Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Dance of the Displaced

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Prince tribute party at Lake Merritt.

A current Oakland Museum of California exhibit, “Oakland, I Want You to Know,” comes off very much as a love letter to The Town. But it’s a weird kind of  love letter, one filled with reminiscence for a paramour you dumped because they weren’t rich enough. The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 30, wants to evoke feel-good memories of a blue-collar city which is unfortunately disappearing right before our eyes – replaced by metrosexual techbros, designer ramen, specialty cocktails, high-rise condos, and spiraling rents. It also wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation about gentrification. But it does so in a way which is both sanitized and awkward.

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Esther’s Orbit Room sign at OMCA

There’s a recreation of the famed sign from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last holdout of the legendary  7th St. strip in West Oakland – a jumping-off spot for blues, jazz, and R&B, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” But the replica doesn’t replicate the energy or grit of that infamous watering hole. It seems out of place in the brightly-lit OMCA exhibition room.  One archival photo taken outside the venue featuring local music-scene luminaries, hints at the Orbit Room’s significance as a cultural institution of Black Oakland, but can’t make up for the loss of the venue, much less the erasure of the once-thriving strip itself. Over the last decade, West Oakland, though still predominantly-African-American, has absorbed an influx of tens of thousands of urban professionals, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of income disparity and cultural disassociation between new and old residents.

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Mock-up of West Oakland BART at OMCA

In another section of the exhibit, the West Oakland BART station is feted. It’s a strange choice, since the station—just 12 minutes from downtown San Francisco, through the Transbay Tube—is itself a symbol of displacement; its construction caused the forced relocation of thousands of mostly African American residents by the time it opened, in 1974. That fact is briefly noted, as is the station’s current attraction to commuters. Also among the artifacts depicting “Oakland flavor” are two recent posters advocating for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. The allusion to community activism, however, feels more like lip service than actual solidarity with Oakland’s liberation struggles. There’s little of the vibrancy which has fused social justice and cultural expression in Oakland for decades – a vibrancy which is very much a part of the current resistance to displacement and the encroachment of gentrifiers. It’s also telling that a photo collage of an Oakland neighborhood – easily the most poignant piece in the entire exhibition – honors the past, not the present. An OMCA staffer told Oakulture that the photographer no longer lives in the neighborhood; doubtless, many of the residents depicted have moved away as well. And despite the homages to local mainstays like Town Park , Youth Radio, and City Slicker Farms , seemingly thrown together at random, “Oakland, I Want You to Know” feels like it’s intended more for tourists, visitors, and new arrivals than for longtime residents.

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Community activism posters at OMCA.

There’s an attempt at cultural continuity with a wall celebrating classic Oakland artists’ album covers juxtaposed with an audio-visual presentation of retro-futuristic bluesman Fantastic Negrito. But it too misses the mark. An LP by Oakland blues singer Faye Carole is a welcome sight. But Negrito’s connection to the tradition of an earlier era isn’t satisfactorily explained, and the neon logo (borrowed from his studio/gallery, Blackball Universe) looks like a promotional display you might have seen at Tower Records in the 80s or 90s, complete with a looped audio stream of songs from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. It’s oddly commercial for a museum piece; if the point was to infer that Oakland is still producing great artists, that point could have been made much more pointedly.

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LP cover of a Faye Carol album.

“Oakland, I Want You to Know” might be Town-centric, but ultimately fails for its inability to effectively translate the immediacy of street-level movements into an institutional space. Revolution is never quite that simplified, and though OMCA tried, their Oakland love letter dilutes the heartbreak of displacement and doesn’t present a cohesive narrative. It feels thrown together in places it should be fluid, and errs by attempting to placate both the gentrifiers and those fighting against them.

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Fantastic Negrito.

Thankfully, like a growing number of local artists, Fantastic Negrito can solidly be placed in the latter category. The Last Days of Oakland is fire, but not just because Negrito has the whole blues revivalist schtick down to the cufflinks on his thrift-store blazer. It’s a hot album because the singer-songwriter extracts the essence of blues and African American rock & roll from its dark, skeletal roots, but also because he injects that paradigm with a timely relevancy, much of it inspired by Oakland’s changing landscape and demographic. Another inspirational touchstone is the new push for civil rights, social justice, and police accountability echoing across the country through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In a new, as-yet-unreleased, video which plays like a short film, Negrito updates the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” by flipping the lyrics to address black mothers whose children are being killed by cops. Elsewhere on the album, there are skits about the changes Oakland is experiencing, a through-line which also works its way into “Working Poor,” wherein Negrito sings about gentrifiers who step over bodies to “sip fancy coffee.” While many of the classic, pre-civil rights era, blues tunes signified cryptically about social inequality, here Negrito articulates exactly what he means.

I feel like it’s over

Him clean my city

Me sell my soul

Him evil genius

Turns working people to the working poor

–Fantastic Negrito, “Working Poor”

The song goes on to address displacement directly (he moved to Stockton, one lyric casually reveals) while maintaining its retro-roots aesthetic. Social commentary, along with autobiographical testimonials, run through most of the songs on The Last Days of Oakland. Many of Negrito’s laments are about struggling against seemingly-invisible barriers to equity; I been knocking on the door since ’94, but they still won’t let me in, he declares on “Humpin’ Through the Winter.” On “The Worst,” he castigates those watching all the suffering, hiding on a hill. But like all good blues albums, there are also heavy doses of dubious temptation (“Scary Woman”) and self-loathing (“Rant Rushmore”) – which occasionally transform into conscious enlightenment (“Nigga Song”). What makes the entire album so current, though, is its framing around Oakland – which codifies it as a historical document, just as Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time” stands as a testament to the Panther era.

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Jam session at Lake Merritt.

Negrito’s album could be a soundtrack for music-minded social justice activists – visible this summer in everything from festivals at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater and San Antonio Park to musical protests against anti-drumming NIMBYS to dance-happy Prince tributes – but he’s not the only local artist making socially-conscious music. On his last two albums, Oakland Riviera and Love and Revolution, pianist-composer-emcee Kev Choice offered a highly musical alternative to mind-numbing “mumble rap.”

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African drumming at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival.

On his latest release, 88 Steps to Eternity, Choice delivers an all-instrumental album which gives a name to the struggle: “Dance of the Displaced.” The track recalls late 70s/early 80s jazz fusion, giving credence to Choice’s credo of “real music that will last forever,” with flurry upon flurry of piano and keyboard runs, alternating forward-pushing tempos with somewhat-melancholy moods.

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Kev Choice.

Which seems appropriate. Because nobody, except maybe developers, is too happy about all the displacement going on in Oakland these days. There’s a bit of a contradiction as well, in some of the rhetorical language being put forth by elected officials and some of the actions of city staff. A recent SF Business Times article  on the departure of Planning Dept. head Rachel Flynn confirms she was one of the prime movers behind the acceleration of development in Oakland, which may have come without a full realization of the consequences for the existing population. Mayor Schaaf has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force and City Council President Lynnette McElhaney has officially designated the 14th St. corridor a black arts district. Yet artists and families are getting pushed out of Oakland as the Planning Commission fast-tracks project after project, while neglecting to fight harder for community benefits and affordable housing units.

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A pre-displacement Oakland neighborhood at OMCA.

How that plays out in the community is one of the salient points of “Alice Street Short,” a rough cut preview of the upcoming documentary “Alice Street”  which recently screened at the All Oakland Mini Film Festival. (full disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold assisted with research for the documentary.) The short features insightful interviews with members of the Afro-Diasporic community centered around the Malonga Casquelourd Center, as well as cultural practitioners and historians associated with the Hotel Oakland, a sanctuary of sorts for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. If you missed the screening, a slightly different cut will screen October 13 during the Matatu Festival of Stories, along with a panel discussion moderated by Arnold, a dance performance, and audience Q&A. The idea is to continue the conversation around displacement, gentrification, and cultural resistance, and to engage Oakland residents further in what could be the defining issue of this time in the Town’s history. Will the dance of the displaced turn into a funeral dirge or a victory march? That part is still to be decided.
 

 


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As Development Boom Bubbles, Oakland’s Arts Scene Increasingly Troubled

Community memebrs discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Community members discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Last January, when Mayor Schaaf proudly preened in a Burning Man-style art car during her inauguration, hopes were high that art would become a priority. After all, Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance had brought national and even international attention to the city, completely remaking an image once invariably linked to crime and blight.

Libby Schaff rode in an art car during her inauguration lat January

Libby Schaaf rode in an art car during her inauguration last January

But perhaps arts advocates should have paid more attention to the fact that the onetime Skyline High cheerleader and Jerry Brown aide was driving around in a motorized snail. Just six months into the new administration, there’s been little, if any, forward progress; the arts community has slid into crisis mode, and city officials’ lack of accountability and direction where the arts are concerned is a big reason why

Two weeks ago, the news from the arts scene was that the Rock Paper Scissors Collective was looking for a new home after it was informed its rent would be rising. Last week, even more portentousness appeared: First Humanist Hall—supporter of underground film festivals, non-profit organizations, and community gatherings—was declared a nuisance due to noise complaints from new neighbors. Then the City Council chose developer Orton for the Henry J Kaiser space over a competing proposal from a group including longtime arts supporter Randolph Belle, which was focused around community benefits (including a workforce development plan, in conjunction with Laney College). Instead of a mid-size arena, hotel, and convention center, the space is now expected to hold tech offices and a brewery.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

Development vs. Art

But that’s not all: Last Thursday, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIA) announced it had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging the percent for public art requirement, which took effect this past February, violated the First and Fifth Amendments. In a press release, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Tony Francois claimed the ordinance “harms the public interest,” although it’s unclear how public art, which is by definition beneficial to the community, could be detrimental. BIA’s Executive Officer Bob Glover called the ordinance “irresponsible” and claimed it would further drive up the cost of housing, even though the majority of the development projects in Oakland’s pipeline have no affordable housing component.

Ironically, news of the lawsuit came just one day after San Francisco announced it was committing $50 million to public art on Treasure Island, an initiative funded in part by SF’s own percent for art ordinance.

“Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.” – Steve Huss, former Oakland Cultural Arts Manager

“Public art is an essential community benefit,” says Anyka Barber, founder and Director/Curator of Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery, noting that Oakland is one of many major Bay Area cities that have adopted percent for art ordinances. According to Craig Watson, Executive Director of the California Arts Council, percent for art programs are common throughout the country; there are more than 300 such programs nationwide, he says. Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, says lawsuits challenging public art requirements are uncommon, but when cases have been tried, “cities have prevailed.”

Developers, she added, “should be proud to support the enhancement of Oakland through public art, [which] really enriches cities.”

Besides SF, similar percent for art requirements exist in several nearby cities, including Emeryville, Richmond, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Santa Rosa, Sunnyvale, El Cerrito, and San Mateo.  Nationwide, percent for art programs exist in 27 states and territories, including Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, D.C., Maine, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont,  Alaska, Maine, Utah, Montana, South Carolina, and Guam. Considering the proliferation of such programs, the lawsuit would seem to have little legal merit. However, it can be viewed as a clear message from developers to elected officials that they run the city, and not the other way around.

Zio Zieglar's recent mural commenorating the 70yh anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Zio Zieglar’s recent mural commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Magnet for Economic Development

As if that wasn’t enough, word is that Steven Huss, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Manager, has resigned to take a less-contentious, better-funded position in Walnut Creek – leaving the fate of an NEA grant to develop an Arts Master Plan for Oakland up in the air.

The cumulative impact of all these developments could strike a crushing blow to Oakland’s cultural arts community, confirming its worst fears about gentrification and displacement and creating a leadership void at the already short-staffed Cultural Arts Department. There’s also a leadership void at the city-funded ProArts gallery, after the forced resignation of Executive Director Margo Dunlap, so Huss’s departure adds more chaos and uncertainty to a muddled situation.

In a 2010 interview posted on the NEA’s website, Huss noted that the arts sector generated $100 million annually for Oakland—a figure which has undoubtedly grown over the past five years—and its overall importance as a “magnet” for economic development.

He went on to say, “In Oakland… the unique character of neighborhoods is best expressed through the arts, and the creation of arts districts can shine a light on the distinctive cultural heritage of these places. Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.”

Detail from Mario Chiodo's

Detail from Mario Chiodo’s “Remember Them: Champions of Humanity”

Despite Accolades, Civic Commitment to Arts Underwhelming

In truth, Oakland’s civic commitment to arts and culture has been anything but robust for years, while diversity has been the first casualty of a rapidly-shifting demographic. The Cultural Arts fund’s annual budget—slashed in the wake of the recession—is less than the amount Public Works spends on abating tag vandalism, and the loss of the redevelopment agency in 2012 eliminated a key funding source for the city’s public artists.

As reported by Bay Area News Group, only a smidgen of the $400,000 approved by the City Council in 2013 for anti-blight murals has been allocated over a two and one-half year period.

The few murals which have been produced via this fund have all but eliminated tagging and blight recidivism, yet some Councilmembers have yet to issue RFPs, even as Public Works spending on abatement has increased 50%, according to KQED.

Detail from CRP's

Detail from CRP’s “Love Arts Music”

Furthermore, city staffers have reportedly lagged in returning calls about mural fund applications, refused to pay artists on time and/or made them jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops, even after murals have been completed. The City Attorney’s office has also reportedly inserted new clauses into artist contracts which require them to give up federal protections known as VARA rights, with no explanation for the policy change.

The City Council’s decision to go with Orton over Belle’s group likely means the end of the line for the Kaiser auditorium, a historic venue which hosted concerts by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Grateful Dead to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Public Enemy and NWA, and reportedly was the site of a historic 1962 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which inspired Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

The apparent loss of a potentially-reactivated HJK arena robs the city of a mid-sized venue whose prospective owners had a commitment to the cultural community which cannot be said of the operators of the Fox Theater – you can count on one hand the number of shows per year there featuring local artists. And the displacement of RPS, the last remaining original founding member of the Art Murmur— an organically-developed event which  saved former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan from failure and made Oakland buzzworthy after years of second-tier status—seems more than symbolic.

Attitudinal Healing connection's Amana Harris (l.) and youth perpare to cut the ribbon on AHC's

Attitudinal Healing Connection’s Amana Harris (l.) and youth prepare to cut the ribbon on AHC’s “Superheroes” mural

‘Sign of the Times’?

“I’m still reeling, wondering how a city doesn’t do everything possible to support education and jobs for low-income communities of color,” said Belle in a Facebook post after the City Council vote on the HJK property. “But then [I] realize it’s the sign of the times,” he added.

While the communities Belle mentions can certainly benefit from investment in the cultural arts, the gentrification wave is impacting everyone across the board – including artists of all ethnicities and anyone not at the upper tier of income levels.

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

On the surface, economic growth might seem like a positive thing for Oakland; however, the boom—mainly confined to real estate and tech—has been a calamity for the arts scene. A few months ago, at a city-convened arts stakeholder meeting , arts advocates speculated on the irony of Oakland’s artists making the city cool, only to find themselves priced out. Although some advocates felt the percent for art requirement didn’t go far enough, it at least offered a glimmer of hope for the city’s artists. But the announcement of the lawsuit by developers could delay or even rescind any commissions under the ordinance, and casts a pall on any future attempts to redistribute the wealth flowing into the city among the creative community.

It seems cruel to blame a newly-minted public art ordinance for the increased cost of housing, considering that last year, before the ordinance went into effect, Oakland apartments had the highest rental price hikes in the entire nation, while overall rental prices were the second fastest-rising in the country, and have ballooned as much as 300% over a three-year period.

Detail from Dan Corson's

Detail from Dan Corson’s “Shifting Topographies”

Currently, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for around $2000 a month, and landlords have been proactive in trying to get market rate for properties which rented for much less not long ago – putting economic pressure on art spaces, especially those in Uptown, the city’s most-visible arts district. As the RPS collective noted, “We are being priced out of our space not because of anything we have done, but simply due to the cold calculus of gentrification. There is more money to be made in this space from something other than community-driven art, and that is enough and more than enough to push us out the door.”

The one positive amidst all this bad news is that the San Francisco Foundation recently announced it was giving East Side Arts Collective $1 million to buy its building, ensuring many more years of community-oriented programming in the San Antonio district. Yet as welcome as that news is, it does nothing to help the arts community elsewhere in the city.

Keeping Oakland Creative

If ever there was a time to organize Oakland’s creative arts community, this is it. For the past several months, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition has been attempting to do just that. Founded by Betti Ono’s Barber—recently named one of the Bay Area’s Top Ten Art Personalities—and artist, teacher, and arts administrator Katherin Canton, OCNC has coined the hashtag #KeepOaklandCreative and holds organizational meetings to try to rally the city’s culture creators around a policy platform which aims to make a sustainable future for artists, by taking a proactive stance against displacement. (Disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold is a member of OCNC’s Steering Committee.) OCNC’s stated goal is to get the city to restore the Cultural Arts Commission (CAC)—another casualty of the recession—a necessary first step in developing greater accountability at the civic level for the arts community.

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber (c.) lead an OCNC meeting

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber
(c.) lead an OCNC meeting

A revised CAC could bring clarity to a confusing, labyrinthine process for artists trying to work with the city. Currently, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Program is under the Economic Development and Marketing department, and its small staff is assisted by an all-volunteer Public Art Advisory Committee. There’s no designated liaison with Parks and Rec (which operates city facilities such as the Malonga Casquelourd Center) or City Council (artists are generally left to facilitate discussions over such things as applying for the anti-blight mural program on their own); almost all direct interaction with the artist community, other than open forum sessions at monthly meetings to review public art projects, is carried out by the department’s one full-time staffer, Denise Pate. Navigating the system is a bureaucratic nightmare at best, compounded by the fact that artists sometimes have to wait up to a year before being compensated for completed projects.

In the case of the percent for art ordinance, the artist community at-large was not asked for input in its drafting, perhaps by design; in the Tribune article, Schaff describes the ordinance as “pro-developer” – a notion which was reinforced during a “stakeholder meeting” also attended by members of the development community and Emeryville city staff this past February.

Fougo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring Brazilian samba legend Jose Lorenzo

Fogo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring ethnic dance legends

At the meeting, stakeholders were asked for suggestions for implementation, yet that seems to have been just a formality. When community concerns were brought up, Schaff’s staff hastily shot them down. There was no review of public art programs in cities other than Emeryville, and the developers—only one of which was based in Oakland—didn’t exactly warm to the idea of having any type of community review or oversight of proposed art projects. Developers, their representative said, don’t like to be told what to do, a statement which now seems ominous in the wake of the BIA lawsuit.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

OCNC’s next meeting, scheduled for this Wednesday at Betti Ono, will be “an important discussion that is not just about a Percent for Public Art program, but raises critical questions about intersectional issues adversely affecting the most vulnerable Oaklanders today- communities of color, immigrant communities, and low income communities,” explains Barber. “Policies which promote gentrification and displacement, she adds, impact “the vast and deep cultural legacies and traditions of our communities.”

The OCNC, she says, wants the city to implement arts-based initiatives which generate economic development while strengthening community. “We need to see a deeper and more expansive investment in cultural equity across the city in all neighborhoods, and we need to see this investment put into practice as a resource and key strategy for creating a better Oakland and a better Bay Area.”

Detail from AHC's

Detail from AHC’s “Superheroes”

In other words, this isn’t just about art for art’s sake, but leveraging the power of creativity for the greater benefit of the community. That’s a good thing – unless one buys the argument that promoting art is somehow harmful to the public interest.

Meeting #2 of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition will be held at Betti Ono Gallery on Wednesday, July 29th at 6:30pm.  Betti Ono is located at 1427 Broadway in downtown Oakland.