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Notes from a gentrifier

Tuesday 7th October 2014

In Oakland, small talk doesn’t centre around the weather. Instead people ask where you’re living, where you’ve moved from, how much rent you’re paying, and how the area is changing. And whether I like it or not, by choosing to live here I’m part of it.

While revitalisation of a neighbourhood can be associated with lower crime, it is also associated with higher housing prices and forced evictions.

Photo: Darian Woods

My new flatmate Raul laid out a map in the kitchen one morning soon after I arrived.

“The techsters are all over Emeryville now,” he said, tracing his finger over it. “And Piedmont would be where you’d go if you were a wealthy person of colour. But not so much anymore.”

I moved here to study for a Master’s in public policy. Before arriving I had read about the Bay Area’s tech scene, changing demographics, and struggle for housing, and talking to people reinforced how strongly this change was being felt. Whether I was at art exhibition openings, class lectures or on the street walking my dogs – most people I met would raise gentrification as their go-to conversation starters.

Gentrification might start as students and artists take advantage of cheap rents close to town. The presence of people with middle-class backgrounds fuels demand for shops that cater for middle-class tastes. The displacement of poorer residents changes the perception of a neighbourhood’s safety, further increasing the desirability of the neighbourhood to increasingly affluent newcomers.

In New Zealand, suburbs like Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Aro Valley and Newtown are experiencing the symptoms: rising house price, new restaurants and cafes, and communities losing touch as low-income renters can’t afford to stay.

WATCH rapper and poet Dominic Hoey take a tour of Grey Lynn as it used to be.

What is striking in Oakland is the pace and scale of the upheaval. In 1990 the community was 44 per cent African-American. By 2010 that figure had dropped to 28 per cent.

Long-time residents are motivated to resist it. In August a local campaign called Gentrification Stops Here raised $40,000 in five days, far exceeding its $10,000 target. Local rapper Chinaka Hodge puts it pretty succinctly: “Kill a hipster, save your hood”.

"The commercial and social fabric of the area is changing, primarily because of people who talk, look and dress like me."

Photo: Raul Betancourt

My morning route to lectures reveals parts of Oakland’s history. The smell of morning marijuana lingers in the neighbourhood as I cycle over cracked roads covering the concreted Temescal Creek where the Huchiun tribe once caught rainbow trout.

While I’m at ease as I park my bike under the gothic towers of nearby Berkeley, I am challenged by Oakland. Over the last 300 years the area has been claimed by Spanish conquistadors, ceded by the Mexican Government, home to an influx of San Franciscans following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a hub for car factories as the motor industry boomed.

The city suffered a vivisection through its heart as motorways and train lines were built in the 1960s, and it is now hosting a new influx of artists, students and young families priced out of San Francisco, displacing long-time Oakland residents following a wave of subprime mortgage foreclosures.

At the border of Oakland and Berkeley there are giant copper letters spelling “Here There”, as an homage to Gertrude Stein’s quote about the city she once knew being replaced by car factories. “There is no ‘there’ there,” she said about her demolished neighbourhood.

From a long-term perspective, there is nothing new about what’s happening now. Yet we can easily forget the pain neighbourhood displacement can cause – and how certain policies and attitudes can exacerbate it.

I’ve lived in gentrified neighbourhoods before, but only at the end stage, when young professional families have already moved in.

My father moved to Aro Valley in 1979 and he recalls bikie gangs eyeing him up as he walked home through Aro Street. By the time I arrived in the neighbourhood in 2011 the closest we’d get to that experience would be an affable crew of hipsters playing fixie bike polo.

“The standard of dress has improved,” my dad observed on a recent visit back to the valley. “It certainly looks more ‘with it’ than in earlier days.”

Ninety-two people were murdered last year in Oakland, a city about the same size as Wellington.

Photo: Darian Woods

Oakland is different. It’s historically had the highest crime rate in California, often higher than Compton. Per capita, there are 12 robberies for everyone in New Zealand. A Catholic church here has 92 white crosses in its garden, each representing a person murdered last year in the city, which is the size of Wellington.

But Oakland is a strong community, with group picnics held by Lake Merritt and street posters advertising neighbourhood-wide marches for peace. Stopping for a red light, I looked up and saw a sign commemorating the Black Panther Party for guiding pedestrians through a busy road which led to the city installing new traffic lights in 1967. Tupac Shakur summed up the community pride well: “If I’ma claim somewhere, I’ma claim Oakland.”

While a revitalisation of a neighbourhood can be associated with lower crime and investment in an area, it is also associated with higher housing prices and forced evictions.

“As an agent, it’s so fun to sell the neighbourhood,” local realtor Linnette Edwards says on her online promotional video. “I can see this revitalisation taking place, this buzz taking place. It’s almost like this best kept secret and it’s totally taken off.”

Oakland community garden collective Phat Beets Produce remixed Edwards’ video with subtitles such as, “Considering it’s been historically well known as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party as well as home to black families and working-class folks for over three generations … best-kept secret from who?”

Real estate agents assist with gentrification by identifying and marketing neighbourhoods to people with a willingness to pay higher prices. Like “flippers” – speculators who buy rundown houses and quickly resell these houses to wealthier individuals – realtors are seen as exacerbating the problem by community groups such as Phat Beets.

While grappling with issues as large and complex as gentrification and housing affordability it can be tempting to focus on a scapegoat. Marketing makes a difference to the demand for a neighbourhood, but is it fair or proportionate to blame one small link in the chain?

“I’m torn because I’m latino and grew up in a latino neighbourhood,” my flatmate Raul said as we drove through the Mission District in San Francisco. “But I’m also a gentrifier: I go to yoga, I drink aeropress coffee, and I shop at the produce market.”

Raul is a chemistry teacher at a private high school in San Francisco. He echoed the anxieties, frustrations and ambivalence of most people I speak to. Are we doing a disservice to the community by living here, simply because we’re different to our neighbours? What’s the alternative? Do we instead pay more rent and live in San Francisco or Berkeley, contributing to higher prices there instead?

These are the questions of a gentrifier. I’m one.

By moving to a converted cottage with a restored kitchen, new wooden floors, an expansive bookshelf and grape vines out back, I’m adding to demand for a new kind of Oakland.

When I was a kid, my parents referred to this area as a slum – the house two doors up just sold for $2.75 million!

I spend my money at the corner bike shop but not at the corner grocer. I take my Bernese Mountain dog and Boston terrier to the recently built dog park that replaced an old playground.

The commercial and social fabric of the area is changing, primarily because of people who talk, look and dress like me. (That is, white, middle-class, bookish Millennials, if you hadn’t already assumed from my author bio pic.)

The parallels between Oakland and Auckland are strong. When the Black Panther Party was warring with the Oakland Police Department in the early 1970s, the Polynesian Panther Party established itself in Ponsonby.

Mark Webster, the father of a friend, moved to nearby Grey Lynn in 1989 with his young family when he was 28. The suburb was a centre for artists, home to a Pacific community, rundown, and a relatively affordable suburb to buy a new house.

He and his partner had a new baby and they didn’t want to be renting.

“Of course, it was (albeit poor) young white families like us that started the gentrification. We’re aware of that,” he said.

Yet Mark argues the first wave of these poor young white families were more involved in the community than the current wave of newcomers.

“When we moved in, the local college was on its last legs. We and many other parent got stuck in, got involved, advocated for it in the surrounding suburbs and the school is now a wonderfully successful college that’s had to enforce its zone.

“Now Grey Lynn is attracting rich people. It’s ironic. But now most new people in our street are so wealthy, they drive their kids off to private schools outside of Grey Lynn in their Porsche four-wheel drives.

“They moved here partly because of the work we (and lots of people like us) put into the community to make it better, and they renovate their houses, put great big gates and fences around them, and if you do actually get to see them by chance and say hi, they blank you. We’ve had neighbours next to us for two years and I don’t know their names.

“Luckily we still have excellent friends still in this street, that we’ve known over our long association, but there are only two Polynesian families left. When I was a kid, my parents referred to this area as a slum – the house two doors up just sold for $2.75 million!”

In some sense gentrification is symptomatic of a two-track economy. In the case of the San Francisco Bay Area the first economy includes 1,600 early employees and investors of Twitter who were turned into millionaires overnight when the company went public.

In the second, incomes for the poorest families falls further behind. When the tech workers and lower-skilled workers and everyone in between are competing for space to live, it’s not hard to see who wins the battle for a limited housing stock.

I have ideas about what should be done about gentrification, if anything.

On a national level, the more inclusive our economic growth the more poorer families can keep up.

At a city level, planning policy should minimise barriers to developers building affordable houses and apartments to offset demand shocks like the tech boom.

At a community level, newcomers like me won’t have the answers but we should be aware of what we’re replacing, be respectful that our presence is often possible because of somebody involuntarily leaving, and involve ourselves in the community to help where we can.

There is no clean solution for this. But I hope during my time here I can learn from the community, city planners, my professors and my neighbours how we can help each other out.

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.

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