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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But according to Kahn and Schaaf, in order to move forward with many of these strategies, it will be crucial to reinstate the city's arts commission in order to work through complicated details. Kahn also pointed out that the last Oakland arts commission stopped meeting because they were having trouble reaching quorum. And she thinks that's because the commission had very little power to influence the city and rarely dealt with heated issues. She and Schaaf also both want the city to resurrect the Cultural Affairs manager position that was cut a few years ago, and for the council to then heed both the commission and the cultural affairs manager's recommendations.

"We also need someone who can just be mindful of the very issues we're all talking about," said Kahn. "About what does it mean to be an artist in Oakland? What kind of support can the city give them? What can we do from a real estate perspective to improve their ability to stay in Oakland? What can we do with our own arts and cultural space that we own? There's a broader scope of work that needs to be held by this unit than they're currently capable of doing."

Schaaf said the city received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the purpose of creating a cultural plan to preserve Oakland's arts and to reestablish the city's arts commission, but that process hasn't started because Oakland needs a Cultural Affairs manager to lead it. Plus, the commission can't be reinstated until the cultural arts department hires more staff to support it, she said. "I don't think there's anyone who does not support having a cultural arts commission," said Schaaf. "It's just that we don't want to ask people to volunteer their time if there's no staff support to provide them the assistance." Schaaf, who has been mayor since January 2015, said she plans to bring forth legislation to the council on February 23 to reinstate the Cultural Affairs manager position.

Meanwhile, the full results and analysis of the task force's survey will be publicly released in about a month, although it could be longer, according to Kahn. Schaaf said the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a major funder of the arts, has agreed to partner with the city to move forward with some of the strategies presented by her task force. The Rainin Foundation recently formed its own working group to conduct a study of Oakland's art ecosystem to identify how best to support those strategies, said Schaaf. When asked for a general timeline, she offered only that "work is underway."

At the most recent presentation for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, which was held at the Malonga Casquelourd Center, the plans presented were meant to reflect adjustments made based on community input. For example, in the uptown area (technically called Koreatown Northgate), planners had applied a "surgical" approach to infill development so as not to displace galleries in the area, and plans for the 14th Street corridor were titled "Black Arts Movement and Business District." The adjustments were somewhat promising, but seemed like baby steps to many.

As he presented, the planning head, Victor Dover, projected a slide that read "Development Without Displacement" in large, bold letters. But toward the end of the lengthy presentation, an older Black woman could not wait any longer. She walked in front of the audience to exit, and voiced angry concerns about local, Black-owned establishments having already been displaced because of development.

Soon, Betti Ono could be the next of those to go.

"We need something implemented right now. Today," Barber told me. "We've needed it before the lease expired, and we've needed it for four or five years, so to say just hold on and at the same time we can't even do business is damaging."

"We're being pushed out," she continued. "We're being priced out, and we need the city to act now. What are you waiting for?"

Correction: The original version of this report erroneously referred to AXIS Dance Company as Axis Dance Group.


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