The Year Oakland Exploded

For the first time in recent memory, Oakland's being noticed for its culture, not its crime rate. Is that a good thing?

No one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly when or why Art Murmur exploded the way it did in 2012, but it’s pretty obvious that what happened was swift, total, and huge: What began in 2005 as a small, simple, scrappy event devised in a coffee shop and oriented toward the relatively rarefied niche of art fans and galleries bloomed this year into a sprawling, roiling street party that requires extensive street closures and significant city and private resources to contain. According to Samee Roberts, director of marketing for the City of Oakland, the event’s attendance has increased by a factor of roughly five in 2012, meaning an estimated 25,000 people are now packing the streets of downtown Oakland each month. “It was just sort of this thing that happened. It’s hard to explain exactly why.”

Yes and no: All of this comes in context of a San Francisco that’s pricing out its creative class and an Oakland that’s welcoming it with open arms, of a city that continues to bring in new residents, new business, and new life even in the wake of a recession and the shadow of the tech-rich Silicon Valley. San Franciscans — even, in some cases, those who can afford rent and housing prices in the City — are moving across the bay in droves; of the four such transplants I spoke to for this story, all pointed to Oakland’s culture as part or all of the reason for their move. City revenues are up and new businesses are opening at a rapid clip. Gentrification debates — and they are valid, legion, and intractable — aside, it’s clear that something’s happening here, and First Fridays are more likely the effect than the cause. 

And the rest of the country has taken notice. Only six days after it began, 2012 was already an auspicious year for Oakland in the eyes of the media. That’s when The New York Times placed the city at Number 5 on its list of 45 places to go in 2012, declaring that “new restaurants and bars beckon amid the grit.” By April, the San Francisco Bay Guardian was asking “Is Oakland Cooler than San Francisco?” in block lettering on its front page — a question whose answer may have always seemed obvious on this side of the bay, but which was clearly a newsworthy one for the Guardian‘s editors. In October, the Times ran a story about First Fridays’ growth; the same month, news broke that ABC was developing a television pilot set in Oakland. Just weeks ago, Vogue published a web piece about the city’s nightlife and dining, and 7×7, of all publications, came out with a list of “50 Things to Do in Oakland Before You Die,” noting that “The Town … [has] a vibrant arts culture, incredible foodie scene, and strong sense of community and history all to itself.”

All of which was met largely with an odd mixture of pride and apprehension. On the one hand, Oakland is, in many ways, finally living up to some of its long-held ambitions — of a thriving arts scene, a vital downtown, a growing economy — and it’s gratifying to see the national media is now taking notice. “I haven’t seen this kind of positive press since maybe 2003, when the Raiders were in the Super Bowl, or 1989,” said Oakland native Matt Werner, who recently wrote a book, Oakland in Popular Memory, about the city’s arts scene and public perception. “At the end of the day, I like to see any non-homicide-related press.”

At the same time, though, there’s a certain strain of what can feel a lot like condescension running through many of these stories: The same Times article that exalted Art Murmur also invoked both “low flying police helicopters” and Gertrude Stein’s famous (and famously misinterpreted) would-be affront to Oakland, “There is no there there.” As Lukas Brekke-Miesner wrote in a January 7 post on the blog 38th Notes, “The Times juxtaposes Oakland’s former ‘grit’ with it’s apparent bougie rebirth as though the city wasn’t worth two cents before San Francisco chefs descended upon it.” The post then went on to quote poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge: “I take issue with the idea that Oakland is worth visiting only because new has supplanted old … That notion supposes that everything I’ve loved about my city for the last 27 years is void.”

Nearly a year later, Brekke-Miesner expanded on his points in an interview: “It’s clearly a complicated issue, when you’re talking about a city that’s been an underdog and in the shadows for so long,” he said. “[Seeing this coverage] is bittersweet … I want to see a more nuanced perspective on a very complicated place.”

It seems, then, that there’s no real consensus as to how we’d like the media to cover Oakland: The one high-profile story that bucked the rose-colored trend — a sprawling dissection of Occupy and Oakland’s radical politics for the Times magazine that portrayed the city as “urban, dangerous, and poor,” “the last refuge of radical America” that’s slowly being upset by gentrification — sparked, in its three-hundred-plus comments, a heated debate between those who thought it focused too much on urban strife and those who thought it did the opposite.

Because what makes media coverage of Oakland complicated is the same thing that makes living in Oakland complicated. To live in and love this city is also, necessarily, to feel deep ambivalence about it. “I love Oakland,” said Brekke-Mesiner. “But part of the love is that you’re loving something so imperfect.”

After all, even if 2012 was the year to visit Oakland, it was also the year at least 121 people were killed here, for a homicide rate that, at press time, threatened to reach a five-year high. The same city that spawned and supported Art Murmur has yet to find a sustainable funding model for it; Roberts said keeping the event alive as it is will require raising “a couple hundred thousand dollars.” And precisely what makes First Fridays fun, what made Occupy flourish, what makes Oakland attractive, to insiders and outsiders alike — its unruliness, its organicity and viscerality, a quality that the Times has likened to an “unsettled urban frontier” and that the writer Ishmael Reed called in his 2003 ode to Oakland, Blues City, “brawling and husky” — is also what can make these things scary. An understaffed police force is great when you want to throw a street party or a sideshow, less so when you’re robbed.

This is a city with immense opportunities and equally immense challenges, a city that, when all’s said and done, really does have both Michelin-starred restaurants and its fair share of the Times‘ “grit,” even if we wouldn’t necessarily describe it that way. It’s a city whose downtown corridor is drawing well-deserved accolades while the vast swaths to the east and west are under-covered and overlooked, still rife with violence and poverty. It’s a city that’s managed to make and remake itself in innumerable ways, but it’s also a place where systemic problems have festered for generations. It is, in other words, a city that encapsulates many of the ambitions and anxieties of postindustrial America. Oakland’s complexity is also what’s made it a useful metaphor for what Reed termed “a newly emerging America”; perhaps that’s why Art Murmur and Oakland have become, in Roberts’ words, “a local story that’s gone national.” What remains to be seen is where the story ends and how it’s told.

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