Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is the Dimond a G-Spot
(as in gentrification)?

What does that mean for our community?

The yahoo-group-o-sphere of the Dimond District has been awash for nearly 10 days now with
e-conversation, debate and dialogue about gentrification in our (re)-emerging business district. The whole conversation began from the discovery, or public announcement, about a Little Caesar's Franchise seeking to come into the Dimond Business district. Many members of our community - myself included - felt strongly about not having another cheap pizza place in the district (as there are already several at the intersection of Fruitvale and MacArthur). It's much the same - again in my opinion again shared by many others - in terms of Nail Salons and Cheap Chinese Take-Out places.

Both sides - or at least the emerging poles around which discussion seem to be centered in the ongoing discussion - want what's best for the neighborhood:
1. A safe place to shop, meet and live.
2. Access for all peoples, an affirmation of the unique diversity (both current and historic) of our neighborhood).
3. A diversity of shops and choice.
4. An improvement of the cleanliness of the sidewalks.

Several interesting online articles have been shared in the e-discussion:

Something from the New York Times about Hip-ification and the energy that "gentrification" can bring to a neighborhood: Cheers to Tim Chapman for the link!

The new blogsite for the Japenese Restaurant (Nama Sushi) soon to open in the previous diner located on Frutivale Ave. across from Peet's Coffee.

In my life, work and relationships in the Dimond my experience and participation leads me to the following opinion:

1. I doubt that Pottery Barn, the GAP, or Wolfgang Puck will be seeking to open any high-priced boutiques, restaurants, franchises for the creative class, juveniles and latte democrats that may - or may not - be leading to the gentrification of our neighborhood. There are several great new businesses that have opened recently that are local, small business owners all of whom are not only people of color, but women of color. That's where we need to put our energy, encouraging those kind of businesses and people, versus discouraging big-box, multinational franchises which frankly are going to risk it to "slum it" in the Dimond.

2. Several referred to the historic, and continuing, reality that the 580 splits our neighborhood along a quasi-racial, definite socio-economic line. Of course it's not this black and white. The Dimond has been declining since the 580 was constructed (along with the church that I serve) because of this division of the community. Maybe now we can use the creative energy that's potentially coming with the hip-ification of the Dimond to heal those wounds. Like one person wrote, "There is room for us all."

3. There's a lot of brouhaha about Little Caesar's. We should have restaurants that cater to the diverse population of our hood. I'm not against pizza. I love it, unfortunately even the card-board kind. But why do we assume that "poor" folks won't want quality, organic, trans-fat free food? We should be insisting that non-industrial food places open in the Dimond for all of us, not just those that are game to buy a $20+ hamburger with grass-fed beef (or tofu) with local, organic greens, and on a trans-fat free baguette.

4. Another person added that "neighborhood's are dynamic." TRUE! I've seen so many changes in the past 6 years (hardly anything in the long-term) that I've been present in the Dimond District and Community. We often fear change - "who moved the cheese!" - easily forgetting that change is oftentimes the most opportune moment for growth, maturity, flexibility, adaptability and to be alive. Maybe today is the moment that the Dimond has been waiting for these past 50 or so years? I love seeing - each time I go to Farmer Joe's and Peet's - the diverse population enjoying good - "slow" - food whether arriving in a Lexus, or by foot, purchasing their goods with a platinum Visa or with the change that the collected on the corner. That's the community I want to participate in and belong to - whether it's gentrified or not.

5. I find most folks I meet in the Dimond want to shop and spend their money in their neighborhood. We should encourage that, seizing that energy and building upon it. It's like an upward spiral that might have the potential to bring us all upwards (not in a gentrifying class way) but in a sustainable, holistic community way, vs. the downward spiral that the Dimond has slipped down since the birth of the 580. Most people don't want it to become another Rockridge or 4th Street in Berkeley. They want to shop, eat, and connect with others in the neighborhood in which they live - all in relative safety, with beauty, performing public schools, and the diversity that characterizes our city of Oakland.

If you want to be involved in the effort to impede the arrival of Little Caesar's here's how you can act and be involved (taken from a community email sent by those heading the effort):

  Dear Neighbors:

After learning that a Little Caesar¢s franchise is applying to open
a store in the center of the Dimond District, residents raised concerns
that we already have too many fast food chain stores / pizza
restaurants. An informal survey demonstrated that this sentiment is widespread.

Years ago, our community successfully lobbied for our district to be
granted C-31 designation in order to control the variety and quality of
businesses. A Little Caesar¢s would violate this law since it is
within 1,000 feet of another fast food establishment (several to be exact,
including McDonald¢s, Giant Burger, Subway, and others).

Due to these concerns, city planners delayed approval of the Little
Caesar¢s restaurant. If they hear from enough residents, this
restaurant will not be granted the legal exemptions it needs to operate. Please
contact them to relay your concerns:

Scott Miller, Zoning Manager
smiller@oaklandnet.com; 510-238-2235

Michael Bradley, Case Planner for Little Caesar¢s application
mbradley@oaklandnet.com; 510-238-6935

1. State your name and address (or that you live in the neighborhood)
2. Explain why you believe a Little Caesar¢s will be bad for the
Dimond District (examples: too many fast food chains, already two pizza
take-out restaurants within a block, need stores of greater variety and
quality to fit our desired character for area etc.)
3. Ask them to deny Little Caesar¢s a zoning variance and any other
required approval
4. Thank them for listening

We need to keep track of how many people contact the planners. Please
copy juliemjonsson@yahoo.com and owencenli@yahoo.com if you send an
email or notify us if you call.

Residents and other partners are actively working to recruit more
desirable businesses, so stay tuned!

Thank you,
Owen Li and Julie Johnson


owencenli said...

Hi Monte-

I think everyone would agree with your points above. It seems that the concerns raised about gentrification weren't necessarily connected with opposition to Little Caesar's or efforts to attract more desirable businesses. Maybe folks generally see that the neighborhood is changing and are looking down the road to the possibility that their apartment will be converted to a condo, rents will increase too much, or storefront leases will become too expensive for the new women of color owned businesses you mention. I agree that significant gentrification is unlikely to happen, especially in the short term, but I feel it's good to think and talk about the issue. Also, condo conversions have definitely happened in the last few years.

owencenli said...

oops that was Owen Li

Monte said...

Good point. It's true that the whole housing reality hasn't even entered into the online discussion (don't know if it was talked about at the night meeting at Peet's last week?). The housing context is the one that most of the people I relate with and encounter in the Dimond (and Laurel and Maxwell Park) are facing and wondering about.

I think folks - owners and landlords - whether it's commercially owned land in the Dimond or housing throughout District 4 - are quick to want to see greater income, thinking that raising rents is possible, needed and will contribute in some way to the improvement of our neighborhood community. At which point does greed take over from the "natural" forces of the market? When do we sacrifice the heart and identity of our community in view of financial gain? Some of the questions I haven't yet heard addressed, and for which I don't have the answers.

owencenli said...

These are difficult questions indeed. Imagine if at some point down the line, the very people working to make neighborhood improvements can no longer afford to live here? Granted, the Dimond will never see the type of gentrification you see in other places (like Valencia St. in the Mission), but folks will be less apprehensive about bringing in higher end businesses (and other efforts) if they know that potential housing issues are somehow addressed.