Oakland: Is It a People, or a Place?

There are many ways to think about a city. One is that the city is a place. Cities are built environments with clear geographical boundaries. Each city is embedded in a region and connected to other cities-as-places. And people, goods, and capital flow between cities, accumulating in some and draining from others. This conception of the city is cadastral. It’s mapped out and made legible as a market through the measurement of physical boundaries and values like home prices, tax rates, and school rankings. As these values rise and fall, so to do the fortunes of the city.

A different way to conceive of a city is that it is a people. Instead of seeing buildings and streets and spaces all linked together in a specific legal and economic schema, this perspective instead finds the city in the people who reside there. The city is a sum of their social relationships, their cultures, institutions. This city is set, for certain, in a particular place, but it’s made a city by the ties of kinship, friendship, and communal obligations that enliven the geography. The community makes the city, and so if the community prospers, so does the city. If the people suffer, so does the city.

In Oakland, California these two conceptions of the city are opposed to one another. And for well over a decade the city-as-a-place has been erasing the city-as-a-people.

It began sometime in the 1990s. After decades of disinvestment, de-industrialization, and the flight of affluent households to exurbia—a process that made Oakland what geographer Richard Walker called a “dark star in an expanding universe,”—the tide of capital suddenly, and at first imperceptibly reversed. Real estate investors began pouring money back into Oakland, often benefiting from city and redevelopment agency subsidies, tax breaks, land swaps, and municipal bonds. Young and affluent white collar workers started moving into apartments and houses around the eastern edge of Lake Merritt, into the downtown, and Jack London Square, and North Oakland. By 1999, when Jerry Brown took over as mayor, the rise of Oakland-as-a-place had already started. But Brown’s 10K Plan accelerated the process.

Inherently a city-as-a-place initiative, the 10K Plan envisioned Oakland, or to be more precise a small slice of downtown Oakland, as a blank slate upon which to inscribe enough new units of housing, mostly condos and apartments, as well as retail stores, theaters, restaurants and all the other trappings of the ideal contemporary urban vitalism, to attract 10,000 new residents. The point was that Oakland’s government would partner with real estate capitalists to build up the city-as-a-place. In turn, this place would conjure a new assemblage of people, drawing in especially the coveted young, monied, hip, consumers seeking an urban alternative to San Francisco.

In an excerpt from Stephen Talbot’s 2001 documentary The Celebrity and the City, Jerry Brown explained the origins of his plan to re-populate downtown Oakland by remaking its places and spaces: “People would say, ‘well why can’t we shop in downtown Oakland? Why do we have I have to go to Walnut Creek? Why do I have to go to San Francisco?’ So that germinated the idea, let’s restore downtown Oakland,” said Brown.

To do so Brown and the real estate entrepreneurs gathered around him understood that they couldn’t just open up retail stores downtown. They had to bring a new and different category of people to Oakland. They weren’t going to build up Oakland for people already living in its borders. That would require tackling big social and economic problems like poverty, unemployment, housing and food insecurity, and institutional racism in the schools and criminal justice system.

Perhaps they had given up on such battles long ago. Brown certainly began abandoning progressive political economy in the late 1970s. He came to accept the straightjacket of neoliberal urbanism that the tax rebellions and withdrawal of federal aid to cities imposed. Since then it has been much easier to provide grants and credits and subsidies for the benefit of private real estate developers than it has been to institute policies that boost the incomes and opportunities for low-income city dwellers.

“We do want capital flowing into Oakland,” Brown said in 2001. He complained, however, that the 10K plan was being stalled by a “negative cheering section” that, “says that anything that happens, that’s going to disrupt something.”

“We’re going to be displaced,” Brown said, repeating the concerns he was hearing from Oaklanders. “They got a name for it: gentrification,” said Brown dismissively.

In the same documentary Brown’s mayoral campaign treasurer and friend, real estate developer John Protopappas is filmed standing outside a live-work loft project in West Oakland teasing a black man on a bicycle who is pulling a shopping cart filled with bottles and cans. “Come on, you gotta move in,” shouts Protopappas. “I don’t think he’ll be moving in,” he then says to the cameraman.

Oakland circa 1999 absolutely lacked “shoppers” downtown. Its built environment was dominated by office buildings filled with the employees of big corporations and law firms during the work week, but come 5pm and weekends the downtown would die as these employees escaped in their cars and via BART back over the hill to the East Bay suburbs. Downtown Oakland was decidedly not hip.

The people actually living downtown, the Oaklanders who weren’t following Brown’s desire of shopping, who weren’t economically capable of buying one of Protopappas’s condos, were predominantly Black, Latino and Asian, with many of the latter two groups made up of first generation immigrants. The low-incomes and high poverty rates afflicting this community meant that without any kind of intervention to empower them economically, they would not be the ones shopping at the new GAP clothing store Brown and his wife (a lawyer for the GAP) were so excited to open on Broadway. Oakland’s existing residents, at least those living in the flatlands, wouldn’t be leasing new apartments opening in Jack London Square, Temescal, and the Uptown.

Instead many of them were displaced through the process of “Jerryfication,” as critics called it. Many more stayed, and have since endured an influx of new residents who have bid up the prices of real estate, making survival in Oakland difficult in new ways. Whereas once life was made difficult by Oakland’s existence outside of key circuits of capital and employment, now it is Oakland’s incorporation into these circuits that is driving up prices and dispossessing long-time residents of their homes and communities.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.58.30 AMBetween 2000 and 2013 Oakland lost 27 percent of its Black population, dropping to a low of 103,000. In that same time the city’s white population grew by the same percent, rising from 125,000 to 160,000. In the Census Tract that encompasses the Uptown District the Black population grew by 9 percent between 2000 and 2012. But the white population expanded by 74 percent, from 400 to 700 residents.

The success of Brown’s 10K Plan is evident in the numbers of affluent individuals who have moved into downtown Oakland and spilled over in North Oakland and around Lake Merritt. It’s also evident in the restaurant boom which has become a favorite story for culinary magazines to cover over and over again. And since Brown showed that Oakland could ditch its no-there-there and become a somewhere destination, each successive mayor and city council has sought to further advance the vision of Oakland-as-a-place.

Over the last decade, influenced by Oakland’s real estate entrepreneurs, the city government borrowed from the capital market to fund “quality of life” improvements, including a multi-million dollar makeover of Lake Merritt, the estuary and park around which home and rental prices have exploded upward in recent years. New bike lanes along MacArthur Boulevard and 40th Street connect gentrifying neighborhoods to 3rd wave coffee shops, $10 a bowl mac and cheese diners, and BART stations that shuttle a big percentage of newcomers to their downtown San Francisco office jobs.

The process has now hit full stride. Notwithstanding a recession, whole sections of Oakland are soon to be scraped clear of existing buildings and streets and rebuilt into simulacra of San Francisco’s SOMA or the nearby boomlet of Emeryville. The most ambitious is the West Oakland Specific Plan, or WOSP. Pronounced “wasp,” the plan calls for adding thousands of new homes, 85 percent of them market-rate condos and apartments, that will sponge up spillover from San Francisco’s extremely expensive housing market.

There’s also the Oak to 9th project, now being called Brooklyn Basin, a ground-up master development with 3,100 housing units that will be set on two spits of land protruding into the Oakland estuary. Years ago Oakland mayor Jean Quan was a leader in the radical student movement, an organizer of the Third World Liberation Front, and a self-avowed Maoist revolutionary. Now Quan spends her time recruiting other former Maoists—Chinese billionaire capitalists—to invest in Oakland real estate.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.05.15 AM

Screenshot from the web site of Zarsion-OHP 1, LLC, developer of the Brooklyn Basin project, depicting the diversity of residents the new master-planned community will attract.

Zarsion Beijing Holdings, a Chinese conglomerate will finance later stages of the billion dollar plus Brooklyn Basin, which includes a marina and several shoreline parks. It’s already being marketed as a “vibrant new district” alongside photos of multicultural twenty-somethings and comfortable middle class consumers enjoying wine on the wharf, hosing down their yachts, and shopping for designer handbags. The developer Mike Ghielmetti, a long-time supporter and financial backer of Jerry Brown and current Oakland mayor Jean Quan, has set up a web site trumpeting that, “a diverse mix of residents will further enliven this part of the City, establishing it as a flourishing place for people to enjoy.” Gheilmetti told Forbes magazine that he’d love to see Chinese buyers scoop up Brooklyn Basin’s condos when they hit the market.

But like the WOSP, Brooklyn Basin is being built from the ground up to attract a diverse mix of residents within certain parameters. It’s bounded diversity; restricted to people whose income and cultural capital exceeds that of the city’s current majority. Brooklyn Basin is a plan to develop Oakland as a place, not as a people. Although the 2006 development agreement between Oakland and Ghielmetti required building affordable housing on-site, the total was only 15 percent of the project’s 3,100 units, or about 465 homes. This proportion totally reverses the actual ratio of above median income households to below median income households that currently live in the neighborhoods surrounding Brooklyn Basin. One in every three families living next to the site where Brooklyn Basin’s towers will soon rise is living below the poverty line, and the neighborhood’s median family income is $37,000, about 22 percent below the median household income for the entire city.

Perhaps some Oaklanders from the working class half of the city will find jobs building Brooklyn Basin. Or perhaps they’ll find jobs in the stores and restaurants that open there. But economic progress along these lines is an afterthought, and it’s also not necessarily progress. What will these jobs pay? Will the workers be able to keep up with the rising rents and other cost of living increases that come when a city truly becomes a destination for wealthy Chinese condo owners and Silicon Valley executives and lawyers buying second homes along Oakland’s waterfront?

Recent mayors and city council members have shown, in their efforts to transform Oakland, that they can conceive of the city as a people. Progressive public policies like a living wage ordinance, local hire requirements for city contracts, and most recently a majority on the city council supporting a significant city-wide minimum wage increase are among the most obvious measures taken to “lift up Oakland.”

But the city-as-a-place, as an investment platform upon which to assemble objects and spaces of consumptive desire, has long dominated the thinking inside One Frank Ogawa Plaza, City Hall. In their e-mail signatures, Oakland politicians and city staff are in the habit of including a link to a 2012 New York Times article ranking Oakland the #5 top place to visit in the world. The city that’s being made right now is increasingly incompatible with the city that is. The Oakland as-a-place being built is too expensive for the Oakland-as-a-people who live here. Where will they go? Likely further into East Oakland, the last section of the city that because of its geographic isolation from the downtown, and because of its deeply entrenched poverty, is not a destination, is not drawing in the same kind of speculative capital and middle class home buyers. To Richmond, Vallejo, Antioch and Pittsburg, and other non-destination cities further up and off the BART lines and under the shadows of refineries and power plants the displaced will move.

Next week the Oakland city council’s community and economic development committee will likely green light a 250 to possibly 400-unit residential building at 2100 Telegraph Avenue. The developer, Alan Dones, has already built offices and apartments in Oakland’s Uptown. Like most other big real estate projects requiring city assistance (Dones’s proposal is to build atop a city-owned parking garage) the city has significant say in what gets built, but the project’s plan only calls for 15 percent of the units to be affordable to moderate and low-income households.

And what does affordable even mean? Per Oakland’s official Housing Element, a state mandated plan, this would mean apartments that a single person earning $45,100, or a three person households earning $58,000, can afford. These are the official definitions of “low income” in Oakland. Moderate income is defined as a single person earning $74,950, and a three person household with an income of $96,350.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.18.56 AMNo one who has ever set foot on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 21st Street, where Dones’s project will be built, could possibly think for a second that these income levels approximate those of the neighborhood’s current residents. The reality of life in Oakland’s flatlands is that many households earn below $25,000 a year, and they must spread these meager dollars far to feed many mouths, pay ever-increasing rents, and pay for a highly regressive set of municipal services, from trash to transit. Even the affordable units, it appears, will be priced to attract outsiders. Uptown Oakland is in fact one of the most impoverished urban zones in California. The poverty rate in the surrounding Census Tract is 44 percent. Over half the neighborhood’s households earn less than $25,000 a year.

Ultimately the problem isn’t that too much market-rate housing is being built. It’s that too little affordable housing is being added to the city’s total stock. The authors of Oakland’s Housing Element admitted as much when they wrote the following:

“the City encountered some difficulty in achieving very low-, low- and moderate-income housing production goals in the 2007-2014 planning period. The increasing gap between housing costs that very low-income household can afford and the cost of producing very low-income housing units, combined with the limited amount of subsidies to produce such housing, continues to challenge the City’s ability to meet ABAG’s regional housing allocation for the City for these households.”

What’s getting built isn’t designed to benefit the people of Oakland who are already here and need something better. More so, there’s too much time and energy spent by Oakland’s government greasing the gears of real estate development at any cost, and not enough time crafting policies to make the city an economically just community. The result is what many of the people of Oakland feel today; their city is becoming unaffordable. Evictions are increasing in areas like North and West Oakland where huge demographic shifts are taking place. The city appears (although it isn’t) powerless to create good paying jobs for its existing residents, but it can and soon will create a surplus of expensive real estate. It’s all the result of seeing and treating Oakland as a place, and not as a people.

  1. Very thoughtful work. Thank you. I am linking to my gentrification series. I would offer that the place over people sentiment took root before 1990 the city government regardless of party or color has aligned itself with monied interest since at least two mayors before Lionel Wilson. There has always been a hesitation on the cities part to address the quality of life in its “red-lined’ areas and the practice of managed disinvestment that dissolves communities began as early as the 1960’s in tandem with mass condemning of livable property in West Oakland for the BART system and 7th St Post Office (the land turned into a dump site in the years before anything was built) is what made the area ripe for the current sacking and enabled Browns 10K plan to gain traction. In an interview with then Mayor Brown I asked where all the displaced people were to go. His reply, “I don’t know but they won’t be here.”

  2. “What is community? How much attention should be paid to humans and their need for community and their right to define that community? What role do ordinary citizens play in the development of communities, and open or public spaces? How does the average Joe or Jill plug into a process like the West Oakland Specific Plan (west oakland specific plan project description – City of Oakland) and have the same gravitas as the developers who pack the process with their influence and capital with an eye towards establishing and maintaining lines of profit? In this time of growing inequity and changing American lifestyles that beg questions about the quality of life for the percentage of Americans who live at and beneath the federal poverty level what real effort is being made to bridge gaps in equity? What model of community fits the American myth? Is it the same model used in American reality? Is it possible for people of different incomes and lifestyles to live harmoniously in community? If so how is this to work if formerly impoverished areas are made over to accommodate upwardly mobile inhabitants and ignore the ongoing quality of life issues for those on the brink of poverty and those who live perched on the edge of existence mired in generational poverty?” pt. 3 of 3 part series:http://anzinga.com/2013/12/26/gentrification-no-resting-place-pt-3/

  3. I grew up on the other side of the bay and for me, Oakland was always referred to as “that place you shouldn’t go to alone or at night.” Oakland definitely had a bad wrap back then and I’ve since moved out of the Bay Area and have been living in Southern California for the past five years. From the articles I read and the friends I have that still live up there, I’ve heard that Oakland is starting to look much better; the community is changing and the culture there is flourishing. I now see it as a complement to the “uniqueness” of San Francisco across the way.

    I definitely agree that city needs a greater focus on the community as opposed to the property but nonetheless, I have high hopes for what’s to come. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Interesting piece on Oakland. I used to live in Walnut Creek, CA. I also wondered if Oakland is people and a place. I know for sure it has an awesome Chinatown. Thanks for writing this fantastic piece. Was this a hard one to write?

  5. John Colle Rogers, Friendly Neighborhood Blacksmith said:

    What most articles on the Brookly Basin project glaringly omit (including the one in the recent Oakland Magazine) is that smack dab in the middle of this proposed mess is a thriving artist community, the 5th ave Waterfront. Some of the residents have been there for 20, 30, 50 years, and I belive all of them would pee themsleves laughing at the thought of being able to afford a high-rise condo (let alone want to live in one). I am by no means taking you to task for not mentioning us — this is a great piece of writing you have crafted here, and I know you only have so much space for digressions — but just saying this to highlight the class amnesia that is endemic to this rise in what i see as extremely sterile housing projects.
    Thank you for addressing this issue.

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