Will Oakland Lose Its Artistic Soul? 

Members of The Town's vibrant arts community say they're at risk of displacement because of skyrocketing rents, and that Oakland isn't moving fast enough to protect its cultural identity.

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Nonetheless, during last year's budget talks, the city council declined to increase the size of the department or reestablish the arts commission. Since then, OCNC has been working to narrow down a list of the arts community's top priorities and concerns. So far, those have mostly focused on the need for more affordable housing, rent security for studios and creative spaces, and legislation that would immunize pre-existing cultural communities from noise complaints by new residents.

Another core concern for the coalition has been rallying artists to provide input for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan. The city's extensive planning process has been engaging with community members to produce a detailed vision for what downtown is going to look like if developers continue to invest in Oakland — how tall buildings will be, what kinds of occupants they will have, and how much affordable housing will be built. OCNC aims to ensure that the arts community is prominently positioned in that vision, so that the scene thrives in Oakland over many more decades.

Those involved with OCNC, and many groups of artists organizing alongside it, agree that now is a critical moment for Oakland's creative contingent to make demands of the city, and for the city to be responsive to those demands — before Oakland loses its cultural identity.

"To be a world class city, to have all this cultural vibrancy and 'diversity' and all this specialness that everybody talks about, there needs to be a clear strategy to protect that and to grow that," said Barber. "I think our city leadership could really set the stage for some really powerful new policies that could inform cities across the country and across the world."

In the early Aughts, following the first dot-com crash, Oakland's Uptown district was riddled with storefront vacancies, and rents were extremely cheap. So artists began to move in: DIY spaces Mama Buzz and Rock Paper Scissors Collective (RPSC) were some of the first to open up. Others soon followed, and during the next decade, the neighborhood transformed from a rarely walked, crime-ridden district to one with the densest aggregation of galleries in Oakland.

During the mid- to late Aughts, the migration of artists from San Francisco to Oakland started to hasten, as more artists were attracted by the East Bay's affordable rents, its high prevalence of studio spaces, and DIY art culture. And in recent years, during the latest tech boom, San Franciscans have been moving across the bay in hordes, thereby driving up rents even further and making Oakland's economic climate less accommodating to the low incomes of artists.

As rent prices have soared, even landlords who had been sympathetic to cultural spaces in the past are finding they can't afford not to rent at market rate. And the depletion of affordable housing and workspaces is creating a strong sense of insecurity for artists and cultural professionals.

Last year, San Francisco's arts commission conducted a survey of artists that work in the city and found that 72 percent of nearly six hundred respondents said they had either been displaced or were facing imminent displacement from their workspace, home, or both.

Last November, a taskforce appointed by Mayor Libby Schaaf to research artist housing and workspaces conducted a similar survey in Oakland and received more than nine hundred responses. The complete survey results have yet to be published, but a memorandum that the task force submitted to the mayor in late December outlined the main takeaways: While 70 percent of respondents said that they do not fear imminent displacement in their workspaces or homes, the majority felt that workspace and housing costs are the biggest challenge to being an artist in Oakland. In addition, half of the respondents said they are paying month-to-month for housing and workspace, rendering them particularly vulnerable, especially for those in commercial spaces because they have no rent control or rent protections.

click to enlarge Students and other activists marched last week to protest the destruction of the Alice Street Mural. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Students and other activists marched last week to protest the destruction of the Alice Street Mural.

Kelley Kahn, who works on special projects for the mayor's office and manages the task force, said in a recent interview that the results show that we're currently in the midst of a critical window of time during which the city has an opportunity to prevent the same kind of creative exodus that San Francisco experienced. "The time is now to start intervening," said Kahn. "And our interventions may actually have an impact because the artists have not left yet."

But even before the survey was conducted, it was clear that Oakland's artists were starting to face a crisis. For many, that realization came in July when Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a gallery and nonprofit community space that specializes in arts programming for low-income youth, announced that it could no longer afford the space it had occupied on the corner of 24th Street and Telegraph for eleven years. The landlord, who had long worked with the collective's members to keep the rent affordable, finally decided to raise the rent to market-rate — more than triple what the collective had been paying. RPSC had been the last founding member of the First Friday art walk and Art Murmur — its organizing body of galleries — to still exist in the area.


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