CULTURE & ARTS
08/01/2016 12:36 pm ET

Oakland Artists Take On Gentrification As Tech Boom Threatens Their City

An installation at the Oakland Museum of California looks at the changes through residents’ eyes.
“952 Chester Street,” a 16x16 giclee print from 2003 by Julie Placensia, is included in the exhibition “Oak
Oakland Museum of California
“952 Chester Street,” a 16x16 giclee print from 2003 by Julie Placensia, is included in the exhibition “Oakland, I want you to know...” at the Oakland Museum of California. Zolika Boissiere, an Oakland native, lived in the front unit from 1997 to 2007. Her son Marquees (not pictured) was shot and killed three blocks from the house shortly after the family moved out.

As Oakland, California, undergoes massive changes, an art museum is calling on residents to speak out about being pushed from the city they call home.

“Oakland, I want you to know…” opened at the Oakland Museum of California last month and celebrates the history and culture of West Oakland, a neighborhood where rents are rising, tech workers are moving in, and longtime residents, particularly African-Americans, are being displaced.

The interactive installation ― a replica of West Oakland’s streets, shrunk to fit in a room ― is as much about community organizing as it is about art. 

Chris Treggiari, a local social practice artist who curated the show with Evelyn Orantes, OMCA’s curator of public practice, said he wanted to “create a platform that can house what the community is saying, what the community is thinking.”

“Gentrification is happening; there’s a shift in demographics; there’s displacement,” he said. “These are words that we’re hearing from the community.”

Orantes and Treggiari hope to encourage visitors to tell their own stories about living in West Oakland. The exhibition draws from interviews with residents and contributions from over 700 artists, students, residents and community groups.

Installation shot of “Oakland, I want you to know...” In the foreground is the community garden installation, wit
Oakland Museum of California
Installation shot of “Oakland, I want you to know...” In the foreground is the community garden installation, with felt vegetables made by textile artist Angie Wilson.

The miniature city includes structures and spaces inspired by recognizable Oakland sites: a classic Victorian mansion, a historic blues club, the BART subway, a new loft, city streets and a community garden planted with felt vegetables.

Each space is centered around an aspect of the neighborhood’s identity, like its deep-rooted arts community. Treggiari hopes the semi-private spaces will allow candid and respectful conversation between friends and strangers.

To give visitors a nudge, there’s a question posted at each site. For instance, signage at the loft space, which examines race and housing, asks, “What can we build together to help the future of Oakland?”  

Museum visitors learn about tenant rights at the "Oakland, I want you to know..." show.
Oakland Museum of California
Museum visitors learn about tenant rights at the "Oakland, I want you to know..." show.

That’s an optimistic way to tackle the issue when some residents aren’t sure if they’ll have a future in the city at all.  

Oakland’s rents are now among the most expensive in the country, thanks to the Bay Area’s housing crunch and its growing population of tech workers. With San Francisco rents already astronomically high, Oakland’s comparatively “affordable” housing ― at least on a tech company salary ― has been steadily drawing professionals to the other side of the bay.

A number of companies are following suit: Uber will open offices in the city next year.

As tech workers stream into the city ― sometimes clashing with longtime residents ― Orantes and Treggiari would like newcomers to come away from their show with an appreciation for West Oakland’s strong community and identity. 

“I want them to understand and realize that we can’t lose this culture,” Treggiari said. “I hope the show brings that to the surface and makes people aware and starts conversations, starts people thinking, ‘Yeah, we need to preserve this and celebrate it.’”

“Oakland is an amazing place to live, and I think all of us look to San Francisco and see what we’ve got to lose if we don’t do something,” Orantes said.

"1103 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. The Polio Family, originally from El Salvador,
Oakland Museum of California
"1103 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. The Polio Family, originally from El Salvador, commissioned this photograph on the day of Nancy’s quinceañera. The family continues to live in the duplex, and rents out the bottom portion to extended family.

OMCA’s exhibition space isn’t large, but it’s loaded with contributions from artists who have ties to West Oakland and are involved in the community.

One section includes a series of portraits shot by photographer Julie Placensia of her neighbors on Chester Street in the early 2000s. 

There’s a collection of prints from housing rights movements dating back to the ‘70s, photos of the African-American community in the city and new music from a local artist. Youth groups created a mural and a billboard. Quotations from residents are plastered on the walls, and their stories are told in video and audio interviews. 

One of the placards quotes Ericka Huggins, former member of the Black Panther Party:

“When I first came to Oakland, West Oakland was the place to be for culture, for the blues, for food, for living, and it was a huge black community, but that’s not what we see now,… You get culture, but if you are afraid of it, you can’t see it as that. You see it as other.”

The exhibition also provides a place for visitors to make posters and a station where they can write letters to their council members, which the curators will hand-deliver at the end of the exhibition in October.  

The "Oakland, I want you to know..." show invites viewers to participate. This exhibit encourages people to write letter
Oakland Museum of California
The "Oakland, I want you to know..." show invites viewers to participate. This exhibit encourages people to write letters to their council members.

Orantes hopes the show will leave residents aware of their own power to advocate for themselves and their community.

“Someone said this is as much for the people moving in as the people who are here,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we’re not alone.”

View more of Julie Placensia’s portraits of her former neighbors below.

  • "1009 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Etta Mae Jones moved to West Oakland from Texas in 1942.
    Oakland Museum of California
    "1009 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Etta Mae Jones moved to West Oakland from Texas in 1942. In 1961, when all of her five children had moved out of the house, she and her husband became homeowners for the first time. They moved into 1009 Chester Street, which became the hub of activity until her death in 2006. The home has since been sold, with the owners maintaining the home as a rental property.
  • "1115 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Linda Colotti, originally from New York, purchased this
    Credit: Oakland Museum of California
    "1115 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Linda Colotti, originally from New York, purchased this home and began remodeling in 2001. She continues to live on Chester Street.
  • "1102 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Ly Nhin and Phang Vong, originally from North Vietnam, p
    Credit: Oakland Museum of California
    "1102 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2003, by Julie Placensia. Ly Nhin and Phang Vong, originally from North Vietnam, purchased their first home on Chester Street in 1990 with the collective financial backing of their seven children. Nhin died in 2005. The house was renovated by their eldest son in the late 2000s, who moved in with his wife and son. Vong, the mother, continues to live in the home.
  • "935 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2006, by Julie Placensia. Ratka Mira Popovic with John Hove, her ex-boyfriend, and
    Credit: Oakland Museum of California
    "935 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2006, by Julie Placensia. Ratka Mira Popovic with John Hove, her ex-boyfriend, and Bluto the dog. Popovic, an Oakland native, rented in West Oakland for five years before she bought her home on Chester Street in 1997. She continues to live there.
  • "927 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2006, by Julie Placensia. Cleo Green, center, and her husband, Roosevelt Green, wer
    Credit: Oakland Museum of California
    "927 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2006, by Julie Placensia. Cleo Green, center, and her husband, Roosevelt Green, were originally from Arkansas and rented this house in 1954 for $50 a month.  The owner later sold the house to the family, where Green continued to live until her death in 2006. The family continues to own and occupy the home.
  • "1106 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2004, by Julie Placensia. Bruce Youngblood and his family, originally from Berkele
    Credit: Oakland Museum of California
    "1106 Chester Street," 16x16 giclee print, 2004, by Julie Placensia. Bruce Youngblood and his family, originally from Berkeley, moved to West Oakland in 1973. Youngblood is one of six children and lived with his mother before she moved to Sacramento. He continued to live in the home, managing the first-floor Section 8 apartment until 2005. The house continues to be owned by the Youngbloods and rented out as subsidized housing.

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Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.   

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