Final Reflection

Covering the Lake Merritt neighborhood for the past four months has given me a wonderful opportunity to really experience an area I was unfamiliar with. Besides realizing how beautiful the neighborhood is and how many things there are to do, I was able to really investigate deeper and get a broader understanding of how the people of Oakland want to be represented and how the politics within the city are like.

Lake Merritt, I have learned, provides a wonderful picture of how community works in Oakland. The people I met, talked to, and built a rapport with love their city and love the opportunities it has given them. In return, it only makes sense that they would want to give back. It makes me wonder how often I have taken my own community for granted and how much there is still for me to learn and gain from within it, how much there is to do for it.

I am especially surprised at how easily you can connect with a place and its people if you make the effort. Being an outsider, it may seem scary and like an arduous task at first, but the possibilities are limitless. As I am moving to Denmark in the spring, it gives me hope that even abroad I can utilize the discovery skills I gained from reporting to really build a strong presence in the community I find there.

I have gained a love for Oakland and the Lake Merritt neighborhood especially, and exploring it has given me a new excitement for new places and faces I will encounter and all of the things you can learn if you just dig deep enough.

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Gentrification in the City

UC Berkeley researchers working on the Project for Urban Development sorted through data and composed maps of places in the Bay Area experiencing rapid gentrification.

Here is the map for the city of Oakland:

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As the map shows, the orange area around Lake Merritt portrays the risk of gentrification and displacement, or, in a very small purple area, an area already undergoing it. The rise of the purple (gentrification) seems to be making its way north, highlighting on extreme concerns for residents of the area.

The full interactive map can be accessed here:

Mapping Gentrification and Displacement in the Bay Area

Preserving Oakland’s Culture

SambaFunk!, an Oakland-based group of drummers and dancers, was accused of being a public disturbance on the evening of Sep. 27, 2015 by a Lake Merritt resident. The matter has since sparked a passionate debate in the community about persisting racial bias and gentrification issues, and how they affect the arts in Oakland.

Although no noise violation was filed, the event attracted multiple Oakland Police Department officers to the scene and resulted in assault citations for two members of the group and the Caucasian man who called in the complaint. Many believe that SambaFunk! being largely composed of Black and Latino members plays a role in the night escalating combatively as it did.

Abel Guillen, the Oakland City Councilmember who represents the district Lake Merritt is in wrote a Facebook post after, saying:  

This past Sunday, musicians informally gathered at Lake Merritt to celebrate the Lunar Eclipse, with drums in hand, found themselves face-to-face with a stressed-out neighbor who decided he’s heard enough drumming and wrested the drumsticks away from one performer.”

Utilizing this and other recent incidents in Oakland as an example, he asked in the post that the people in his city “make a collective commitment to use the tools of reason and understanding to build our community and end the violence.

The artistic director of SambaFunk!, Theo Williams, is an acclaimed Carnaval dancer and has played an integral role in the arts and culture of Oakland and San Francisco. According to Williams, support for his group and others like it has increased since Sep. 27, saying, “If the incident did anything, it served as a rallying cry…it has galvanized and organized people.”

Williams also stated:

One of the things we aren’t discussing are the changes in the government and city planning. On one hand, we have part of the governance saying they support the arts. There’s also the city planners working with the state to predict the housing crunch happening in Oakland, but the departments aren’t communicating with each other. This leads to falling out on the frontline.”

For Williams, an utmost concern is that the responsibility of representing the people of Oakland is upheld. He believes the community and artists are at a disadvantage to the government and city planners, leaving them in a perpetual reactionary state in situations like these. However, he maintains that this isn’t a race issue- it’s a class issue, and that the matter of race is simply a by-product of a bigger problem.

The gears of change in Oakland began to shift with the influence of Jerry Brown, who, before becoming the Governor of California, served as the Mayor of Oakland from 1999-2007. During his time in office, Brown’s priorities were redevelopment projects that began to attract more people to the city, known as his “10k plan.” It was named conveniently in hopes that Oakland would gain 10,000 new residents because of the affordable housing initiatives put in place and the revitalization from new developments.

Jean Quan, who succeeded Brown as Mayor in 2011, shared similar goals in the mission to revive Oakland. However, the Oakland Arts Commission was defunded the same year that she took office. Art Commissions have remained intact in most neighboring Alameda County cities like Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore and Dublin. It has yet to be reinstated in what is arguably the Alameda County’s biggest artistic hub: Oakland.

In previous years, Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission aimed to “promote and assist public awareness of cultural and artistic and cultural activities in the city.” It was established in 1991, but according to the city’s website, the commission is “on hiatus.”

Now, all inquiries are redirected to Kristen Zaremba, who oversees the cultural arts division and the city’s public art program. Public art projects in Oakland are still allocated 1.5% from eligible capital improvement projects and grant revenue through this program.

John Carwardine, a relatively new addition to the Lake Merritt community, read about the SambaFunk! incident in the news. He acknowledged the palpable changes in the city and expressed remorse for the dissonance between the people and the governance, saying,

It’s really upsetting to think about the possibility that Oakland might be starved of the culture and diversity that makes it beautiful. I hope the housing shift doesn’t take away the things that make people like me want to live here.”

Libby Schaaf, who became Mayor of Oakland earlier this year and has addressed the responsibility of developers to respect the city’s artistic community and cultural lifeblood, told the East Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects:

Oakland cannot afford to sell its soul for growth. Our soul is way too beautiful.”

She proposed an ordinance on Sept. 18 2014 at a city meeting while still an Oakland City Councilmember. Her motive behind the ordinance was stated in a municipal report as follows:

This Article III is intended to promote the arts in the City of Oakland by requiring the inclusion of a public artwork component in new development projects in Oakland. A policy is hereby established to require certain private developments to use a portion of building development funds for the acquisition and installation of publicly accessible works of art for placement on the development site as a condition of project approval. Developers and/or owners are encouraged to employ Oakland artists or arts organizations to fulfill the public art requirement.”

It was unanimously voted for and passed on Dec. 14, 2015, and went into effect in February. Despite this stride, Theo Williams remains dubious about how well his fellow community of Oakland-based artists will uphold in the wave of gentrification and the consequential changes in city politics.

The battle between developers and new residents versus Oakland artists has yet to reach its climax or its end, but neither side has yet to silence the other. The Building Industry Association of Bay Area sued the City of Oakland in July over the public art fees/space provision, arguing that the ordinance violates their Fifth Amendment rights.

San Francisco is the land of the billionaires, and Oakland is becoming the land of the millionaires,” Williams says.

Inevitable change and new money is making its way eastbound, but the tight-knit community of Bay Area artists and performers is not so easily defeated, if even at the hands of disgruntled neighbors.

SambaFunk! Events Calendar:

 

Environmental Eagerness

Five times a week, dedicated volunteers for the Lake Merritt Institute congregate at Lake Merritt rain or shine to pick up trash around the waters. The community based non-profit has over 12 members and has been a staple of Oakland since it was founded in 1992 by Dr. Richard L. Bailey.

140 acres and ten feet deep, the Lake (or rather, tidal lagoon) requires a decent amount of upkeep. The ecosystem has been largely affected by human modifications in the past two decades. Luckily, many of these changes have been done with positive intention and dreams of clean water and moderation of urban runoff.

Published in The Montclarion in February 1996, Dr. Bailey gave “A Portrait of a Polluter,” a short anecdote about what he would say to a metaphorical environmental villain. It encompasses the heart of the volunteers.

“Listen” I said: “There’s only one thing in this world that really matters … and that’s people who care. If you don’t care – why should anyone care about you?”

Restoring and maintaining the beauty of Lake Merritt is not only an ecological concern but one that requires focus on access for inhabitants and visitors of Oakland to enjoy it. Measure DD, a $198 million bond measure passed in November 2002, provided funding to projects intended to tackle issues like water quality, building renovations, habitat upkeep, and more.

Upon the celebration of the completion of Lake Merritt’s Sailboat House Shoreline Project in July 2015, Mayor Libby Schaaf had some endearing words about the changes.

Lake Merritt is our City’s crown jewel. Recognizing the need to restore and protect this precious asset, voters approved Measure DD. Those dollars have been wisely invested to refurbish and enhance the Lake for broader and more sustainable public use. These improvements to our lakefront have brought Oaklanders closer together, helping to revitalize our City and create an even more vibrant community.

Climate change is also a huge issue for those sincerely concerned about the area and the wildlife it houses. In March 2015, The March for Real Climate Leadership was hosted by multiple organizations along Lake Merritt to raise awareness about fracking and renewable energy. Gaining knowledge about these matters goes hand in hand with continuing to be able to enjoy Oakland’s natural amenities for generations to come.

The Lake Merritt Institute always welcomes new faces to their team of environmental gurus, and in the spirit of community, publishes a newsletter called Tidings on their website almost monthly. Educational presentations are offered by appointment for schools and organizations interested in dipping their feet in the water. Every Tuesday and Saturday at 10 a.m., you can expect to see volunteers out there doing just that.

The Bay Area Book Maven

Only one step into Oakland’s Bookmark bookstore, and the permeating whiff of pre-loved dogeareds hits you without warning. It only makes sense that such a well-curated shrine to the written word would be well-managed. Richard Cook, who owned the Sunrise metaphysics bookstore in Berkeley for 37 years until its close in 2011, shares half this job.
Because Bookmark is a nonprofit benefitting the Oakland Public Library, only the most empassioned book mavens can fit such a role. They found a gem in Cook, who’s literary leanings began early on in life. He graduated from Cal in 1966 with degrees in history and literature. Hailing from Stockton, he’s Northern Californian born and bred.

It was an extraordinary time. There was so much excitement socially and intellectually. There’s intellectual vitality in the Bay Area.

After graduating and deciding that a job as a teacher would never satisfy him, Richard found himself working as a de facto librarian at the Claremont library branch when his predecessor- “a Mrs. Benesh”- left unexpectedly. Lewin’s Metaphysical Bookstore, which still stands on Ashby Avenue today, was only steps away- and he came to be friends with the community there.

The time wasn’t right when the 80-something astrologer Florence Bowers proposed they open a secondhand bookstore together, but an unshakeable seed was planted, and it wasn’t two years later that Cook erected Sunrise Books on Telegraph.

Although he admittedly wasn’t interested in the metaphysical world before befriending those at Lewin’s, it became his passion. Running a bookstore, he says, “was a lot of work and worries,” but his strong stance in the world of print overcame these tribulations.

All bookstores have a different emphasis. We started with around 1/3 secondhand books, and continued to cater to this arena, as well as out-of-print.

As a business owner, there were inevitable changes in the industry. He was firsthand to the rise of the Internet, but never demonized it- in fact, he began selling books online in 1998.

I would have started in ’97, except I had a Mac and the interlock.com software used a PC interface. Amazon eventually took a lot of air out of the room.

The late 80’s ushered in what Cook refers to as the explosive “Shirley MacLaine wave,” something that benefitted and hindered his business. Discount booksellers served to the wave of metaphysic interest that Sunrise couldn’t always do.

But, like many other a literary romantic, he agrees that there isn’t any joy in buying books “the easy way.” The appeal of treasure is in the hunt. When a fellow Sherlockian brought in a collection of covetable “Journals of Baker Street Irregulars,” Cook was enamored- but giving them up and selling them on the website, he says, is just part of a day’s work.

So, four years after the close of his shop, Richard can be found in the extremely well organized loft of Bookmark, smiling down at browsing customers with his friendly blue eyes.

As for the younger set of burgeoning book mavens, the “semi-retired” Cook has some advice- something applicable in any area of life.

Getting through that first bit of experience is gold. Find your passion.

As for regrets? He just wishes he would have bought stock in Apple sooner.