The invasion of Oakland launches just before sunset the first Friday of every month. There’s no command and control structure. No clear mission. It’s more like a force of urban nature: Ragtag groups of white twentysomethings on bicycles swarm south, down the East Bay’s three major arterials — San Pablo Avenue, Telegraph Avenue, and Broadway — to converge in downtown Oakland.
On a map this convergence looks like a big V, the crotch of which is the invasion’s primary target. Auxiliary teams of art fans move in from the west — San Francisco — along with culture hunters from east of the hills. Everyone is seeking some new sensation, or a story to bring home from a neighborhood that gets fewer tourists than some war zones.
The darker the skies become, the more hipster kids coagulate at the beachhead of 23rd Street and Telegraph, flanked by a desolate parking-lot tundra and steel skeletons of half-built condos. At first they number one hundred, then two hundred, then three. The downtown high-rise lights come on and drums begin echoing off brick and concrete canyons. Forbidding walks down dirty sidewalks fronting shuttered businesses become less forbidding as additional regiments roll in. After 23rd Street closes to traffic, the area is secure and the street party begins. Bic lighters pop tops off bottles of Arrogant Bastard ale hidden in brown paper bags. Sometimes a jug band plays for change, other times it’s drummers, but every first Friday since January, this downtown invasion — the Oakland Art Murmur — has grown bigger still.
What began with six grungy galleries and stacks of promotional postcards has turned into a cultural critical mass that has exploded beyond 25 galleries, attracted national news coverage and a thousand-plus art fans on Murmur nights, and led to sales of pricey artwork to wealthy patrons including Bay Area celebs like Steve Jobs.
This is success, right? Well that depends upon whom you ask. The downtown art scene’s rapid growth already has led to bitchy infighting among its founders, and cries of “white invasion” and “gentrification” from the black residents who have lived in this hood for decades. And with thousands of half-million-dollar condos sprouting in its midst, it’s apparent that all the attention could hasten the scruffy scene’s demise.
In many ways, it’s the classic story of urban renewal: Young artists move into a downtrodden place where they can afford the rents. They proceed to build up a buzz and a social scene, paving the way for hip bars, restaurants, boutiques, and upscale condo dwellers. Ultimately, and ironically, their efforts bring about a neighborhood where young artists — not to mention the original residents — can no longer afford to live. Sometimes the process takes decades, but when combined with the city of Oakland’s own efforts to remake downtown into an upscale residential haven, this particular story has proceeded at an unprecedented pace. “We don’t stand on the precipice of something like this very often,” Ego Park gallery leader Kevin Slagel says. “I think it’s going to get appropriated out of our hands.”
The inside of Mama Buzz coffee shop and gallery resembles a dorm room, all dirty dishes and bizarre posters falling off the walls. In the adjoining gallery space, photos of corporate-suited goons shake hands above a table seating what could pass for a college study group. A young blonde woman in a brown librarian sweater taps at a Mac laptop, while other casually dressed art kids write in notebooks or doodle on sketchpads. Tonight’s topic isn’t academic. The six attendees form a chunk of the gallery cabal responsible for the Art Murmur. This is their headquarters, where they review each First Friday operation and plan new sorties.
A college communications professor who teaches about “goal-oriented groups” would give this one a C-minus for efficiency. Its meeting starts late, and reps from most participating Murmur galleries are AWOL. There’s no roll call, no agenda, no minutes, little decision-making, and no clear chairperson. Nicole Neditch, second in command at Mama Buzz, works the laptop and tries to keep the group on task while Mama Buzz No. 1, Jen Loy, handles the coffee-shop operation.
At the table, Boontling Gallery co-owner Mike Simpson explains that the whole Murmur campaign began as a way for galleries to help one another. “Some e-mails went around,” he says. “We had a few meetings.”
At its heart, the Murmur was a $130 buy-in for area galleries that wanted to participate in a publicity campaign. That bought each gallery space on a simple Web site, a mention in an ad that ran in the Express for three months, and a callout on a downtown art scene map reproduced on five thousand postcards. Most important, the initial campaign alerted perhaps a quarter-million Bay Area residents that six galleries — Mama Buzz, Rock Paper Scissors, Boontling, Ego Park, Auto 3321, and 21 Grand — near the Telegraph crotch would hold simultaneous openings of new art on the first Friday of each month.
The idea wasn’t original. San Francisco’s First Thursdays are a Geary Street institution, and other East Bay galleries have split publicity costs before. What was different was the presence of a nucleus of galleries consistently coordinating new exhibits, all amid a huge municipal campaign to repopulate and revitalize Oakland. Word spread quickly. “It has become phenomenally successful at bringing more people to the neighborhood than I can remember,” Loy says.
From the very start, however, Art Murmur’s founders were divided on publicity and purpose. “It took three meetings to even settle on a name,” Boontling’s Simpson says. “Then some people had their own ideas about the Murmur and were angered by the advertising. They thought that it would make things worse.”
The Murmur committee’s initial anarchy had lessened a bit by its April meeting, whose rough minutes are as follows:
Item A: Should galleries be able to add content to the Murmur Web site?
Darren Johnston of 21 Grand notes that he is afraid someone might write “Shitfuckshitfuck, Fuck the Oakland Art Murmur” on the site. No decision made.
General grievances are aired. Brain dumping occurs.
Neditch of Mama Buzz calls for some type of an agenda.
All parties agree to introduce themselves, and do so.
Issues of Murmur eligibility emerge: Should it allow galleries that sell crafts? What about galleries farther from the target area? All parties agree: “It’s a question of, where do you draw the line?”
That line is not drawn this night, but many of those involved in Murmur would have preferred it drawn to exclude a new gallery that appeared right around the corner in January. Every underground art scene needs an enemy, after all; someone to call a sellout, someone who’s in it for the money. That gallery owner is part of Art Murmur, but he didn’t show for tonight’s meeting. Esteban Sabar knows when he’s not wanted.
I’s hard to imagine anyone hating Esteban Sabar, who weighs about as much as a case of Pinot and stands all of five foot eight in his designer shoes. He smiles like a feline as he smokes a light cigarette and speaks in a thick Latin accent about business and backstabbing.
The Oakland entrepreneur and Fruitvale resident is a transplant with his partner Marty McCorkle from San Francisco’s Castro District, and a perfect example of the new money coming to town. Sabar moved to the block at the same time the art cats self-herded into copromotion, but the similarity ends there. In age, sexuality, ethnicity, style, price points, and goals, he is their foil: forty versus twenty; comfy homo versus awkwardly hetero; brown versus white; East Village hip versus warehouse grunge; world-class show space versus hipster clubhouse.
Sabar’s goal was clear from the beginning: To sell high art at a hundred times the typical average price to rich folk from the Oakland Hills, New York, Los Angeles, and London. It wasn’t long before the discontent began manifesting itself in petty vandalism, such as the “Esteban Satan” sign left on his building by the Rock Paper Scissors gallery kids, and backroom discussions of cutting him out of Murmur promotions.
“Nobody says anything to my face,” Sabar says. “I just hear it secondhand. I don’t care if they hate me. I’m here to make money.” The art maven smiles, puffing on his cigarette and turning the subject to two art buyers who flew their plane up from Santa Barbara this afternoon to look around. He’s trying to attract Oprah, and is already making waves as a board member of the Oakland Arts Commission, where he is attempting to break through the bureaucratic gridlock and gain approval for edgy new public art.
Sabar stalks big sales like a sniper — with total commitment and a deep knowledge of his trade. He’s pulled in some serious sales of $15,000 and up, but that’s not enough. Indeed, for Sabar, seven months of hard work has translated in a less-than-stellar gross, and the patent knowledge that the scene to which he’s contributing hates him for claiming Oakland. He can’t wait for business to pick up.
The gallery owner’s fortunes lie with the continued growth of the neighborhood’s more affluent demographic. His gallery is just one block from Signature Properties’ 421-unit condo development, downtown’s second-biggest residential project. The units are designed to attract middle- and upper-class money to a region long labeled “transitional.” The underground gallery world scorns Sabar as the most visible capitalist on their block and a sign of things to come. But the mostly black residents and artists who’ve lived here their whole lives reserve their scorn for the kids who attracted him.
As expected, the August 4 Art Murmur brings more babies, grandparents, yuppies, and outsiders than ever. Sabar makes the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bay Area section, and his gallery is hot with bodies. The street party outside attracts the likes of Howard Junker, editor of San Francisco-based literary journal ZYZZYVA, who is embarrassed to admit that he learned about the Murmur from the Chron‘s weekly 96 Hours supplement, then took BART to MacArthur and hiked the sketchy ten blocks to where the action is. “I wasn’t afraid,” he says. “But there were a few gentlemen I was happy to pass by.”
After taking in seven or so galleries, Junker pronounces the scene nascent and vibrant, a Bergamot Station before its time. All it needs to mutate into a proper scene, he says, are some upscale fashion boutiques and clubs. The kids have it good right now. “It’s still a proto version, typical of emergent arts,” he notes. “The trick is getting some space before it gets too expensive.”
Parker and Haesin Thomas, 35 and 36, are also first-timers. They take in the sights as baby Hana rides on Parker’s shoulders and smiles at the street drummers and dancing. “I’m pretty blown away,” says Haesin, an Oakland educator. “I used to live around here, so when someone said, ’23rd and Telegraph,’ I said, ‘Really? That place is dead.'”
The couple departs early, if only because they want a bite to eat and the requisite cafes haven’t yet moved in. One of the few black people in the crowd gives his name as Rich. Clad in a Rams football jersey, the thirtysomething neighborhood resident says the Art Murmur has been a good thing. “About time,” he says, visibly sauced from hanging out at Cabel’s Reef, a nearby dive bar. “You got all these people mixing — black, white, Mexican, Korean. I mean, it’s always been black and Mexican around here, but now … yeah. About time.”
The party is indeed mixed, if skewed white. Yet the one place on the block of 23rd and Telegraph that looks exactly as it did before is the seedy-looking Cabel’s Reef. Pretty much every night, the bar, which features soul music on a 1960s-era jukebox, is frequented by older black men playing cards, dice, and dominoes. Many wear wraparound shades even though it’s 11 p.m. and you can barely see past the pool tables to the back door. Most of the bar’s patrons are fifty and up, a bizarre counterpoint to the young scene outside. And although the Murmur crowd writes off the place as a hideout for local hoods, Cabel’s Reef is in fact an African-American gay bar, and has been for twenty years.
“You see the line out front,” says Sandy Gaines, with her one good arm indicating the property line outside that separates the bar from the Rock Paper Scissors gallery. “That’s the new Mason-Dixon line. It’s right [she stabs at the air] there.”
The 61-year-old Oaklander wears a white denim jacket and cradles her right arm in a sling — she tore her rotator cuff at work and needed surgery. “I’m a teacher,” she says. “Not an educator. An educator is the name for someone who’s embarrassed to call themselves a teacher.”
Gaines graduated from Mills College with a degree in art (“president, class of ’73,” she notes), and teaches at the Five Keys Charter School in a San Bruno women’s jail. Tonight, she is one of Cabel’s more gregarious patrons. As such, she gets the job of speaking to the only white boy she’s seen there in months. Gaines, for one, is a little pissed off about the Art Murmur. “Look at this,” she says, pulling out Sabar’s own Art Murmur brochure. She points to the headline: Invade Through Art.
“Poor choice of words,” she says. “Poor choice. It’s the lack of inclusiveness,” Gaines gripes. “I had to read about this in the Chronicle. They didn’t come talk to us. I have a degree in art. We have a gallery space upstairs we could use. They never came to us. And what the Chronicle refers to not only offends me, it hurts me. They say that’s there’s nothing here but crackheads and homeless people. That, to me, is a slap in the face. We have those elements, but we also have residents who’ve been here for their whole lives. We’re invisible.”
The actual Chronicle quote was: “Art Murmur takes place … in a neighborhood that used to be better known for heroin, homelessness, and hookers.”
It’s true that the ZIP code encircling the Murmur has its fair share of problems. The Oakland Police Department’s CrimeWatch II database tallies 642 crimes in 94612 for April through June. Among them: 238 thefts (including vehicles), 107 narcotics crimes, 78 assaults, 64 robberies, 61 burglaries, 60 vandalism/disturbing the peace reports, 9 prostitution reports, one arson, one rape, and one homicide. That’s as bad as some other neighborhoods, but better than others. By the Chron‘s logic, of course, Oakland in general could be associated with heroin, homelessness, and hookers.
Actually, what the neighborhood used to be better known for is being predominantly black. Oakland is a black city — its African-American population of 36 percent is three times that of America as a whole, and five times that of the greater Bay Area. The black population in Oakland’s flatlands, which include the Murmur turf, has ranged from 65 to 90 percent over the past century. But the vast majority of Art Murmur proprietors, artists, and visitors have been white. Once a month, they completely flip the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood that has been predominantly black since 1850.
That the hipsters ignore this history and operate within their own little bubble irks Gaines. “It’s just classic insensitivity,” she says.
Blacks first started to arrive in the Bay Area back in the Gold Rush days, and successively larger waves moved here during World War I and World War II. They settled Hunters Point, Richmond, and Oakland where there was work to be had in the factories and shipyards, and a solid black middle class emerged. But the collapse of the postwar local economy led to an industrial decline that continues to this day. African Americans helped build the cars, freeways, and malls that literally drove off with their tax base during the suburbanization boom of the ’60s and ’70s. Ringed by better housing, jobs, and shopping, inner-city Oakland began to decay and convulse with gang violence.
In the late ’90s, Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan defined a new tactic: If you can’t get people to visit Oakland, then, by God, get them to live here. Priced out of San Francisco by the dot-com boom, many artists had already discovered this path. As rents skyrocketed, they looked to the East Bay instead.
Oakland, however, is no longer cheap. Although the real-estate frenzy is now petering out, the median home price in Oakland shot up 48 percent between March 2005 and March 2006. Still, Oakland housing remains 30 percent cheaper than that of the greater Bay Area. Brown’s plan lowered economic barriers to development and streamlined the planning process, and has led to more than five thousand new housing units either built or approved. On another front, the city’s redevelopment agency has helped cut downtown’s storefront vacancy rate from 25 percent to 12 percent with $88 million in facade improvements and matching grants for capital improvements. As a result, Oakland’s business tax revenues have increased significantly.
The world is hip to Oakland’s cheap supply of central housing and retail space, and everyone wants a piece of it, from multimillionaire investors and middle-class entrepreneurs to the recently graduated children of baby boomers who’ve been priced out of the big city. Gaines questions where the kids came from: Well, it took more than a bunch of postcards. The Art Murmur was born into an atmosphere where billions of dollars were changing hands, and gentrification already was written on the wall.
With this latest influx, downtown Oakland’s “invisible” residents feel they’re taking a backseat to the newcomers, who play by their own rules. Retired longshoreman and lifelong resident Gene Ward, 72, says he’s no racist. His ex-wife had a daughter with a white man, and everyone is close. But he can’t help but be irritated by the Reef’s unwritten agreement with the police. “No more than five people outside,” Ward says. “No drinking. Yet there are about six hundred white kids blocking the street, drinking from open containers, and no one cares.”
“Duh. If there was six hundred black people drinking in the street, there’d be fucking barricades!” concurs Marcel Diallo, a black artist and longtime resident of West Oakland. “Let’s talk about something that everyone doesn’t already know.”
If the area west of the Oakland Art Murmur had a mayor, it might be Diallo. And if the Murmur has a number one detractor, it’s definitely Diallo. On July 18 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he gave it to the art kids with both barrels in front of a roomful of their peers. He was fired up because the esteemed San Francisco establishment had taken notice of the Art Murmur and curated a show, Sampling Oakland. Yet this show included only the new kids on the block — as though Diallo and the Black Dot Arts Collective he’s worked with for a decade didn’t exist. So he basically elbowed his way onto the show’s walls after being invited to sit on a five-person panel to discuss “the Oakland aesthetic,” which Diallo took as an opportunity to “speak truth to power.”
“You kids come into the Lower Bottoms, my neighborhood, and at night I got five hundred people from God knows where wandering around, drinking from keg cups, making a mess,” Diallo told them. “We’re at odds, and we don’t even know each other.”
The former spoken-word poet continued: “That’s great. You’re fearless. We bump our cars buh-boom-boom, while you come down here and play your music rrr-rrr-rrr. You like the funkiness. But tell me, can I go ghost-ride the whip in Piedmont?”
And lastly: “Hipsters are one of the worst aspects of gentrification,” he said. “You are the arrow tip of all this culture. And it’s the arrow tip that pierces you first and hurts the most. The punk rockers, the hipsters, and developers are all the same thing.”
Yet while most day-job gallery owners wring their hands at the thought of a condo-ized future, Diallo has staked out his own turf in anticipation. In the early ’90s, he bought his first vacant lot in West Oakland with $7,500 he’d earned as a spoken-word poet — back before it became a coffeeshop gag. He now owns eight properties and is planning a Black Cultural District in the Bottoms. All are welcome to visit, but Diallo is doing his best to ensure that only blacks may buy. “Real estate is for real,” he says. “God ain’t making any more land.”
After a lifetime of renting gallery space in the same neighborhood as the Murmur, Diallo says he’s seen the light: “You are either a slave or a master, either paying someone or paying yourself. Pay yourself. Know what I mean?”
He wasn’t born Marcel Diallo, but that’s what he goes by nowadays. The agitprop artist was born in 1973 and raised by his mom in Richmond, along with his four brothers. More than sixty extended family members rented a tour bus to watch him graduate from Cal Poly, where he’d landed a full scholarship. “It was basically state bribe money to get kids from the ghetto to go to these all-white schools,” Diallo says. “I basically majored in white people.”
He views the art “invasion” through the lens of colonialism and white privilege, and reserves special loathing for the LoBot Gallery, which is near his house. LoBot is short for Lower Bottoms. “That’s the name of the neighborhood,” he says. “You can’t just have that. That’s people’s gang: They write on walls in town, ‘Lower Bottoms, bitch!’ It would be like me moving into Tennessee and finding some redneck town with the Klan still in it and opening up the Ku Klux Klan Gallery. You think if I did that, it wouldn’t piss some people off? … It’s that insensitivity — they don’t even think about it.”
Shown Esteban Sabar’s “Invade Through Art” flyer, Diallo laughs. “Invade Through Art. There it is,” he says. “At least Sabar’s honest. He’s here to sell some rich-ass paintings. I respect that more. Now there’s a Ghost Town gallery; I hope that’s run by white kids. Ghost Town is the name for the area around 31st and San Pablo where everyone’s getting murdered. I had a friend move to the Lower Bottoms from there. Now they got the Ghost Town gallery.”
In Diallo’s final estimation, even press coverage of the Art Murmur contributes to gentrification. “Ninety-nine percent of people in Oakland don’t know and don’t care that there’s a Murmur and the media is treating it like it’s this big thing,” he says. “Why do they get this inequitable coverage?”
It’s midnight back at the Art Murmur, and the invasion is in full retreat — for now, at least. The kids depart for their after-parties and the drug dealers retake their usual corners.
On walking past the window exhibits, it’s apparent these former college students have imbibed all the necessary post-modernistic maxims: We are a people who’ve lost our history; we have no identity; we have no special place; we are atomized by technology. So much local art rages against this cultural amnesia, homogeneity, senseless wandering, and loneliness.
And yet the proprietors of the Murmur prove as guilty as anyone else of ignoring the history and identity of their own neighbors. Like most people who share a fence, they barely speak to one another. One would hope that art, in its highest form, could increase understanding by illustrating the utter symmetry of all human endeavors. We live. We strive. We fail. As it stands, those messy ideas have yet to make it onto the whitewashed art walls of downtown Oakland.