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The couple departs early, if only because they want a bite to eat and the requisite cafes haven't yet moved in. One of the few black people in the crowd gives his name as Rich. Clad in a Rams football jersey, the thirtysomething neighborhood resident says the Art Murmur has been a good thing. "About time," he says, visibly sauced from hanging out at Cabel's Reef, a nearby dive bar. "You got all these people mixing black, white, Mexican, Korean. I mean, it's always been black and Mexican around here, but now ... yeah. About time."
The party is indeed mixed, if skewed white. Yet the one place on the block of 23rd and Telegraph that looks exactly as it did before is the seedy-looking Cabel's Reef. Pretty much every night, the bar, which features soul music on a 1960s-era jukebox, is frequented by older black men playing cards, dice, and dominoes. Many wear wraparound shades even though it's 11 p.m. and you can barely see past the pool tables to the back door. Most of the bar's patrons are fifty and up, a bizarre counterpoint to the young scene outside. And although the Murmur crowd writes off the place as a hideout for local hoods, Cabel's Reef is in fact an African-American gay bar, and has been for twenty years.
"You see the line out front," says Sandy Gaines, with her one good arm indicating the property line outside that separates the bar from the Rock Paper Scissors gallery. "That's the new Mason-Dixon line. It's right [she stabs at the air] there."
The 61-year-old Oaklander wears a white denim jacket and cradles her right arm in a sling she tore her rotator cuff at work and needed surgery. "I'm a teacher," she says. "Not an educator. An educator is the name for someone who's embarrassed to call themselves a teacher."
Gaines graduated from Mills College with a degree in art ("president, class of '73," she notes), and teaches at the Five Keys Charter School in a San Bruno women's jail. Tonight, she is one of Cabel's more gregarious patrons. As such, she gets the job of speaking to the only white boy she's seen there in months. Gaines, for one, is a little pissed off about the Art Murmur. "Look at this," she says, pulling out Sabar's own Art Murmur brochure. She points to the headline: Invade Through Art.
"Poor choice of words," she says. "Poor choice. It's the lack of inclusiveness," Gaines gripes. "I had to read about this in the Chronicle. They didn't come talk to us. I have a degree in art. We have a gallery space upstairs we could use. They never came to us. And what the Chronicle refers to not only offends me, it hurts me. They say that's there's nothing here but crackheads and homeless people. That, to me, is a slap in the face. We have those elements, but we also have residents who've been here for their whole lives. We're invisible."
The actual Chronicle quote was: "Art Murmur takes place ... in a neighborhood that used to be better known for heroin, homelessness, and hookers."
It's true that the ZIP code encircling the Murmur has its fair share of problems. The Oakland Police Department's CrimeWatch II database tallies 642 crimes in 94612 for April through June. Among them: 238 thefts (including vehicles), 107 narcotics crimes, 78 assaults, 64 robberies, 61 burglaries, 60 vandalism/disturbing the peace reports, 9 prostitution reports, one arson, one rape, and one homicide. That's as bad as some other neighborhoods, but better than others. By the Chron's logic, of course, Oakland in general could be associated with heroin, homelessness, and hookers.
Actually, what the neighborhood used to be better known for is being predominantly black. Oakland is a black city its African-American population of 36 percent is three times that of America as a whole, and five times that of the greater Bay Area. The black population in Oakland's flatlands, which include the Murmur turf, has ranged from 65 to 90 percent over the past century. But the vast majority of Art Murmur proprietors, artists, and visitors have been white. Once a month, they completely flip the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood that has been predominantly black since 1850.
That the hipsters ignore this history and operate within their own little bubble irks Gaines. "It's just classic insensitivity," she says.
Blacks first started to arrive in the Bay Area back in the Gold Rush days, and successively larger waves moved here during World War I and World War II. They settled Hunters Point, Richmond, and Oakland where there was work to be had in the factories and shipyards, and a solid black middle class emerged. But the collapse of the postwar local economy led to an industrial decline that continues to this day. African Americans helped build the cars, freeways, and malls that literally drove off with their tax base during the suburbanization boom of the '60s and '70s. Ringed by better housing, jobs, and shopping, inner-city Oakland began to decay and convulse with gang violence.
In the late '90s, Mayor Jerry Brown's 10K plan defined a new tactic: If you can't get people to visit Oakland, then, by God, get them to live here. Priced out of San Francisco by the dot-com boom, many artists had already discovered this path. As rents skyrocketed, they looked to the East Bay instead.
Oakland, however, is no longer cheap. Although the real-estate frenzy is now petering out, the median home price in Oakland shot up 48 percent between March 2005 and March 2006. Still, Oakland housing remains 30 percent cheaper than that of the greater Bay Area. Brown's plan lowered economic barriers to development and streamlined the planning process, and has led to more than five thousand new housing units either built or approved. On another front, the city's redevelopment agency has helped cut downtown's storefront vacancy rate from 25 percent to 12 percent with $88 million in facade improvements and matching grants for capital improvements. As a result, Oakland's business tax revenues have increased significantly.
The world is hip to Oakland's cheap supply of central housing and retail space, and everyone wants a piece of it, from multimillionaire investors and middle-class entrepreneurs to the recently graduated children of baby boomers who've been priced out of the big city. Gaines questions where the kids came from: Well, it took more than a bunch of postcards. The Art Murmur was born into an atmosphere where billions of dollars were changing hands, and gentrification already was written on the wall.
With this latest influx, downtown Oakland's "invisible" residents feel they're taking a backseat to the newcomers, who play by their own rules. Retired longshoreman and lifelong resident Gene Ward, 72, says he's no racist. His ex-wife had a daughter with a white man, and everyone is close. But he can't help but be irritated by the Reef's unwritten agreement with the police. "No more than five people outside," Ward says. "No drinking. Yet there are about six hundred white kids blocking the street, drinking from open containers, and no one cares."
"Duh. If there was six hundred black people drinking in the street, there'd be fucking barricades!" concurs Marcel Diallo, a black artist and longtime resident of West Oakland. "Let's talk about something that everyone doesn't already know."
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