The Vanishing Underground: Oakland's Housing Crisis Is Also Displacing its Arts and Music Counterculture 

Young creatives who flocked to industrial warehouses are now the latest victims of East Bay gentrification.

Former tenants Mya Byrne, Nate Crane, Nina Aragon, Heather Hankins, Sabrina Sierra, David Montoya, and Raphael Villet (L to R) gathered outside the shuttered artist studio space and venue LoBot.

Lance Yamamoto

Former tenants Mya Byrne, Nate Crane, Nina Aragon, Heather Hankins, Sabrina Sierra, David Montoya, and Raphael Villet (L to R) gathered outside the shuttered artist studio space and venue LoBot.

Young partygoers piled into LoBot Gallery, a West Oakland warehouse and former carpet factory. It ordinarily felt cavernous, but on this particular Saturday night in July there was hardly room to stand. A feminist electronic noise duo used a candle and swathes of fabric in a goddess ritual. An excessively large band performed with nine guitarists. Unframed art pieces hung haphazardly on the walls, most of them priced at less than $5. And there was no stage, so twenty-somethings in stylishly disheveled clothes clutched tall cans and craned their necks to catch glimpses of the performers.

But, despite the room's vibrant energy, the night was bittersweet: It was LoBot's farewell show. The underground artist studio and venue's landlord had discontinued its lease, and the newly doubled monthly rent was too high. It closed for good in late July after thirteen years as one of Oakland's countercultural hubs.

Tenants and the other attendees lamented not just the loss of the space, but also the culture that it fostered. "Our fight isn't just about losing a building, it's about preserving the ability to raise underrepresented voices and offer a safer space to do it in," said Sabrina Sierra, a musician who lived and worked at LoBot.

And LoBot isn't alone. Low-cost and relatively unregulated places for artists and musicians are disappearing all over the East Bay. And now, some advocates worry that Oakland might lose its arts and music underground — the very scenes that produced some of its brightest talents.

"It's a tragedy. It really is," said Stephanie Ornelas, also known as DJ Stef, who's been part of local underground music scenes for decades.

She fears that Oakland will lose its creative spirit if the underground scene disappears altogether. "I'm concerned for young people who are just coming up and getting old enough to go out. Where are they gonna go? What are they gonna experience?"

Over the past fifteen years, many artist collectives such as LoBot set up shop in industrial buildings in low-income areas such as the Lower Bottoms in West Oakland and Funktown in East Oakland. Residents and guests threw late-night events without attracting law-enforcement attention, and took advantage of cheap live-work spaces. These types of venues thrived thanks to many landlords' laissez-faire attitudes. Everything from after-hours raves, punk shows, hip-hop dance parties, noise performances, visual art exhibits — and, often, events that combined all of the above — found homes in Oakland warehouses.

But now Oakland is one of the nation's hottest real-estate markets, partly due to its reputation as a center for creatives. And landlords who previously let artist collectives run amok have their eyes on profits.

Artist advocate Devonte Pitre, who had to shutter his downtown underground venue because of an eviction, said this expulsion of East Bay counterculture is a huge problem. "I feel like, bigger picture, without these places, Oakland's not gonna be as fresh," he explained.

"If we keep driving these places out, what are we truly gonna call home, you know?"


A Legacy of Counterculture

It's a familiar narrative: As San Francisco's tech sector took off in the late Nineties, rising costs of living pushed creatives to the East Bay, spurring Oakland's artistic renaissance. But this oversimplified (and oft-repeated) account doesn't do justice to Oakland's longtime role as a diverse creative hub with its own countercultures — starting with the booming jazz scene of the early Sixties, which earned West Oakland the nickname "Harlem of the West Coast."

Though the history of Oakland's underground scenes isn't thoroughly documented, warehouses, storefronts, and houses doubling as art and music venues prospered since at least the early Eighties. A large number of warehouses — such as The Sauce Factory near Jack London Square — hosted after-hours parties, where people popped ecstasy and danced 'til daybreak. Many of these parties started at 2 a.m., after shows at above-the-board clubs ended.

Patrick Tidd was an Oaklander active in the punk scene at the time, and he remembered these as diverse gatherings. "If you went to a warehouse party in Oakland, it was all different ethnicities," the 53-year-old said. "It was definitely mixed up — hip-hop, punk, heavy metal — and it was always different: The warehouse parties didn't stick to one theme too much."

Ornelas, 54, described the Eighties in the Bay Area as a lawless time for underground parties. "The vibe then — and that doesn't exist so much now — it was a freedom of do-it-yourself," she said.

But there was also trouble that foreshadowed the struggles of today. During the Nineties Dot Com boom, Ornelas recalled many San Francisco warehouse venues being shut down due to noise complaints. This was when the South of Market neighborhood began transforming from industrial to residential.

Meanwhile, warehouse parties flourished across the bay in Oakland, and now-famous artists such as Zion I and Hieroglyphics made their names in the several party warehouses that dotted San Leandro Street in Fruitvale, such as the Living Legends crew's 4001.

Oakland emcee and entrepreneur Dream Nefra remembered the scene as a hospitable place for conscious hip-hop artists with Afrocentric sensibilities, which was important during this time when party rappers such as Too $hort and Richie Rich dominated mainstream clubs.

"It was a greenhouse effect, because you had places for people to be nurtured and cared about, and they could grow to a certain point, before they were planted in the world," the 46-year-old explained. She said that well-known emcees such as MURS and Lyrics Born also cut their teeth at Oakland warehouses.

During this period, Oakland also absorbed San Francisco's house music scene, and East Oakland venue Homebase became a hub for Bay Area raves, even attracting partygoers from the suburbs.

Charlotte Kaufman, a well-known house and hip-hop DJ who goes by Charlotte the Baroness, remembered the rave scene as an inclusive space for people from all sides of the Bay Area to gather.

But as the millennium approached, the 52-year-old said law-enforcement started cracking down, and the scene dissipated. "The police could no longer look the other way," she said.

"By 2000, a lot of us were leaving the Bay Area."


Venues and Safe Spaces Vanish

Visual artist Rebecca Heikkila sat on the roof of LoBot, gazing at the West Oakland horizon on an afternoon in late July. For more than a decade, the 9,500-square-foot warehouse hosted some of Oakland's liveliest experimental performances, dance parties, and community workshops — much like the eclectic farewell show she booked there two weeks prior. Artist residents pooled their dollars to pay for a large common area, and the rooms they rented were big enough to double as bedrooms and studios — despite the fact that the building was zoned only for commercial use.

But those days are gone. Move-out week was in full swing at the end of July, and Heikkila and her studio mates were busy dismantling artwork and hauling large equipment into storage units. After a year of what she described as steep rent increases, she said the co-owner of the building refused to rent to the collective of twenty-or-so artists on a month-to-month basis.

Now, everyone is gone.

"If [LoBot] was zoned to be lived in, it would be so much more expensive. People wouldn't be able to afford it," Heikkila explained. She said that the space was transformative for her art and creativity. "It's kind of an industrial location, so it's in this place where you can have shows and people aren't gonna be tripping out."

And she wasn't alone in benefitting from a cheap and permissive underground scene. But as landlords chase profits from Oakland's hot real-estate market, there are fewer properties that can host LoBot's style of experimental, non-commercial artistic activity.

Vanishing venues are part of a larger web of displacement, one that disproportionately affects people of color, especially Oakland's Black community. For many of the city's young, creative folks of color, underground venues are vital: They establish community and identity when mainstream clubs and arts institutions aren't accessible.

"Whenever people of marginalized identities have access to means of production and physical spaces, there is radical potential," argued LoBot musician Sierra.

A lot of these issues go back to the influx of white newcomers to Oakland, beginning in the 2000s, which spurred a "hipster-fication" of the city and inadvertently created racial divisions in its underground scenes.

For example, the indie and garage rock scenes of this era, which were largely white, received the majority of media attention — and white artists got much of the credit for the so-called Oakland renaissance.

But the late 2000s and early 2010s saw a move toward integration and inclusivity, and this set the tone for the underground scenes of today.

Now, many folks that throw underground parties emphasize creating safe spaces for people from marginalized groups and fostering racial unity.

For a couple years, beginning in 2009, DJs Neto, Pony Loco, and Roberto Miguel threw Hoodstock, an underground mini-festival that went down in various warehouses. They sought to bridge the punk and hip-hop scenes, and bring together different ethnic groups. But as venues became harder to come by, Hoodstock disappeared.

From 2011 to 2013, the West Oakland warehouse Rec Center hosted parties, where acts such as experiemental pop band Religious Girls would play alongside rappers Antwon and Main Attrakionz and cumbia producer Turbo Sonidero. The scene was a crosspollination between people of different creative disciplines and demographics. But the building that housed Rec Center was later demolished to make way for low-income housing.

Historically, underground venues in Oakland have popped up as quickly as they've disappeared. But with the recent and widespread closures and evictions, many fear untapped, low-cost spaces are dwindling.

Party promoter Vanessa Nguyen, of the collective Le Vanguard, recently began throwing West Oakland warehouse events that feature visual-art installations, rappers, and DJs. Similar to the ways that underground parties of past decades nurtured some of the East Bay's brightest talents, rising local artists such as Samaria and Elujay have played at her parties.

And these shows translated to bigger opportunities for the artists. A few months after headlining one of Nguyen's gigs, Samaria performed at Art + Soul alongside R&B legends Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Elujay played Hiero Day.

She said she views the underground scene as an opportunity for people of color. "I went to all those punk warehouse shows, and I thought it was cool, and I thought we needed something like that for our community a little more," explained Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American.

But the 25-year-old said that the property manager of one warehouse she was using recently stopped answering her phone calls. "[He] keeps hearing that the owner wants to sell it, because they want to build condominiums in [the] parking lot," she explained. Now, she thinks shows there are done for good.

It's a familiar story. Telegraph Beach, a punk house in the KONO district, was evicted earlier this year after a decade as a "budget rock" hub where now-famous artists such as Ty Segall once played.

The nearby Ghostown Gallery, another hub for punk gigs, recently shut down after its landlord won a lawsuit against its principal tenant, Damon Gallagher, for illegally allowing subtenants to live and throw parties at the location.

And the City of Oakland deemed a warehouse at 1919 Market Street in West Oakland — which was formerly known as the underground venue Liminal — uninhabitable and evicted dozens of tenants earlier this year (see Darwin BondGraham's news story on this artist space on page eight). Micah Hobbes Frazier's live-work space The Living Room Project — a venue that hosted events such as dance performances and yoga workshops for queer and trans people of color — was among those that got pushed out.

In downtown Oakland, PRIME Development on 15th Street was foremost a clothing store, but also an underground venue. But co-owner Devonte Pitre, who is 24, said that neighboring businesses began complaining about their all-ages and unpermitted late-night gatherings. "We were under this telescope. They were watching our every move," he said.

Eventually, the landlord evicted PRIME. Pitre and his business partner fought what he says was an illegal eviction for the better part of this year, but now PRIME is closed.

He lamented not just the loss of not his business, but also the diverse community that fostered it. "It's crazy how we created such a great place," Pitre remembered.

"And when I say 'we,' I mean every one of us."


Will the Underground Scene Survive?

With all these DIY venues shuttering, former LoBot tenant Raphael Villet said he considered himself lucky. He and several friends were able to rent out a wing of a different artist-studio complex, a former yogurt factory in West Oakland — one that's much more polished-looking than the dilapidated LoBot, and without the illegal living arrangement. But there's a catch: Villet must live with his parents in San Francisco to be able to afford his studio space, and he can't throw noisy events there, either, since it's shared with other tenants.

While the lack of inexpensive space for artists troubles Villet, he realizes it's only part of a constellation of issues facing an increasingly less affordable Oakland: "What's going on now is part of much larger forces and restructuring and changes that are happening in society," Villet explained. "If you want to address the artist issue, how do you prioritize that in relation to all the other issues? It gets complicated."

His patience and attitude will be critical if the underground scene is to ride out this storm of warehouse closures, evictions, and displacement.

The good news is that there are local advocates out there who understand that the underground scene is a key piece of Oakland's arts and culture ecosystem. That it allows young and often low-income artists to experiment and perfect their crafts. That it builds community with little financial commitment. And that it fosters diversity in the arts.

Evelyn Orantes, the curator of the Oakland, I want you to know... exhibit at Oakland Museum of California, has studied how new development can decimate entire cultural enclaves. A prime example, she explained, was the thriving jazz and blues scene of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties in West Oakland: When the federal government began constructing that neighborhood's post office in 1966, many of the area's jazz clubs were forced to relocate. Eventually, the scene disappeared.

"Esther's Orbit Room was a space for local talent to have visibility on a larger platform," Orantes explained, referring to the only West Oakland jazz club that survived, but eventually closed in 2005.

Orantes also cited turf dancing — now an internationally recognized street-dance style with Oakland roots — as an example of local underground youth culture gone global. Without accessible spaces to gather, she said, local communities will lose the ability to define their culture and identity through music, art, and other forms of expression.

"It's about the environment and the circumstances — and the cultural exchange that happens in a community that's experimenting with sound and visuals. But [it's] also just supporting each other and creating the environment for innovation," she said.

There still remain a few spaces for this kind of innovation. Keith Gregory, a.k.a. event producer Tivon, turned a West Oakland house he inherited from his grandmother into a popular underground venue called Regulars Only. He lives there with his roommate, and together they put on shows in their backyard.

Because Oakland has very few venues of comparable size — Venue, Starline Social Club, The Uptown, The New Parish — and booking shows at these places is expensive, the Regulars crew decided to create their own space.

Tivon, who is 34, also said that when Regulars Only started up in 2013, there were few underground warehouses in Oakland that catered to Black partygoers of his generation. His parties, which he advertises through word-of-mouth, quickly attracted a growing audience of mostly Black Oakland natives.

But not everyone has access to a house, especially as property values surge across the Bay Area. This is why the City of Oakland says it is pursuing strategies to help arts organizations stay afloat. In January of this year, for instance, Mayor Libby Schaaf's Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force — consisting of city officials, local activists, and culture workers — drafted a set of recommendations for how to preserve a vibrant arts and music scene.

In November 2015, the task force surveyed 900 artists. Most respondents indicated that workspace and housing costs were their biggest challenges. Half said they were on month-to-month leases for both their studios and living arrangements, making them particularly vulnerable to displacement. This particularly affects studio spaces because Oakland has no commercial rent control.

As far as solutions go, Kelley Kahn of the economic development department said that the city is partnering with nonprofits, such as the Rainin Foundation, to establish a grant or loan program. These funds could help artists facing displacement cover legal fees and rent increases. She's also advocating to change Oakland's zoning laws to require certain portions of new developments in existing cultural hubs to be allocated for arts organizations and nonprofits.

The Oakland Community Land Trust is also involved. This organization promotes permanent community control of land and housing by purchasing properties and renting them at below-market rates to low-income renters. The tenants at LoBot attempted to work with Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase their warehouse, for example. But they said their landlord refused to negotiate with the trust.

Some advocates argue that the city's proposed solutions are shortsighted, because they only benefit established arts organizations. In order to work with the city and nonprofits, the types of loose, informal creative collectives that typically run underground music venues would need to become legit businesses.

Still, some artists and promoters remain cautiously optimistic. Historically, Oakland's counterculture groups are resilient. Vanessa Nguyen, for one, believes that warehouse scenes are so ingrained in the culture that they're not disappearing anytime soon. "We'll figure it out — that's how we figured out [my] warehouse. We were just driving around and talking to people," she said. Then, she paused: "It was not that easy, though."

A few of the former LoBot tenants have relocated to other artist warehouses in East Oakland. One went on tour, because she struggled to find housing. And some moved to temporary sublets.

Even more artists and musicians have moved to Richmond, Alameda, and outlying East and North Bay suburbs. Some Oakland natives live with their parents.

But cheap housing, and especially low-cost commercial properties, is usually only available because of some kind of fluke, or because of the rare benevolent landlord.

So, for now, there's no resolution. And only one thing is clear: Unless market forces change, Oakland's underground scene won't be around much longer.

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