So Long, Mesh Hats 

Oakland's art scene is creeping out of the low-budget shadows.

In the shadow of San Francisco, the denizens of Oakland take a certain pride in their penniless lifestyles. Defiantly independent, virtually oblivious to notions of wealth or ambition, and notoriously fond of ironic mesh trucker hats, the artists here laugh in the face of "making it." Art and music are showcased whenever and wherever possible, be it on the degraded walls of an illegal warehouse or through the crappy speakers of a run-down bar. This contributes to Oakland's distinct charm, but it also conspires to keep much of our best cultural contributions permanently underground. That is, until now.

Despite being a huge industrial warehouse in a semi-degraded neighborhood in West Oakland, the Liminal Gallery is quite elegant. Hark back now to a couple of Saturdays ago, when it hosted a party thrown by Kitchen Sink magazine, a celebration and fund-raiser coinciding with the release of the quarterly rag's third issue. Under Liminal's thirty-foot ceilings sat a well-stocked bar, pools of colored light, plenty of couches and chairs, more than enough floor space to play full-court basketball, and, when the event got going, approximately four hundred party-goers. In other words, this live-work warehouse actually felt like a gallery, and the gathering actually felt like an art opening.

Some of us forgot we were even in Oakland at all. Was this SoHo in the early '80s? Williamsburg in the early '90s? Hell, even local celebrities turned out. It was all so exciting that some of us couldn't help lapsing into our best Joan Rivers impression.

Hey, it's Evan Rehill, vocalist and guitarist for the San Francisco art-rock trio Caesura! Hey Evan, what are you wearing tonight?

"I came here in my lavender wife-beater. I got it in a thrift store in Maryland."

How fashionable of you, Mr. Rehill! And wait, hold on, there's George Chen, writer, rocker, and CEO of Oakland-based Zum Enterprises. George, you're looking fabulous: What are you wearing?

"I have an XBXRX T-shirt on and these socks. If you run over to Gilman you can get a pair."

Any exciting projects in the works right now, George?

"Yeah, I'm gonna try and put up a wall in my house and maybe try to put up a fence in my yard, 'cause we're gonna get a dog."

Okay, so it's not exactly the red carpet. Nevertheless, it was definitely a Scene. People dressed up. There was static in the air. Clearly, fresh juice is flowing through the Oakland art/music scene's veins.

The Kitchen Sink shindig was Oakland at its best. You had a clean, well-lighted place for art, performances by two of the Bay Area's best bands (Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu), and a fashion show put on by Oaktown Stitchdown, a collective of Oakland-based fashion designers.

And speaking of fashion, get this: In a crowd of five hundred people, only three -- count 'em, three -- individuals wore mesh trucker hats. If that's not an indication of progress in Oakland, what is?

For Antonia Blue, Kitchen Sink's co-publisher and arts editor, Oakland's "just always been a place where the cast-offs of society came when they couldn't stand New York and were just sick of LA," she explained. "Since the beginning of the Bay Area, a lot of people have come here to reinvent themselves and have a more accepting community. And I think that that tradition totally lives on."

Oakland is a melting pot if ever there was one. At the very least, the people of San Francisco are tied together by the simple fact that they can afford to live there. From the moderately priced apartments to the dirt-cheap space available in one of Oakland's many warehouses, even the most financially troubled twentysomething can find shelter here. But with affordable housing comes a problem as well: No one has any money. Consequently, the bars are dives, the venues are dives, and warehouse parties, while extremely fun, are always dingy. In short, there's simply no glamour in Oakland, no glitz or shine. And movements lacking glitz are typically ignored by those who keep track of such things.

But Kitchen Sink and its Oakland-based contemporaries -- arts organizations such as Oaktown Stitchdown, Oaklandish, Lunchboxing, and Nonchalance -- are celebrating Oakland's own unique take on glitz, glamour, and shine. Is Oakland finally turning into the arts mecca that some of us always suspected it could be? Who knows. At the very least, events such as these are one hell of a good start. Maybe Joan Rivers will show up next time.


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