Over the past five years, Oakland, California, this blogger’s home, has developed (and this is strictly by observation) a new populations of people, the majority of which are white, that has started to transform Oakland such that we’re seeing a new and unprecedented wave of restaurants and shops, and a kind of political view that’s so apolitical it renders predicting elections almost impossible.
The first time the idea that Oakland was changing in this way came to my mind after talking with person after person at places like The Lake Chalet, The Alley, at the Oakland Grand Lake Farmers Market, on BART, and in general just walking around. Many of the Oaklanders had just moved to the city within less than two years, and only a few were here at or longer than five years.
I was compelled to start this kind of conversational survey because I’ve lived in Oakland, off and on, since April 8th of 1974. And, as a student of city and regional planning, it’s my desire and training to look at urban change, starting with something simple like what people look like and what they buy – something I learned from UC Berkeley Professor and Former San Francisco Planning Director Alan Jacobs.
I was also compelled to start my conversational survey because while I was a columnist for The Montclarion in 1994, I predicted that Oakland, then about 40 percent black, would become a perfectly racially mixed city in ten years, by 2004. The reason for my assertion was rooted in Oakland City Government’s two-decade-long attempt to develop market rate housing primarily in and around Downtown Oakland.
At that time many Oakland elected officials talked in a coded language about the lack of people who could afford market rate housing, and the lack of units of that type downtown – and that conversation was happening long before Jerry Brown elected to run for Mayor of Oakland in 1998. But when Jerry became Oakland’s Mayor and launched what he and Oakland Developer John Protopappas called the “10K Project” the resulting addition of over 8,000 units of apartments and condos in Downtown Oakland was the catalyst for the most dramatic population change Oakland has seen since World War II.
World War II brought the development of a giant shipbuilding industry and steel industry to Oakland, with the Moore Shipbuilding concern leading score of operations along Oakland’s Estuary, and Henry J. Kaiser creating a giant steel, car, and ship making company based in Oakland. Many job-seeking African Americans moved to Oakland to take work in the shipping and steel industry, and work primarily at Kaiser Industries. That wave planted the seeds for the growth of Oakland’s black population, and the creation of new jobs at the General Motors plant in East Oakland, and at other smaller manufacturing concerns through the 1960s and the early 1970s.
Then, starting with the closure of the General Motors plant in Oakland in the early 70s (and which became a shopping center called Eastmont Mall), and continuing with example after example of manufacturing firms leaving Oakland for other parts of the Bay Area, Oakland’s manufacturing job base was already decreasing – the 1980s saw its erosion as the San Francisco Bay Area economy moved to a more service-based one, following an American industrial trend that accelerated in the 1990s. These economic movements, along with an improved racial climate, saw blacks who lived in Oakland move to suburban cities in Alameda County during that time.
By 1994, when I penned my Montclarion column, Oakland was about 47 percent black. That was also just after the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, which saw about 2,000 housing units either damaged or destroyed, but also caused the development of the Rockridge District as we know it today – the millions of dollars that came in the form of Federal Government and Insurance Industry aide gave rise to an incredible set of new homes where the old ones stood, and a population suddenly flush with money. Over the next six years leading up to 1996, Rockridge was experiencing its own mini population boom, and with new restaurants – some that had San Francisco beginnings and opening Oakland chains – along College Avenue.
That was the first wave of whites moving from San Francisco to Oakland because housing was less expensive, and Oakland was starting to be seen as a place that was great to live in – something long-time Oaklanders have always known. But during that time the San Francisco Bay Area media started to refer to Rockridge as if it was a separate city from Oakland, rather than part of Oakland – something that helped the area grow, but didn’t help Oakland as a whole in any way other than financial.
Jerry Brown’s election made him the first white Mayor of Oakland since the early 1970s. Prior to Brown, now California’s Governor, Elihu Harris and Lionel Wilson, both African American, served a combined total of five terms, with Wilson elected as Oakland’s first black Mayor in 1977.
That marked a period of intense African American involvement in Oakland culture and civic life, with events like The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame marking Oakland as an American center of black culture. But as manufacturing jobs left Oakland, a good deal of that cultural activity decreased or went away. The Black Filmmakers Hall Of Fame, founded in Oakland in 1973, and once known for its incredible awards event at the Paramount Theater, is now virtually non-existent, it’s website gone as of this writing.
What Brown’s two-terms as Mayor of Oakland did was to cause institutional investors who once feared Oakland for racist reasons to take another look at our city. Mayor Wilson and Mayor Harris especially steered the development of the “Government Center” of giant buildings in Downtown Oakland. But Brown made Oakland OK for moneyed white people to be in.
Brown’s term as Mayor also coincided with what became the second wave of people, again mostly white by far, moving from San Francisco to Oakland, this time in search of housing Downtown, and with Jack London Square leading the way. Buildings like The Essex on Lake Merritt, opened in 2002, helped to continue the trend, and create the foundation for the dramatic wave of young people, mostly white, who’ve moved into Oakland starting in 2005, and then accelerating with the growth of the tech startup industry in San Francisco. Someone who relocated to Oakland to take a job in a San Francisco tech firm did not hesitate to move to Oakland in search of housing – that person, young and white, represents a dynamic never before seen in Oakland.
Now, Oakland’s Population is that “perfect mix” I predicted – about 25 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic (which includes blacks, whites, etc.), 17 percent Asian, and 27 percent black. But I predict that by 2015 Oakland’s white population will overtake its black population by about 2 percent.
That means the years of racism that has hampered Oakland’s development and growth have arguably come to an end. Now, the talk is more about crime, but even then the conversation seems racially coded from time to time. But that aside, with this new population has some for the most part, a great racial mix, with people of all kinds seen out at clubs and bars in Oakland.
But what I’ve never seen before until the last two years, and particularly the last year, is a set of restaurants where the clientele is almost all white – the Boot and Shoe Service on Grand Avenue comes to mind. That may speak to the regional popularity of the eatery, as I’ve seen people who just parked their car at the parking lot nearby on Grand, look around as if they didn’t know where they were, then stopped and pointed, saying “there it is.”
This new influx of young white people in Oakland has also caused San Francisco media types to take notice. San Francisco 7×7 Magazine sent an email with a link to an article on new restaurants to try in different parts of … Oakland.
And the eateries were, of course, the ‘hipster white’ places like The Boot And Shoe, but failed to include great places like Asamara’s on Grand, which has an Ethopian menu that’s out of this World. It also missed Pican, Michael Le Blanc’s take on “California infused Southern Cuisine” and also known for its incredibly integrated set of food fans. Still, that San Francisco 7×7 would devote that much space to Oakland, as did San Francisco Magazine in 2010, shows you how much Oakland has changed. But I do have one major concern.
Last Saturday, as I was walking down to Gold’s Gym, I felt a set of eyes looking over from across the street. A couple – a white guy with a t-shirt, and a white girl with sunglasses and blonde hair – were looking my way, and then she took his hand. Last year there was a wave of occurrences where I’m walking down Grand Avenue, and a white guy and a white girl are walking toward me, and the guy will switch places with the girl to make sure he’s between us. If they didn’t do that, I’d never have noticed. It’s sad this happens, because it forces me to just move away from them.
Thankfully that doesn’t happen a lot.
What Oakland needs is an event to really bring everyone together. What we need are city-sanctioned quarterly block parties – not just the National Night Out, once a year street gatherings. We should revive “Oakland: Sharing The Vision” where 500 people gathered in Downtown Oakland in 1990 to create a vision for Oakland’s future. We have to take steps to make sure Oaklanders know each other and keep Oakland the shining example of racial diversity that it has been for so many years.