03 May 2006

God Forbid The Neighborhood Should Improve

We've already established, albeit in the face of some protesting voices, that much of Oakland, California is a pretty crappy place, beset with a soaring murder (up nearly 100% over the past year) and robbery (up 55%) rate in the past year, and this tends to keep rents marginally lower than in many other parts of the astronomically-priced Bay Area.

So it's entirely predictable that artists, punks and other similarly shifty characters would start showing up (they could also move to El Cerrito, which offers similar rents and public transport links, but doesn't confer the same hipster credentials), and even more predictable that the fusty old Bay Guardian would be viewing with alarm anything that challenges the status quo of crime-ridden slums, which its editors seem to believe are the rightful province of "the poor" and, of course, the ever popular "people of color."

The Guardian, published by and for largely white, aging baby boomers who still haven't been able to accept that the 1970s are over, has been one of the leading advocates of slum preservation throughout its existence, even while playing its own part in gentrification by moving its offices into the Mission District. That, of course is "different." The Guardianistas are not interlopers, they would no doubt insist; they are committed to being part of the "the community." In other words, exactly what every other artist, punk, hippie, hipster, or businessperson moving into the Mission has said at one time or another.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to see new people moving into the Mission. I never saw the point of those who thought San Francisco had an obligation to maintain a poverty-ridden, Spanish-speaking ghetto in the heart of the city. I'm similarly happy to see adventurous souls who are willing to put up with the dangers and unpleasantness of Oakland, because it's only through many more of them moving in that the city is ever going to change.

And no, all the change won't be better, and yes, at some point it may improve so much that many current residents won't be able to afford to live there anymore. So what's your alternative? Leave it a slum? Let's face it: based on most available evidence, the current residents haven't exactly been the greatest stewards of the land.

The best point, rather quickly glided over by the worried Guardian writer, was that, as one of the new gallery owners correctly pointed out about the lower Telegraph area, very few people live there now. It reminded me of a similar brouhaha about ten years back when we opened the Lookout Recordshop on a similarly bleak stretch of University Avenue in downtown Berkeley.

I wrote a half serious, half tongue-in-cheek article about how we hoped to enliven the neighborhood by making it an interesting and attractive place for new businesses and residents, only to be denounced in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll as an apostle of gentrification. When I tried to point out that many of the shopfronts in the area were vacant, and that almost no one lived there, I was shouted down, which prompted me to remind the writer that he had just moved his business into a warehouse in the Mission. "That's different!" he bellowed (see above), and slammed the phone down. I later learned that he had slammed it down so hard that he broke his hand, which should have provided some satisfaction, but he was otherwise a nice guy, and so it didn't.

Anyway, the Lookout Recordshop failed to prosper and the neighborhood is still bleak and filled with vacancies, so I suppose justice and progress have been well served. Or at least the bums still have plenty of doorways to sleep in, which always adds a bit of color and authenticity to a city's downtown, right? Let's hope the artists in downtown Oakland make a better go of it, though I'm not holding my breath.


kendra said...

actually, recently many new shops have moved into that stretch of university. and the old pet food express might become a trader joe's. your dreams are coming true!

Larry Livermore said...


Actually, I'm not too sure about this Trader Joe's business. I've actually never set foot in one, but I've heard them much talked about. Last night at dinner there was a furious discussion about a Trader Joe's in New York where apparently you have to stand in line (sorry, ON line, this being NY) to get in the place, never mind having to do it again to pay and get out.

This devolved into a still more furious discussion about an even more popular restaurant where the lines are so long that they've installed a webcam so that you can check ahead of time to see if it's worth the wait. (This was a subtext of a larger argument over whether the internet was as useful as some people make it out to be. Needless to say, no satisfactory conclusion was reached.)

Wesley said...

Trader Joe's would be alright if it weren't for all the Trader Joe's people.

But then again, that's my basic excuse for most of my ingrained socially avoidant behavior, e.g., "France would be alright if it weren't for all the French people."

Joe said...

The fact that Trader Joe's has come into this, just a day after dinner, by pure coincidence, is pretty awesome

kendra said...

not as awesome as it would be to live 2 blocks from it. i could go buy my super thick mega juice during commercial breaks of countdown!
anyhow, larry, our neighbourhood might be turning pretty decent. which means i need to move to oakland.

Larry Livermore said...

Kendra, perhaps one day you can explain this to me, but I completely fail to understand this compulsion of yours to live in a crappy neighborhood. Low self-esteem? Middle-class guilt? Hipster envy? Anyway, Berkeley, already in not the best of shape, would be utterly bereft if it lost you and Dickens.