Living for the City: A Look at the Gentrification of Oakland

I went up to Oakland recently to visit a good friend and got the chance to immerse myself in another neighborhood for a few days. I welcomed the geographic break -- Inglewood, relatively small as it is, can be overwhelming, to say nothing of Los Angeles. Walking around the place, Oakland struck me this time as something between the two: a major city with small-town intimacy and a small town with big-city sophistication and endurance. And big-city problems. We've all got that in common, the great NorCal/SoCal cultural dichotomy notwithstanding.

But in the part of Oakland where I stayed, the big-city problems look to be changing for the better. This is a very good development that's long overdue, but it's how they're changing that's left me with mixed feelings about the nature of residential change and how it's inextricably connected to race. Here is a neighborhood that for years was heavily black and fraught with crimes typical of struggling urban economies: drug dealing, break-ins, shootings -- an infamous scenario that tends to describe all of Oakland to the rest of the world. In the last decade or so, whites looking to stay in the Bay Area have started moving into this part of Oakland, and the neighborhood is now what you would officially say is "in transition." That's real-estate parlance for being on the path to gentrification, which is itself another bit of real-estate parlance for a place getting whiter, or in any case, getting less colored, i.e. black or Latino.


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In this part of Oakland, that definitely means black. But the gentrification that's happening is not at all the surreptitious kind I'm used to seeing in SoCal. What I don't see in L.A. are whites even being willing to plant flags in historically tough black neighborhoods, like Compton or deep South Central or even Inglewood; the most they'll do is go into Ladera or Leimert Park, places where an established black middle class provides a safe buffer to the real hood. But in gentrifying Oakland, yuppie-ish whites and struggling blacks live not just side by side but next door to each other. That's cognitive dissonance enough, but even more disorienting to me was the fact that they all acted like real neighbors. On National Night Out, an annual paean to public safety, my host friends and I wandered from one lively small block party to another, and I was repeatedly amazed at the mix of folks in the streets that was not just black and white, but Asian, Latino, gay, straight, professional, artistic, young, old, working-class. It was downright alarming. I even saw a young white man dance the Electric Slide, beer can in hand, with a group of middle-aged black women, and he looked like he'd been doing it all his life. Strange days indeed.

Not to say that this part of Oakland is some kind of paradise. Not yet. As we walked from one gathering to another, my friend and her husband cautioned me to be alert because there is still plenty of crime happening. There are still break-ins and shootings and drug-related problems. But rather than viewing them as fixed urban pathologies, the newcomers are treating them all like problems that can and must be solved communally and with the right strategies. Many of the long-timer black folks are thrilled about this, though one I talked to was cynical about white folks spearheading a movement to make the kind of quality-of-life change in the neighborhood that he and other neighbors had been trying to make happen for years. It's not about altruism but location and property values, he said.

I certainly get that cynicism. And there is something fundamentally wrong (but fundamentally American) with improvements always being associated with the presence of whites and deterioration always being associated with the presence of blacks, regardless of their class. And yet in this neck of Oakland, for the moment at least, it feels like those two dynamics have melded into something new and potentially encouraging. On my last day there, two young white people walking the neighborhood passed by my friend's house with fliers advertising what I assumed was a missing pet. Typical, I thought with more than a bit of cynicism (and trust me, I love animals). And then I saw that the picture on the flier was woman, a neighbor who had gone missing awhile back. She is black. This was a person the two were concerned about, and more than that, she's a neighbor. I certainly hope they find her.

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