Tech Boom Spurs Changes in West Oakland
Once, you may have gone to West Oakland to hear James Brown or Aretha Franklin play the clubs on Seventh Street. The street was the center of a neighborhood rich in African-American history. NBA legend Bill Russell lived in West Oakland, and the Black Panthers had an office on Peralta Street.
But the clubs closed decades ago and Bill Russell is long gone. In their wake, a new wave of residents are sweeping into the neighborhood — many of them white, and many of them coming from San Francisco because of the tech boom.
According to the 2010 census, Oakland has more white inhabitants than black residents for the first time since the 1970s. Neighborhoods have been changing for decades, but the expanding tech industry is speeding up the process.
Meanwhile, sky-high rents are pushing people out of San Francisco, with many ending up in West Oakland, the first BART stop on the east side of the bay.
Over the last few decades, West Oakland has seen an increase of abandoned factories and shuttered businesses. Danita Robinson, a member of the Center Street Baptist Church on Tenth Street, says for a long time nobody would invest in West Oakland. But she says there is now more development in the neighborhood.
For instance, developers recently built a high-end condo complex in West Oakland called Zephyr Gate. It’s a couple of blocks long and within walking distance from the West Oakland BART stop.
“That was so abandoned for such a long time,” Robinson says. “Now it is all nice over there and Mr. Google and Mr. Doctor are living there.”
Referring to to an old nickname for one section of the neighborhood, she asks, “What could we have put back there outside of these condos that would have been beneficial to the West Oakland area, especially what we call the lower bottoms down here?”
Kenna Stormwell-Gougis lives in a Victorian across from the Center Street Baptist Church. She bought the house a decade ago.
“I was the only white person on this block 10 years ago,” she says, “and now, I would say the block is 40 percent white.” She says lots of new people are riding by on bikes and popping in and out of old Victorian houses.
Danita Robinson doesn’t think of the newcomers as West Oaklanders.
“I call them San Franciscans,” she says. “Why else would you be moving to this area and not another area of Oakland? Because it’s three blocks from the BART station.”Dawn Phillips is the program co-director at Causa Justa::Just Cause. His organization published a report that shows some market-rate rents in West Oakland to be higher than in Rockridge and the Oakland Hills — two of the most affluent areas in the city.
“When we looked at that data it blew us away,” Phillips says. “We did not know that.”
Rent is rising throughout Oakland. The real estate company Trulia says rents increased 10.8 percent in May from the year before. That is the third highest rent hike in the country behind San Diego and San Francisco. The median price for a two-bedroom is now $2,450 a month.
“This is a regional pressure that is being created,” Phillips says. “It is rippling out from San Francisco.” Soon he says, it will hit neighborhoods farther out in the Bay Area.
In gathering data for their report, Causa Justa::Just Cause found an increase in the eviction and displacement of Africans-Americans from Oakland. Phillips says the current demographic change is just the final stage after decades of disinvestment in the area: “We understand gentrification to be pretty long-term, long-evolving historic process that is actually very systematic in nature.”
Ron Lindsey can tell you first-hand how the long-term process played out in West Oakland, where he grew up. His father and uncle worked at the Navy shipyard. He saw that get shut down and the factory jobs shipped overseas. Then the businesses on Seventh Street started closing. He can still point out where they all were — a clothing store, a shoe shine parlor, barber shops, candy shops and night clubs. “All of these were black businesses,” Lindsey says.
After companies outsourced the neighborhood’s factory jobs, the tax base eroded and social services were cut. Unemployment and violence spiked. Lindsey watched as highways and train lines carved up the neighborhood. The elevated BART rails got built right over Seventh Street. Now where there was once music, there is the screech of trains, drowning out everything below. People left. Eventually, so did Lindsey.
Phillips says gentrification is this whole progression, from job loss to neighborhood decay to redevelopment.
Danita Robinson says even though things are changing, there is no way for her to move up.
“I don’t want to be low-rent,” Robinson says. “I don’t want to be low-income. I would like to move up. I can’t afford that condo. It looks nice. I want to be in that condo. But you killed all my jobs, so how am I gonna get in that condo?”
Robinson cleans houses for a living, and her husband works two jobs. The couple is expecting a baby, so she hopes they can find better employment soon.
Note: The caption for the top photo in this post has been updated. The original caption identified the condo displayed as part of Zephyr Gate, which KQED has not been able to confirm.Related