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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"This space has become attractive to wealthier tenants because of the years of hard work we have put into building a community of engaged artists, musicians, and performers, and as a reward we are being kicked out to make way for a wealthier class of renters," read the July 10 announcement from RPSC. "Will they share RPSC's dedication to making art accessible for everyone? Will they be as community-focused? Will they stand in solidarity with the people of Oakland, as we have?"

The physical closure of RPSC (the collective is still doing programming out of other arts spaces) was followed by a series of similarly unsettling events. Also in July, the city declared that Humanist Hall, a community space on 27th Street, between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, was a public nuisance due to noise complaints from neighbors. The city imposed a $3,500 fine and threatened daily $500 penalties if the complaints should persist. Not long after, a longtime West Oakland gospel church, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, received similar threats of fines for noise complaints about its choir. And in September, as covered widely in the local press (including in the Express), a white Lake Merritt neighborhood resident called the police on a group of Samba Funk African drummers playing at the lake, resulting in a clash between drummers and Oakland police.

The issues collided at the fourth OCNC meeting in October, which was held at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. In the crowd of about one hundred attendees was Oakland Museum of California director Lori Fogarty; Pleasant Grove Baptist Church pastor Thomas A. Harris III; Samba Funk African drummers; and curators, dancers, and visual artists of all stripes — all airing grievances about Oakland's apparent cultural shift. At one point, Pastor Harris took the floor to passionately demand that the church community be included in the coalition's campaign. In the moment of tension, Barber made it clear that she felt every issue that had been brought to the table was part of one complex struggle to fight displacement and cultural erasure in Oakland. "The issues that are impacting the churches are the same issues that are impacting the arts and culture community," she asserted. "It's not separate."

Marvin X Jackmon, a West Oakland native, co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, and seminal writer on Black radical politics, can often be found across the street from Betti Ono Gallery, at the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street, where for years he has set up his "academy on da corner." There, Jackmon works to preserve Oakland's legacy of Black radicalism — for which the 14th Street corridor has historically served as an anchor — while urging pedestrians to wake up to the reality of the Black struggle in America.

click to enlarge Marvin X Jackmon was a crucial proponent of the Black Arts Movement and Business District. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Marvin X Jackmon was a crucial proponent of the Black Arts Movement and Business District.

For the past year, Jackmon has also been an essential advocate for a resolution — sponsored by city council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney — to create a Black Arts Movement and Business District along 14th Street, from Oak Street to Frontage Road. The stretch includes Betti Ono, Geoffrey's Inner Circle, the Niles Club, Joyce Gordon Gallery, Club Vinyl, The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, and a number of other longtime Black-owned businesses.

The Oakland City Council unanimously passed the resolution on January 19. As is, the official designation only entails signage for the district — Jackmon envisions Pan-African flags flying above the street. But proponents hope the council will also enact legislation that will ensure community members have a powerful voice in how the district develops and are protected from displacement. In a recent interview, Jackmon said that his ultimate goal is to build a trust fund that would allow for community members to acquire the buildings that their businesses inhabit. "The main point is how do we maintain the longevity of this district after what we went through in West Oakland, in the Fillmore, and what Harlem is going through right now?" said Jackmon. "It's the same thing, so even if you build it, will it stand? And how long will it stand?"

At the January 19 council meeting, when the resolution was passed, a number of prominent community members urged councilmembers to not let the designation prove to be an empty gesture. "This is the first step, and I appreciate it, but there's so much more that we need to do to ensure that we don't become a relic and this Black Arts District is not just superficial, but we actually have Black bodies that are living in the city that can continue this legacy of artistic engagement and Black businesses," said Carroll Fife of Oakland Alliance, a coalition for racial, social, and economic justice. "Folks at the Malonga Casquelourd Center ... will they be able to impact the decisions that could displace them? Like the condo that is going up in front of the mural across the street from [the Malonga Center], what kind of say will these individuals who are part of this district, and who are business owners, have in the development of the city moving forward?"

Fife was referring to a 126-unit condominium project that's planned for a parking lot across from the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a historic home to some of Oakland's most vital dance communities, such as Bantaba Dance Ensemble; Dance-A-Vision Entertainment; Diamano Coura West African Dance Company; Dimensions Dance Theater; and AXIS Dance Company, a company that works with disabled dancers. Members of the Malonga community have opposed the development in part because it would cover a large cultural mural that was the product of a three-year effort by the mural arts organization Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP). The mural project cost $80,000 — and nearly half of the money came from Oakland's cultural funding program.


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