Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Leaving Oakland

Yesterday saw another article in our local newspapers that spoke of the decline of Oakland. "Black population declines in Oakland" articulated what many Oaklanders can tell you of East Oakland in particular, it's turning predominantly Latino what African-American families that could have fled to other area (in larger part the outer East Bay) for more affordable housing, less crime and better schools. Of course in the imploding economic situation of our banks and nation what once seemed like a better housing deal near the delta is actually a sinking ship.

A week ago SFGate ran an article "Violence is why Oaklanders forsake the city" telling the story of a San Francisco Refugee who found good housing, work and a surprisingly good social scene in Oakland. Quickly robbed and feeling unsafe after a firebombing (who wouldn't?) they left Oakland for a new home. Those two articles talk of the long commute from as far as the Eastern Sacramento regional area that people do to work or hang-out in Oakland, happy to not sleep here during the dangerous dark hours of send their children (born or un-born) to local OUSD schools. While our mayor and city structure seemingly don't do or accomplish anything to change the situation many are the voices affirming that a "long commute is better than living in Oakland." Are they giving up? Do they not have what it takes to be an Oaklander? Or are they smarter and have more of a back-bone to make a good, and maybe difficult, decision than the rest of us that stay?

My family only began to dream and talk of moving when we failed to get into any public school besides the one around the corner from our home. At first sight we had wanted to commit to our neighborhood and dreamt of having our kids walk to school. Yet upon visiting the learning institution to find that less than 50% of the graduating 5th graders could read at grade-level proficiency standards and having the kindergarten teacher I observed take a break and leave me to manage the classroom for 10 minutes while I "visited" the school, we choose to try the lottery system for another district school where we might actually be able to expect success. After the depression and despair of the failure of getting in and the existential angst of being a middle-class person type that can't afford a nice enough living situation to attend a public school that is succeeding in more than half of its population, we were lucky - or blessed - enough upon appeal to get into the district school we dreamed of. But it didn't happen until we had gone over to the dark side, doing what we hadn't dreamed of doing, paying the deposit for enrollment on a private school. Through mid-January it's the OUSD time for the lottery school choice system that they call School Options. I find it's the time of year that I most hear people talking of wanting to leave Oakland for another place with better, or just even decent schools.

People love our city for it's diversity in terms of geography, culture, activities and mostly people. Yet all urban metropolises have to be able to offer enough of the basics to retain people [affordable quality housing, safety and good public schools]. You can't just count upon gentrification to make everything all good.

What do you think about Oakland? Why do you choose to stay? Or maybe how is the choice made for you? Why do you dream of leaving?


James H. Robinson said...

There could be many reasons for blacks leaving Oakland. Let's start by looking at why there were so many blacks in Oakland to begin with. Chinese were the predominant minority in Oakland up until World War II. Then, during the war, blacks migrated from the south (mostly Louisiana and Mississippi) to work in war-related jobs. World War II ended, but military and port related jobs remained throughout the Cold War and blacks stayed to work in those jobs. The Cold War ended, the military and other industries pulled out, taking many blue-collar jobs with them. Many blacks are simply adapting, like their grandparents did before them. Some moved "way out" to places like Antioch to take advantage of creative mortgages. Some moved back to the South. Many are moving (or want to move) to Atlanta.

Neighborhoods change, even entire cities change. That's part of life.

James H. Robinson said...

I moved to Oakland about a year ago. I lived in Colma briefly, and lived in Washington DC/Northern VA for 12 years before that. I moved to Oakland because I wanted to buy a home. Although prices were sinking when I was looking for a home in 2007, they were still rather high on the other side of the water. For the cost of a condo in South City, San Bruno, or some other part of northern San Mateo County, I could get a new townhouse in Oakland. In addition, Oakland has excellent weather. Plus it is the geographic center of the Bay Area, which puts it relatively close to everything, especially San Francisco.

I think Oakland has quite a bit of potential. Unlike some people, I don't see gentrification as necessarily a bad thing. I've seen what an influx of middle-class capital has done to neighborhoods in Norfolk, VA; Washington, DC; New York, NY and other east coast cities. I also see the evolution of the Tenderloin and the Mission right across the Bridge. I live in a redevelopment zone and I see the improvements that are being made such as moving power and telephone lines underground and installing fiber-optic lines. The recession is going to put everything behind schedule, but once it finally ends, Oakland will see renewed progress. Hopefully, developments like Oak Knoll will re-start after the recession ends, as will the renovation of commercial real estate such as Foothill Square.

In my life, I have learned that I don't make progress blindly following the crowd. It is often necessary to go another way, this time to Oakland.

Monte said...

Thanks for your thoughtful words. I like your mantra about not making progress blindly and agree with you about the complexity of gentrification, which isn't always, or necessarily, a bad thing. I think it's helping to change a lot of Oakland, in particular the stretch of it I call home from Gleview [Park Blvd] through the Dimond, Laurel, Maxwell Park and up to the area where hopefully they will build up the proposed - and now temporarily shelved - Oak Knoll site.

I find that there are a lot of folks (like us) that love Oakland with the location and the grit, with the diversity, opportunity alongside the need and socio-economic disparity. It is alive, as you say, all cities are. Maybe I love Oakland because it's so easy to see where it is alive, how it's thriving, and where it's merely surviving hoping - and needing - something more.

I think Gentrification gets ugly when it becomes, or comes, at the cost of a particular sub-population of our city, whether that's related to parameters of class, culture, age, race or socio-economic status.

I also think Oakland gets more of a bum rap than it deserves. I don't know how often people ask me if I'm afraid living in Oakland. I rarely am. Of course I know where I shouldn't be at certain times of the day. Yet it's an amazing place, one I'm proud to call home. I wonder what it will be(come) once the economic gloom and depression of today will have been overcome and forward momentum is regained.