Letters for the week of September 27- October 3, 2006

Readers tear apart David Downs' piece on the Oakland Art Murmur, while Express food and books critics garner awards from their peers.

“My Heart Breaks,” Letters, 8/9

A gift, not trash!
In response to Victoria Zeppi, I, this “source,” Frances, would like to validate every intention of this article [“Methadone: Not Just for Junkies Anymore”], let alone MY TRUTH in all of it. Never was there any intention of ruining this man’s life; he did that himself. Also, never did I ask for pity. You, Ms. Zeppi, have no idea, because you were not there. My “small child” adored, and was adored by, Mr. Kinsella. Credibility is surpassed in this sense. My love, as well as the journalist who wrote the article, was one of the true motivations for this contribution. (Meth it was not … ?) Shame it is not. Trash, it seems, of another relation that Ms. Zeppi knows too much about. Legal counsel? Call me when you are ready for testimony. The point is clear. A genius gift of a man is lost! Not trash! True information is what Ms. Gard’s article holds, just as Simon’s would have. If any heart breaks, it is not Ms. Zeppi’s. Let us forgive her for her lack of understanding.
Frances Lorraine Duff, Oakland

“Hipster Invasion,” Feature, 8/30

Part of the solution
The Rock Paper Scissors Collective appreciates David Downs’ attempt to bring the important issues of gentrification and classism in Oakland to the table. As a volunteer-run community arts space, RPS is committed to working on these difficult issues — a fact Downs conveniently neglected to gather. In his article, Downs does these issues and his readers an enormous disservice by relying on sensationalism, insinuations, and divisive generalizations which obscure the actual point: This is a community problem, and we must work together to fix it. RPS offers its space as an available tool in this endeavor and invites all to be part of the solution.
The Rock Paper Scissors Collective, Oakland

Three strikes
David Downs is an idiot. Marcel Diallo is a racist. Esteban [Sabar] has no clue what it means to be an artist. This article was way off in every possible sense.

Brian Slagle, Frederick, Maryland

An open scene
While reading the one and only article in the Express‘ Fall Arts feature, I was struck by the fact that although the article makes some important points, nearly all of its material is presented in a manner suggestive of some bizarre agenda. Apparently, the agenda Downs holds is important enough to misrepresent the efforts of many, many people, and to fan the flames of racial mistrust. It seems irresponsible to do this for personal heroics, and more so when the subject is poorly researched. In light of the many things Downs misrepresents is the very basic openness of the arts culture in Oakland he reports on.

If people feel left out by the DIY establishments that make up the Art Murmur, it is only because they have not spoken to the people running these spaces. The situation is an extremely open one. The opening events are free, and everyone is welcome to come and go as they please. In addition, artists, performers, and craftspeople are openly invited to participate directly in several of the spaces mentioned in the article, and in the true spirit of collectivism participation can often lead to administration, should one wish. Rock Paper Scissors Gallery at the corner of 23rd and Telegraph, for instance, offers people the opportunity to propose classes to teach (several happen each week — usually at no cost or very low cost for the attendees). Classes can range from screen-printing to electronic circuit work; it’s a very open situation. There are many opportunities to perform there, too, as there are just down the street at Mama Buzz Café, and 21 Grand offers performances almost every night of the week. In addition, all of these spaces change their art shows each month. This also offers a huge opportunity for visual artists to propose shows, and though your chance might not come around all at once, a serious artist should be able to deal with that. Of course, none of this will happen if you don’t go down there and speak to the people involved. Nonetheless, contrary to what David Downs seems to suggest, the scene is open.

A diverse social scene has existed on that part of Telegraph Avenue for a long time. It’s not a new thing. As well as the bar mentioned in the article, Cable’s Reef, the Stork Club has been in that location for quite a while, for something like fifty years, I’ve heard. Mama Buzz Cafe has existed for at least six, as has 21 Grand. Ego Park, whose proprietor Kevin Slagle was misleadingly quoted, has also been there quite some time. Yet Downs suggests that the presence of these places raises property values, taxes, and the cost of living; in short, forces longtime residents out. Yet all that has changed is that there are now street parties once a month, and all kinds of people are coming to them.

Oakland (and the Bay Area in general) is a major, international metropolitan area. Many people move here for jobs, school (there are, like, five colleges here), its natural beauty, and its racial diversity. Oakland is less segregated than many cities, with all kinds of people living all over the place. Downs states in his article that Oakland is 36 percent African American. This means 64 percent of the population consists of other groups. It should not surprise Downs that these other groups sometimes can be seen outside their homes and that they have an effect on their neighborhoods. In fact, in the neighborhood in question, the Korean community seems to be transforming the area as much, if not more so, than “hipsters.” Of course, the real transformative force is the city, with its favorite loft developer Madison Park REIT in tow. The Sears lofts and the condo complex going up at Broadway and Telegraph will raise property values and taxes. In this case, this is the gentrifying factor, not some underwashed artists. In fact, some of these art spaces are trying to bring the neighborhood in. RPS Gallery (where, incidentally, one can also sell handmade clothes and other items) put on a free block party for the neighborhood last summer, complete with food and games with prizes for the kids. Lots of people of all ages and colors came to that, but apparently not David Downs.

Downs manipulates the City of Oakland’s attempts to gentrify itself to provoke anger against the “hipsters.” The blocks between Telegraph and Broadway are largely industrial until the hospitals, the highway, and finally the Mosswood Park community and 40th Street. Many buildings in this area were not being used when I moved here nearly ten years ago. In the neighborhoods north of Telegraph Avenue live quite a diversity of people, from Ethiopia, the Middle East, China, Korea, and no doubt Kansas, Texas, and New York. New people coming to Oakland are often surprised by the degree to which the (downtown portion of the) city shuts down after dark and on weekends. Office people go home and not much happens, despite the city’s well-placed attempts to encourage street fairs and outdoor concerts. When one combines this situation with the largely vacant, formerly industrial spaces once available in this area with a youthful energy and artistic temperament, it comes as no surprise that someone would want to make something happen here. So people have come here and done this, and something has happened. It is unfortunate that it coincides with the city’s stupid redevelopment attempts, but we are not developers, as Marcel Diallo suggests; rather, we are recyclers.

Ignorance of the history of an area one moves to with a specific intent like work or school is natural. Any ignorance of the history of this neighborhood in particular comes from a lack of exposure of that history. New people are not exposed to it, and there really isn’t anywhere to learn about it unless one makes a colossal effort. I am confident that this history would be treated with respect if it were exposed, certainly with more respect that the developers (whom Marcel Diallo equates the artists to at one point) give it. Perhaps someone should propose a show detailing this history to 21 Grand or one of the other galleries. In the case of the former, I know that their interest in Oakland is well placed and not “whitewashed,” as Downs and Diallo assert. In fact, the desire to name your venue after the part of town it resides in might actually reflect respect rather than the disrespect Diallo implies exists. Of course, it may be geographical, you know, like a store named after its neighborhood, Fruitvale Liquors or something. In that way, the names 21 Grand and LoBot Gallery are not that much different.

The most confusing part of the article for me was the once-again inordinate amount of discussion given the silly effort of Esteban Sabar to run his Las Vegas-style boutique. Nobody really hates Sabar; we just think he is a clown. Further confusing is Diallo’s respect for the man, as discussed in the article. It seems contradictory that Diallo would rather have someone like Sabar around. Sabar hopes to profit off the very things Diallo is complaining about. All he is doing for the neighborhood is paving the way for a Jamba Juice to feel comfortable on the ground floor of the condos when they open. Meanwhile, there are proactive people developing an open situation that allows artists of all disciplines, media, and colors (provided one can get over one’s fear of others) to have access to resources. Diallo’s point of view, and the seeming agenda with which Downs composes this piece, are illogical. They remind me of embittered artists.
Modest Lester, Oakland

Faulty demographics
Regarding your mean-spirited article: You are surely getting many angry responses from the community. I will leave the deeply conservative and racially divisive tone of the article to others — I would like to correct some of the factual errors.

First, Oakland is not “a black city,” but a multiracial city. The neighborhood of the Art Murmur, which is not technically downtown, is not “65 to 90 percent” black, as the author spuriously claims. In fact, the current name of the area is Koreatown (if not Auto Row).

More importantly, there are not “thousands of half-million-dollar condos sprouting in [the] midst” of Koreatown. The Fox Court condos are for low-income residents. There is Signature’s 421-unit condo building, but the 800-unit Uptown complex is apartments (even though Oakland apartment rents have declined since 2000). A newly built downtown condo can be purchased for $325,000, and the typical resident is a transit-using first-time homebuyer with family ties to Chinatown.

The assumption that condo buyers aren’t “diverse” and that all condos are expensive (median prices are more than $200,000 less than the median price of an Oakland home) lies behind the fantastically expensive “affordability” mandate that the city council is considering imposing on developers. This $100,000-per-bedroom fee would instantly inflate downtown condos to SOMA prices. The conservative mind-set pervading Mr. Downs’ article may result in legislative action that would exclude young first-time homeowners from buying condos. Then, downtown’s makeup might be more like the “outsiders” the article derides.
Jonathan Bair, Oakland

No illusions
It’s a shame Mr. Diallo is lumping poor white kids in with government-funded developers, unless he was misquoted. It’s ironic that he wants community history to be appreciated when he speaks without a clue about the punk-rock community, where he’d find that they and the government are far from bedfellows. Respecting your neighbors is one thing; demanding respect for the murderers and drug dealers who gave those neighborhoods their bad reputation is another. They don’t own those names, and I doubt Mr. Diallo actually means to insinuate that the community identity he wants to preserve and celebrate is the criminal element perpetuating that reputation. I’d rather not have to step over a pile of human feces outside my door on the way to BART, but, like a lot of the punks, this is the only place I can afford to live.

Rock Paper Scissors should have been good business neighbors and introduced themselves to Ms. Gaines, but she, as an art major, it would seem, could do the same, especially considering it’s an art gallery. Both of them share that responsibility and the neighborhood. The community would stand up as a whole against the developers and the bullshit if it’s anything of a community, something I’ve seen no evidence of. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but it’s hard to get past that pile of feces.

It’s a tall order that you can’t fill with the same arguments that pit poor whites and poor blacks against each other. The cops have equal disdain for the black youth and for white punks. I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel guilty for the shortcomings of a community in need of a positive change because I am white, or hip, or punk, or participating in the only coming together of my neighborhood that I see. I make no illusions about my place in this community: I am not a member of the black community, but I live in a black community, and I won’t be lumped together with government-sponsored gentrification when I myself am facing possible eviction for the development of the building I’ve lived in for three years here in Ghost Town.
Joshua Elowsky, Oakland

Did you encourage dialogue?
I recognize that newspapers thrive on conflict, and that to create a truly spicy article requires generous doses of such. Your article about the Art Murmur did that quite well. You were able to effectively portray almost every sort of conflict that one might draw from a situation in which a group of enterprising and creative artists managed (probably to their surprise as well) to create a “scene.”

You pit the gallery owners against each other, suggest that twentysomethings and fortysomethings might be mutually suspicious, invoke “scary neighborhood” images several times, criticize the nature of the Murmur organizing style (even in the face of its effectiveness), brand the attendees as neighborhood interlopers, and then play the race card in a few spots. You drop the word “gentrification” several times, which in the current social/political atmosphere can only be said with a sneer. You manage to make the pursuit of a business (in Mr. Sabar’s case) sound almost sordid.

This would all be easy to dismiss as standard journalistic practice, if you hadn’t gotten a bit high-minded in your last paragraph. “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.”

Do you think you encouraged dialogue in any way?

I live right at the corner of 23rd and Telegraph. I am 53, I am white, I am an artist, I am a property owner, I am a community organizer, I am gay. And I find my interests and connections slipping easily back and forth across the divides you seek to articulate if not reinforce. I hope our little neighborhood continues to become just that — a neighborhood. Community is much more than geography. It grows out of countless interactions, connections, small and large contributions and collaborations. I am grateful that any group of people are managing to come together to create something with vitality and life. I see no reason why I can’t celebrate them all: the hard-working folk at Mama Buzz, Mr. Sabar and his risk-taking enterprise, Mr. Diallo who is working so hard to create vital cultural life in his community, and all those who are shaping and attending the Art Murmur.
Phil Porter, Oakland

Bring on the quake
That was an excellent story, just excellent. It was like reading a mutant case history from Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or even a fictional scenario from a Neal Stephenson novel. Unfortunately, it is a real story, and it seems to be happening in all the last few places in the world that seem to have value, and it will affect real people. Art hipsters=gentrification. I am actually hoping for a 9 earthquake down here to burst the bubble, or at least slow it down. But then again, that will begin a new set of problems.
Dean Kuwata, San Pedro

Raining on the parade
I’m a white kid from a lower-middle-class family. I lived in that neighborhood for years, I sell comics at Rock Paper Scissors, I’ve been sneaking into the Stork Club to see bands since I was sixteen, and I have even hung out at the gay bar down the street (the audacity). I have never been to the Art Murmur openings because it is not really my thing, but I hate it when a couple of buzzkills want to rain on everyone else’s parade.

Of course gentrification sucks, but I think it may be a symptom of the bigger problems, like crooked politicians, underfunded social services, crooked cops, predatory real estate developers, outrageous housing costs, no living wage, just to name a handful. It’s ridiculous to romanticize Oakland as still having any tie to the Gold Rush boom town it once was.

When people talk about stopping gentrification, they seem to always come to two options: Keep things exactly the way they are (which is impossible) or enforce some kind of segregation (which is totally lame). Then again, I didn’t graduate from Mills College with a degree in complainology, so what do I know?

My favorite ideas came from Marcel Diallo. He asks, “Can I ghost ride the whip in Piedmont?” Sure. What do I care? I don’t live there, and the only people I have met who do live there are uptight honkies. People drive crazy down my street, and I’m not joining the neighborhood Gestapo. In regards to his idea to start a gallery in some hick town in Tennessee named the Ku Klux Klan gallery — I think that is a great idea! If you ever open it, I hope you will consider me for a job as gallery assistant. I think it is always a better idea to do something that stirs the pot than mumble sour grapes because you weren’t invited to the stuffy world of mainstream galleries.
Tulsa Coomers, Oakland

In celebration
The British music press already coined an adequate phrase in the ’90s to describe the Murmur hipster scene: “The Scene that Celebrates Itself.”

Nick Fury, San Francisco

This ain’t SoHo
I am one of twenty artists who have, collectively, rented a storefront on Grand Avenue, two blocks from the focal point of his article. We have had two well-attended openings as part of the Art Murmur’s Friday night receptions. We have received nothing but praise and gratitude from the local residents for taking the risk in opening up a business in an area that has been run down and neglected for many years. Our presence brings a sense of vitality, safety, and beauty to the neighborhood. It is inclusive, not exclusive.

Although [Downs] made a few historically interesting comments, I suspect his research was as limited as it was lopsided, trying to exploit an issue to sensationally create a controversy that has little to do with Oakland’s expanding art community. He also seems confused, implying allegations that are rooted in economic issues, not color or gender. Mr. Downs could have written a more balanced, interesting, and positive article, had he taken the time to interview and report on the activities of at least ten of the other galleries involved.

Like many metropolitan areas in America, Oakland is facing a complex web of social and economic woes. Mr. Downs’ article does nothing to illuminate the intricate difficulties of these important issues while providing a false impression of the dynamics of the Art Murmur’s activities. Telegraph and 23rd Street is not, nor will it ever be, SoHo, and to imply that the opening of a dozen artist-run galleries automatically leads to a regional takeover by white corporate America is laughable. Mayor Brown had a vision of saving downtown Oakland by reinhabiting it with ten thousand new residences. Small, locally owned businesses are also a key component to this plan to have a revitalized and integrated city that serves all of its citizens fairly.
Robert Tomlinson, Oakland

A new reader
I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your piece. This kind of hipster gentrification is taking place in Chicago, where I go to school, in neighborhoods like Pilsen, and it was nice to understand it in a better perspective. I’m a first-time reader of the Express, but I’m definitely going to be a faithful one of such a quality periodical. Keep up the great work!

Lancelote Leong, San Mateo

Why is that?
My primary concern about Mr. Downs’ take on the matter is that he assumes that young white people in Oakland don’t care about black people or Oakland history. Also, he does not discuss the elephant in the room: White people seem afraid to (or at least highly anxious about) directly addressing black people and black culture in Oakland. Why is that?

Jeff T. Johnson, Oakland

To the strip malls!
Thanks for the perspectives you offered on the Oakland art scene. To me, the “revitalization” of low-income neighborhoods, whose residents are mostly low-income people of color, by mostly white hipsters and artists has become something of a cliché in today’s America. Soon there won’t be any more of these neighborhoods left to gentrify as low-income people of color continue to be priced out of cities and forced into outlying areas.

I am not really an artist, but would like to issue a challenge to artists to bring their galleries and work to suburbia. Most Americans live and work in suburbia, and it is the often-mind-numbing expanses of malls, chain stores, and tract homes that could use the presence and critique that great art can so powerfully provide. It is the culture of predominantly white, affluent communities (like the one I grew up in) in America that is the problem, not the culture of low-income people and people of color.

Art in its highest form is about creating and inspiring social change and transformation: Why don’t artists bring it out of the inner cities and into the strip malls where it is really needed?
Reed Adam, Oakland

What’s really going on
As a member of Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a mentor to local youth who use our space, and someone who has worked extensively in community-based organizations, I was horribly upset to see David Downs’ article. I truly welcome a discussion on gentrification and community-led actions in the face of condos and displacement — a plan the city has heavily been investing money in for years. And although I agree with Marcel Diallo’s sentiment that white artists cannot be ignorant of the community around them, Downs’ article used sensationalist tactics that did nothing but divide and polarize a community that could benefit from working together, and, in fact, has been.

Instead of reverting to “Mason-Dixon line,” a “comfy homo” vs. “awkwardly hetero,” as Downs did — let’s talk about what is really going on in downtown Oakland (and all over the USA). Let’s look at the complexities of the situation that allows us to see beyond dichotomies: how gay, straight, poor, privileged, white, black, Latino, and Asian artists, community activists, and residents can take advantage of the resources and diversity they have, so regardless of when the last condo is built in Oakland, our community will be solidified and strengthened, and ultimately revitalized by and for ourselves.
Taylor Neaman, Oakland

“Savage Hate,” Feature, 7/19

He needs therapy
I would say you’ve done an excellent job of detailing the life of someone [Michael Savage] who became mentally unstable early on in his life. What’s amazing to me is that so many people hold this guy in such high admiration. It makes me more convinced than ever that this country has become one very large mental ward.

For a man who “just wants to be loved,” going about spreading hate is hardly the route to success. I can only wish the real message of your article gets to the millions of people who sorely need to read it. Michael Weiner needs to bury his father and work through that never-ending stream of hate that gushes from within, much like America has to do somewhat the same thing in terms of foreign policy. Thanks for the insight into the very ugly soul of a person who, by all measure of reason, ought to be speaking to a therapist and not a national radio audience.
Paul Max Payton, Foster City

“Cops vs. Cocks,” Bottom Feeder, 8/23

Noise and pollution
Rebecca Daniels says that she has a legal right not to have to listen to a rooster crowing all day. What about legal rights of protection from freeways, which are constant and have a higher decibel rating than is allowed under the Oakland Noise Ordinance? What about motorcycles, leaf blowers, advertising planes, and TV helicopters? Besides the noise, these machines create air pollution that is injurious to health.

Caroline Kim, Oakland

Express wins awards
Former Express staff writer Jonathan Kauffman has won top honors for restaurant criticism from the national Association of Food Journalists in its 2006 awards contest. The award was in the category for newspapers with circulation of less than 150,000.

In addition, books editor Anneli Rufus was honored for criticism in the 2006 Excellence in Journalism awards, hosted by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Judges called her book reviews “provocative,” and “intelligent commentaries capable of standing on their own alongside the works they are reviewing.” In this contest, Bay Area media outlets of all sizes compete head-to-head.

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