of the revolution. Today the revolutionary fire of the Black Panther Party is out and has devolved into the liberalism of non profits. We need that revolutionary fire again, and a part of that work is building relationships with people in our community through spaces we share. And if there is a lack of these spaces then we must build them. This is no easy task, but one we must do to sustain ourselves, our communities, and all of our important political and artistic work. And despite all the discomfort we felt last night, I feel excited by the inspiring brilliant radical artists around me to build with. ❤