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Tech Boom Spurs Changes in West Oakland

| July 15, 2014
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Zephyr Gate, a new condo complex several blocks from the West Oakland BART station. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

A new condo complex several blocks from the West Oakland BART station. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

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.

Esther's Orbit Room

The now-defunct Esther’s Orbit Room on Seventh Street in West Oakland. The unassuming club played host to many greats of jazz, blues and R&B, including Etta James, Al Green, B.B. King and Tina Turner. (Photo: RadioNicole/Flickr)

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.”

10th and Wood

10th and Wood, a new sandwich shop near the Zephyr Gate condo complex. (Photo: Sam Harnett/KQED)

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.

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Category: Housing

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About the Author ()

Sam got his start in radio at WAMC in upstate New York. Before moving to the Bay Area, he graduated from Middlebury College and taught English in Lombardy. After volunteering and reporting for KALW, he joined KQED in 2010 as a local news intern. His work now appears regularly on Marketplace, The World, KQED News, and The California Report. Reach Sam Harnett at samharnett@gmail.com.
  • West Oakland Local

    This is the most uninformed piece of garbage I have ever heard. So just because new whites are moving in, they must be pushing people of other races out? How many new comers are living in houses once abandoned? Or the fact that West Oakland had a high rate of African American homeownership, and that they are gaining wealth as new investments come to the area. Where is that story? Clearly non of you writing about West Oakland know a thing about it or live here. Most of the whites that have moved here in the past few years are just as broke as everyone else. They are economic refugees. NO ONE would willing live in an area where there are ZERO police services unless your bleeding from gunshot wounds and poor whites are treated like the enemy because they are perceived to be wealthy.

    • killafornia

      You should check out PBS’s video about the Fillmore district it really backs up what the author is saying about gentrification being a long term process that destorys communities and is allowed to happen by city officials . http://www.pbs.org/kqed/fillmore/learning/story.html

  • Oaktown Port

    Some good facts in this story. Especially the point regarding more whites moving in. Plenty from San Francisco.

    I wouldnt agree with WOL about only poor whites moving in. I have met many many white people with big paying jobs and disposable income. I had other choices to buy my place but I did my homework and new WO was going to be hot. I couldt afford a $1.5 million dollar condo in SF but I could of chosen many other places to live. Guess what…it paid off. Go out and meet these new people. You will see that there are some really cool people living here now. No one owes anyone anything. If you cant afford it…gotta go. Its no ones fault a person can afford it any longer.

    • Daniel Burns

      I was grateful to be able to afford the condo I own in West Oakland. I miss SF but this is home now and I do my best to be involved in this community, to make it a better place for all who live here.
      Doesn’t matter who lives here anymore, we are a big melting pot of everything. I’m pretty sure that 99% of my neighbors of all races and religious background and sexual diversity, have a moderate to average incomes who reside in our building. If there are rich folks here then they haven’t flaunted it.
      In SF I lived in the same building for 22 years and rarely interacted with the neighbors, at PLC we have monthly Sunday Brunches, Loft Crawls, Movie Nights, Neighbor Get-Togethers and FB fights, it’s actually a community like a community should be and everyone is invited.
      I feel pretty blessed to be apart of this new Chapter of WO, its gonna be an amazing transformation over the next few years.
      BTW when I was a kid I lived in a home where we were on assisted living and mom worked two job to support 6 kids. I have learned to never take anything for granted. Peace Out and come to WO and live the dream.

  • Jules Macaluso

    First off, the author has the wrong name of the complex in the photo. It is the Pacific Cannery Lofts. Zephyr Gate is the townhouse complex next door. I have lived in Oakland on and off (mostly on for the last 16 years). I bought a loft at PCL almost 3 years ago. I bought in West Oakland because of the location and the diverse group of people that live here. I am frustrated by the number of articles that are bashing newer residents to West Oakland. It seems to me that the reporters are not interviewing people that are active in the community. If they had, they would find out all of the positive things that people are bringing to the community. For example, residents at PCL and ZG organize annual National Night Out events for our local community which includes long time residents in the neighborhood and residents from Iron Horse, a low income property with approximately 100 children. We do all of the fundraising and event planning for the event. Other examples include graffiti clean-up, trash pick-up from the truckers going to and from the Port of Oakland, attending Neighborhood Crime Prevention Meetings to help increase police presence in the neighborhood. We are also active with the City of Oakland to bring awareness and more funds to West Oakland. There are more examples of these positive impacts that people of all races are bringing to West Oakland. Personally, I’m in the process of starting a non-profit for Oakland youth called West Oakland Wonderful Explorers. I hope to take children ages 7-18 on field trips beginning this Fall. I invite all reporters to come interview residents that are active in our growing/changing community to discover the positive things happening to West Oakland as a result of people who have lived here for less than 10 years.

  • Patti W.

    KQED — I expect better reporting than this from you. You didn’t get the most basic facts straight and didn’t bother to reach out to anyone in the “new development” you write so fondly about.

    Let me help you by sharing an article written in 2004 (yes 10 years ago!) about neighbors who fought for the development you write disparagingly about now NOTE: the city presented options for car lots or big box retailers or commercial space but the neighbors said, “can’t you come up with something better than that?” — ironic since you quote someone in your article saying this now 10 years later…???)
    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Central-Station-finally-on-track-in-West-Oakland-2485653.php
    And another written in 2009 about Central Station. http://www.insidebayarea.com/oaklandtribune/localnews/ci_13017143

    KQED — PLEASE DO YOUR JOB otherwise you can bet Ms. Self-employed Contractor who has been living at Central Station for 5+ years won’t be sending you her hard earned dollars to support such blithering crap in the future.

  • Patti W.

    Correction — the article is from 2006, not 2004.

    But one more thing to add, your title is completely misleading. The Tech Boom is definitely spurring changes everywhere in the Bay (and probably contributing to the rising rents in West Oakland), but suggesting it is what caused the building of the housing developments you mention in your article is 100% FALSE. Those were in process in 2004 and before….and completed and fully inhabited well before the current Tech Boom.

    I think it is your responsibility as a respected new entity to correct your mistakes publically.

  • Daniel Burns

    The Building in the picture is actually another complex Pacific Cannery Lofts, that was planned a long time ago in conjunction with Zypher Gate and the affordable apts. complex called Iron Horse building started in 2007 and selling began in 2009 after the bust of the housing market.
    I bought in 2013 and there was still over 30 units for sale three years later. For the price I paid for my condo it would still be $100,00 lower then a BMR selling in SF or Emeryville. They were practically giving them away and some of my neighbors I am sure got in here with 3% down and a FHA loan and even assistance from the city of Oakland first time buyer program.
    So when this article says that some house cleaner and her husband with two jobs couldn’t afford to move in here, then they didn’t make enough to qualify for anything over $175,000
    With 3% down that would be the price of what rents are today.
    Also the Bart tracks were built 40 years ago and the change started to happen in WO when the 89 earthquake destroyed the 880, its was like the wall came tumbling down, some residents said it was a good thing because the nasty old freeway that divided the neighborhood made it open again and slowly investors have come in and started building new buildings over the last 20 years. There is still no major shopping ct and the streets are still crappy with pot holes.
    This article is very misleading and full of old crap that just isn’t true.

  • Whiteandpoor

    News flash. The white people renting in West Oakland are poor too. The landlords, investment groups, and rental agency are to blame for the gentrification. While the rest of us are at work they “float down from the hill” in their luxury foreign cars doing the dirty work of displacement.