Oakland’s Culture Clash

Newcomers to The Town either don't know about its secret sauce or they don't like it — and the problem is getting out of hand.

Mayor Libby Schaaf has sometimes been ridiculed on social media for overusing the phrase “secret sauce” when describing her hometown (and for riding too often in that fire-breathing snail car). But she’s right: Oakland does have a “secret sauce.” It’s an extraordinarily diverse city with a storied history, and a long tradition of political and social justice activism. It boasts a thriving arts and culture scene, it’s one of the hottest food destinations in the country, and its music scene remains as vibrant and creative as ever. Oakland is also a city of contradictions: It’s both loud and tranquil, crowded and desolate, beautiful and gritty.

But many newcomers to The Town, perhaps drawn here by housing that is much cheaper than it is in San Francisco (although it’s very expensive here and getting worse), seem to be unaware of Oakland’s secret sauce, or they desperately want to change Oakland so that it’s more like Anywhere, USA.

We’ve seen this culture clash erupt recently several times. And, unfortunately, it’s had racist overtones.

For example, our cover story last week featured an in-depth look at racial profiling by white Oakland residents on Nextdoor.com. The story detailed how white Oaklanders have increasingly flocked to the popular website to report “suspicious” behavior and urge each other to call police on Black people in their neighborhood who have done nothing wrong. The problem has gotten so bad that many Black residents have become increasingly concerned that their white neighbors will call police on them or their children merely for walking down the street or wearing a hoodie.

Late last month, we also reported on our website about a white resident who lives near Lake Merritt calling police on a group of Black drummers who were playing at the lake one evening. Even though drummers playing music at the lake has been a long tradition in the city, Oakland police responded to the man’s call with a large number of officers and then proceeded to hand out citations.

And then last week, NBC Bay Area reported on the increasing number of noise and other types of complaints being filed — apparently by newcomers to West Oakland — against Black churches in their neighborhoods. Paul Cobb, a longtime West Oakland resident and publisher of the Oakland Post, a Black newspaper, said the issue of white newcomers calling police or filing complaints against innocent Black residents has gotten seriously out of hand. “It’s super arrogant,” Cobb told me. “Churches don’t cause crime. Churches don’t cause blight. Churches don’t cause crime.”

Cobb and other Black leaders blame the forces of displacement and gentrification for the growing culture clash — of wealthy, young white residents with lots of disposable income coming here from San Francisco and outbidding longtime residents on homes and apartments. Cobb, who has been a homeowner in West Oakland for decades, says it’s not uncommon now for young white residents and realtors to knock on his door and ask to buy his home. “They’re so bold … people have come to my house and asked, ‘When are you leaving?’ … It’s like they’re saying, ‘We want you out. You’re in the way.'”

James Vann, who is Black and is a longtime tenants’ advocate, blames the displacement of Oakland’s Black residents and the current culture clash on the city’s weak tenants’ rights laws and the failure of our elected leaders to create enough affordable housing for local residents. “There’s a lot of tension right now … rents are going up and people are being evicted — landlords are pushing people out,” he said. Vann also noted that, unlike many other California cities, Oakland still allows developers to build housing in the city without including or paying for more affordable housing. “Our policymakers have just not been aggressive at all about doing anything.”

He’s right, of course. Schaaf and some city councilmembers have said that preventing displacement and creating more affordable housing are high priorities — but they have yet to actually do anything.

Many longtime Oaklanders, meanwhile, have directed their anger, not at city officials, but at new residents, heaping scorn on them as “gentrifiers.” But while the actions of some newcomers have been obnoxious, and even racist at times, the city’s elected leaders deserve much of the scorn for their glacier-like pace in addressing Oakland’s affordability crisis.

As for the newcomers who are hell-bent on remaking Oakland? Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice: You’re not going to get welcome hugs with that type of attitude. Sure, Oaklanders would love to reduce crime and make the city safer. But we don’t want to achieve that by racially profiling our neighbors of color.

So, please, turn off Nextdoor.com — or use it to actually to get to know your neighbors and help them create a community. And stop calling police on musicians — they’re an essential part of what makes this city so great. Also, don’t complain about your local Black church. It’s likely doing far more good than you know.

In short, take another taste of Oakland’s secret sauce. Go to a First Friday event. Check out the city’s fabulous art galleries. Go to a concert. See an A’s, Raiders, or Warriors game. Eat at a Fruitvale taco truck or a Chinatown takeout joint. Take a hike in Joaquin Miller Park or stroll around Lake Merritt. This city has a hella lot to offer.

And then after you do those things, make sure you tell your elected leaders to do something about this housing crisis.

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