Ever since it popped up out of the blue on San Pablo Avenue a couple of years back, East Bay activists have been steady talkin about the Holdout. I originally wrote this piece after a passionate debate about the subject amongst some local radical POC activists, because I wanted to bring in another perspective regarding the waning influence of black people in Oakland, and how this social trend colors my feelings about new “projects” and ideas being brought in to “save” Oakland. I was initially turned off, and pretty annoyed by the Holdout after I went to a small meeting there very early on in Occupy Oakland,. I want to say that I have mostly gotten over the more negative feelings around the Holdout’s presence and function, but that I have felt the need to discuss gentrification and my experiences and observations as to it’s effect on black Oaklanders.
*a qualifier: Gentrification is a complex subject, and no single article or perspective can ever get to all of the angles and nuances of the issue. Even since I wrote the first draft of this piece a couple of months ago, things have changed in regards to this specific issue, and my feelings regarding it..As mentioned above, I wanted to express some things about gentrification in Oakland, and black folks, by using the Holdout as a case study so to speak. I am not saying that I am the representative of all things black, or Oakland. I am mixed, I grew up mostly in Mendocino, and I have probably actually lived in Oakland for 12-15 years of my existence. Nor is the Holdout a particularly egregious example of gentrification in Oakland, but it is representative when you look at the larger patterns and trends.
The first time I moved to Oakland, in late 1969, I was a small baby. My teenaged, hippie parents, decided to leave NYC for California, and we hitchhiked our way West. The Bay Area was a beacon for many social refugees, and on my mom’s side, the black side, many of my relatives had already relocated from the East Coast and the South, to Oakland. At that time Oakland was an important West Coast black cultural center, and gathering place for blacks looking for a new and brighter day. The Black Panthers were a product of the aspirations of black Oakland. There was a positive , hopeful, vibe in the air amongst our folks, despite the many challenges we faced. A “black is beautiful” feeling that lingers, one that I can still feel, but one that has been mostly displaced by a lot of negativity and despair. I don’t think that my memory is just a product of youthful naiveté, but a true reflection of a period when the possibilities seemed pretty wide open, and black folks were generally feeling better about the future. I am thankful that I got to spend the first three years of my life in Oakland amongst my black family and community during that Black Power era. When my mom and dad divorced I moved to Mendocino County with my dad, and that was, of course, a whole different scene (a cool one, but different)
Although I moved back to the Bay Area in the 1980’s, I didn’t live in Oakland again until about 1990, around my 3rd year at UC Berkeley. After the closing of the infamous student Co Op, Barrington Hall, a rag-tag group of us, some of whom had been squatting at Barrington, consisting of whites, blacks, arab, lesbians, straights, various addicts, and so on, decided to move out of Berkeley. We found a large house in Oakland on the corner of 45th and Market whose owner was willing to rent to us. Rent was cheap, as at that time 45th and Market was pretty deep hood. Grandmas cooked crack in the next door apartments, gun fights occasionally erupted outside, the corner store sold dusty meat and lots of Malt Liquor; the buses arrived when they pleased.
As scruffy a crew as we were, the neighborhood was way rougher, and we became a little Island of pre hipsterism, surrounded by a culture of black hustler survivalism. I soon dropped out of school due to, among other reasons, a lack of desire to wait for the bus to Berkeley, which came randomly and infrequently, and cost money that I often didn’t have. With no job, no cash, and no love, I was in a miserable state. The cockroaches began to take over the house. The lesbian couple turned abusive on each other. Outside our house felt like hostile territory. My nice, good-looking, rich , white female , housemate and friend , with funky dreadlocks, used to walk to MacArthur BART alone, and she told us that she got called every name in the book, and was often threatened by black folks …She was not that bothered by it though..Part of the experience I guess.
Because, of course, we didn’t have to be down in that hood. We all had options, from family money, to educational opportunities. Having had enough despair for the time being, I took advantage of my privileges and enrolled in an Ecology Field Study class through Santa Cruz UC Extension, which found me studying nature in the Sierra Mountains for two months, and which got me re enrolled back in school at UC Berkeley.
It would be a couple of years till the next time I lived in Oakland. Again I found myself in North Oakland, which seems to be the epicenter of the ongoing waves of gentrification. I moved to Aileen Street near 56th. Back then that was hood as well. Black teenagers hustled rocks to burnt out elders on the corners, and the meat was still dusty at the corner store. Punk rockers, such as the original folks at the Purple House, when Mo was still the owner, were the only visible white people on the streets. The old school blues club, Your Place too, on MLK, that is now Loony’s BBQ, was owned by a cool, older black couple, and they started have Punk night on Sundays nights.. That was a scene. Short lived, as was my stay foray into Oakland which was cut short when my house burnt down (and I went to jail for a few days downtown.l..ong story..) I also discovered an interesting thing about gentrification as my house was burning down at 2 in the morning, and all the neighbors came outside, to watch…. which was that there were way more white people in the neighborhood than I realized, they just stayed inside all of the time.
I moved back to Berkeley for a while but Oakland was becoming more like home , and upon graduation I found a 2 bedroom apartment on Webster at 38th, for 450 bucks. Living large! I began to settle into Oakland reality but rght around then, the last of my family members moved from Oakland, and ever since then I have been the only black family member here. Some folks moved to the projects in Alameda, the lower middle class folks moved to San Jose, my mom found a cottage in San Leandro.
Fast forward a few years and many moves later, and I had just become a father for the first time. Booted out of our , $600 2 bedroom, rent controlled spot in Berkeley, due to a new owner move in, my girlfriend and I, with the baby only months old, needed to find a spot to reside, and our income was derived only from my “job” collecting signatures for ballot initiatives. The only place we could find was on Telegraph at 25th, where Art Murmur later sprang from quite a few years later. We moved into the tall, weird shaped building, which also housed a gay bar called Cabel’s Reef on the ground floor. It was pretty much the only business around besides the gas stations, fast food, and street hustle. On the weekends a lot of marginalized, gay ,black youngsters ,would come to hang out on the corner since they couldn’t get in the bar. Inevitably they would start some really over the top yelling and screaming matches, that often led to physical fights. Then the cops would show up eventually and clear everyone out, leaving us on the third floor with only the sounds of the bus (was it the 40 back then?) as it screeched down Telegraph all night long. It was a miserable spot, but had it not been for the massive mouse community that seemed poised to take over our entire apartment, we would have stayed, because it was hella cheap rent.
Down but not out, somehow I managed to get a full-time OUSD teaching gig at Westlake Middle School. Thus we were able to find a 2 bedroom house for about $900 a month, on Linden St. in West Oakland across from the EBMUD station. Now the baby could have some decent shelter. To get to work everyday I would drive past the park at San Pablo and Grand, near where the Holdout now is, and there would always be tons of street folks out kickin’ it, even at 8 in the morning. It was their spot. Given the roughness of the area, which included the infamous Mead Street murder corridor, street folks, and addicts, and hustlers owned that territory. The only time I ever used to even hang down there was when I would go to parties at some friend’s apartment which was near the St Vincent building. It was a spot called the Boogie Shack.. Mostly it was a bunch of black stoners, like me, and we would have jam sessions, talk a lot of stuff, and smoke hella blunts… often. Otherwise, that area was rough even for our Oakland Black Bohemian subset, and generally that area of San Pablo avenue was avoided when possible..Did I ever see a white person who was not a subsisting as a hooker or an addict on the streets down there? Hell no.!! White people were still not out on the streets anywhere within 30 blocks of that area.
And you know what? ….As funky, and dangerous as those streets appeared to be, it was kind of cool that white people stayed far away. If society abandons a whole community and if all some folks have is a sidewalk and a park to kick it, let ’em have it. That area was for the street folks, and on some level everybody knew it. Elsewhere nearby that slowly started to change though. Especially further up towards where I now live , in what is known as the Temescal. White people, and white businesses began to pop up, occasionally at first, but the pace accelerated over time as we passed the turn of the century. Eventually we began to see white folks walking in areas of North and West Oakland that they never were before. And not seeming scared!! …this didn’t really sit well with me or a lot of black folks I knew,. We liked having the streets as our territory, as a brokedown black/Afro Palace where white folks were scared to roam. Maybe deep down we knew that once the floodgates opened, it was going to be a river of whiteness in what was once a chocolate city. Oakland is just to damn beautiful,. and too conveniently located, to avoid adulation from those who once shunned her.
And sure enough, look now. The black population and with it black influence has steadily dropped, and the white population and influence has steadily increased. Whole areas are being converted to white friendly, and thus black unfriendly areas. Of course this is not only an issue that concerns black people and white people, but the race and class tensions are most heightened in the context of that social dynamic.
The great recession of recent years sped up the turnover process, and deepened the wealth inequality that racism has nurtured between blacks and whites. So when occupy hit, town folks like me, and my home girl Alison were already not doing well financially at all. Given that rents were going up, we were both having trouble keeping a roof over our heads. I was a single dad now with two kids, and had been unemployed for most of two years. Alison had been dealing with the after effects of a bad accident and couldn’t work much. So when I heard about a meeting to discuss housing issues, I grabbed her to come with me. We were thinking that maybe we could help folks, and get some help ourselves.
The meeting was at the Holdout, then in its infancy. I knew nothing of this new space that has now become such a central location for radical activism in Oakland. Of course I had been past the building a million times before and was a little shocked at the seeming audacity that folks had to plop down there. Not sure what was up, I thought it was a fancy squat at first. While I am sure it wasn’t intentional, both of us felt uncomfortable, and felt like folks didn’t know what to make of us, a couple of black folks who had not come dressed as occupiers. When we had introductions, and the folks found out that we had both been in RAW, Roots Against War, a powerful radical POC anti-war group from the early 90’s, they perked up a bit. The one other POC at the meeting, although younger, seemed to have known a lot about RAW, which was cool. Still, the meeting wasn’t feeling very welcoming, or pertinent. It was a lot of earnest, well-meaning white people who were experts in different areas of housing issues, mostly around foreclosure defense, and they talked with an air of authority. Meantime me and Alison were both thinking, “I can’t pay my rent, let alone dream of buying a house that would get foreclosed”. I sensed a disconnect, and I think both of us then began to look around at the Holdout, which suddenly seemed like a giant playhouse for folks, and I think we both felt some intense class envy. We wanted our own playhouse! In fact this was a playhouse that wouldn’t be a bad real house for many folks.
It also felt like there was some guilty feelings, or something, on the part of the folks there that day, because they didn’t really explain who they were, or how they got there, and who owned the place. So it felt like me and Alison being there was not comfortable for anyone because we didn’t fit the demographic, or expectations they had. I think it may have really been more a situation of social awkwardness and cultural differences when I look back at it now. At the time, however, it was a painful moment that spoke to some deep seeded wounds, and we left there in a foul mood, and talked bad about white gentrifiers as we went apartment searching for her. (a search that during which our fears of displacement due to gentrification were only exacerbated by the people, places, and prices that we encountered)
Over time I have gotten over most of that. I have been to some good events at the Holdout, such as the Radical Family mixer, and my daughter thinks it is the coolest place ever. I still feel like it is weird though, that the Holdout obviously fuels gentrification to some degree. I know folks work hard, and are doing stuff that they feel benefits the original community, and in some ways one can argue that it has made the area better. But I also am unsure if folks are aware of the steady displacement of black Oaklanders that I have witnessed and described. From the street folks, to the marginalized black gay kids, to the working poor, and the non-working poor, black folks are disappearing from Oakland, and for a long time I felt that the Holdout was symbolic of that trend. Yes it is true that many black folks leave to seek something better for themselves and their families. Gentrification and social shifts are not simple matters. Oakland is still a wonderful, and often heartbreaking place, and I am proud to be part of tha Town. I, however, do mourn the ongoing loss of an Oakland that was a black sanctuary and an oasis of black power, and black positivity. It was a beautiful dream that will manifest somewhere again no doubt.
(an early wave Oakland Hipster/Blipster family…me, mom, and dad)
by Zappa Montag