.Will Oakland Lose Its Artistic Soul?

Members of The Town's vibrant arts community say they're at risk of displacement because of skyrocketing rents, and that Oakland isn't moving fast enough to protect its cultural identity.

On the first Friday of February, during Oakland’s monthly street fair, patrons packed into Betti Ono Gallery in the heart of downtown. The gallery’s walls featured photos by Brittani Sensabaugh, depicting Black, disenfranchised communities across the country — including the deep East Oakland one where the artist grew up. With her mother by her side, Sensabaugh spoke about what she aims to achieve through her work: uplifting struggling communities by representing them authentically, rather than relying on harmful stereotypes. Afterward, a patron asked a question that seemed to have been on the minds of many: “What are your thoughts on gentrification?”

“I’ve got a lot of thoughts about that, but let me just keep it to a bare minimum,” Sensabaugh responded. “It’s not even the fact that they are coming in, it’s the fact that the people coming into the neighborhoods are not embracing the culture that is already there.”

At Betti Ono, conversations about art and politics are always entangled. Physically, the gallery itself offers a metaphor for that deliberate intersection. Tucked into the Broadway-facing edge of Frank Ogawa Plaza, the space occupies the same plot as City Hall, with its door mere yards from the city council chambers. There, it’s uniquely poised to bring the concerns of artists and culture makers to a place where they can’t be ignored by those in power — to amplify unheard voices on a stage at the center of the city.

But Betti Ono’s own voice is in danger of being silenced. Recently, the gallery’s founder and director, Anyka Barber, received notice from her landlord — the City of Oakland — that her rent was going up by 60 percent. That works out to $22,000 more a year, and the gallery can’t afford it. According to Barber, when she moved into the space five years ago, representatives from the city’s real estate department told her she would eventually be able to secure a long-term lease, and that the city would provide support for improvements on the space to accommodate her programming. But instead, the city has hiked the gallery’s rent every year.

Although Barber has been requesting a long-term lease from the start, the city has only offered her one-year leases, she said. And since the gallery’s last lease ended in December, she has been operating on a month-to-month basis — a situation that has greatly inhibited her ability to plan for future programming and apply for outside funding or loans, she said. The space is currently in limbo, she added, because representatives of the city’s real estate department have asked her to hang on until they decide whether they can offer her a lower rate. Meanwhile, she’s had to turn down artists and cultural organizations interested in collaborating. Soon, she’ll be launching an online fundraising campaign in hopes of keeping the gallery open.

“We don’t have a lease, which means we don’t have a home,” Barber said in a recent interview. “That’s a really, really hard thing to say about a space that has been intentional about creating space for people of color in Oakland, especially Black people, to feel like they belong and that they have just as much access to downtown and can celebrate themselves in public and be seen and be accepted and be protected just like any other group in the city should be able to do.”

The challenges facing Betti Ono Gallery are not unique. Although Oakland’s art and culture scene has blossomed during the past decade and gained widespread recognition for its vibrancy, a growing number of arts and cultural spaces are currently at risk of displacement. In fact, many have already shuttered, and artists and gallery owners are increasingly worried that Oakland may eventually lose its artistic soul.

For the past eight months, Barber has been working to stem the tide of displacement of Oakland’s artists and cultural spaces as one of the core leaders of Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition (OCNC). Barber co-founded the group in June with Katherin Canton, a network coordinator with Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco Bay Area, in hopes of organizing around rising concerns over Oakland’s arts community being priced out of the city. (Canton has since stepped away from her leadership role in the coalition due to time restraints, but well-known Oakland arts advocate Eric Arnold, a former Express staffer, has taken on a prominent role, among others.)

OCNC, which now has hundreds of members, initially came together in an attempt to draw city officials’ attention to the need for Oakland to hire more staffers in its cultural arts department before the 2015-2017 city budget was finalized in June of last year. The city has been without an arts commission since it disbanded in 2011.

The city’s cultural affairs department used to be robust: From 2001 until 2003, it had thirteen employees working specifically on arts-related matters. But since then, the department’s staffing has gotten consistently smaller. It also took a major cut during the recession. Today, it only has three full-time employees and one part-timer, with only two of those positions dealing directly with art and artists.

Pamela Mays McDonald, an OCNC member and External Affairs chair for Oakland Art Murmur, a nonprofit organization that supports and represents Oakland galleries, addressed the issue in a recent email: “The fact that the Cultural Arts Department has been kneecapped by having no commission of responsible citizens for advocacy and oversight, combined with being grossly underfunded and understaffed, leaves culture workers here defenseless against the onslaught of gentrification,” she wrote. “There is no institutional understanding that the arts are an economic engine for the area; they are not just a cynical lure to make a neighborhood pretty to attract outside investors.”

Nonetheless, during last year’s budget talks, the city council declined to increase the size of the department or reestablish the arts commission. Since then, OCNC has been working to narrow down a list of the arts community’s top priorities and concerns. So far, those have mostly focused on the need for more affordable housing, rent security for studios and creative spaces, and legislation that would immunize pre-existing cultural communities from noise complaints by new residents.

Another core concern for the coalition has been rallying artists to provide input for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan. The city’s extensive planning process has been engaging with community members to produce a detailed vision for what downtown is going to look like if developers continue to invest in Oakland — how tall buildings will be, what kinds of occupants they will have, and how much affordable housing will be built. OCNC aims to ensure that the arts community is prominently positioned in that vision, so that the scene thrives in Oakland over many more decades.

Those involved with OCNC, and many groups of artists organizing alongside it, agree that now is a critical moment for Oakland’s creative contingent to make demands of the city, and for the city to be responsive to those demands — before Oakland loses its cultural identity.

“To be a world class city, to have all this cultural vibrancy and ‘diversity’ and all this specialness that everybody talks about, there needs to be a clear strategy to protect that and to grow that,” said Barber. “I think our city leadership could really set the stage for some really powerful new policies that could inform cities across the country and across the world.”

In the early Aughts, following the first dot-com crash, Oakland’s Uptown district was riddled with storefront vacancies, and rents were extremely cheap. So artists began to move in: DIY spaces Mama Buzz and Rock Paper Scissors Collective (RPSC) were some of the first to open up. Others soon followed, and during the next decade, the neighborhood transformed from a rarely walked, crime-ridden district to one with the densest aggregation of galleries in Oakland.

During the mid- to late Aughts, the migration of artists from San Francisco to Oakland started to hasten, as more artists were attracted by the East Bay’s affordable rents, its high prevalence of studio spaces, and DIY art culture. And in recent years, during the latest tech boom, San Franciscans have been moving across the bay in hordes, thereby driving up rents even further and making Oakland’s economic climate less accommodating to the low incomes of artists.

As rent prices have soared, even landlords who had been sympathetic to cultural spaces in the past are finding they can’t afford not to rent at market rate. And the depletion of affordable housing and workspaces is creating a strong sense of insecurity for artists and cultural professionals.

Last year, San Francisco’s arts commission conducted a survey of artists that work in the city and found that 72 percent of nearly six hundred respondents said they had either been displaced or were facing imminent displacement from their workspace, home, or both.

Last November, a taskforce appointed by Mayor Libby Schaaf to research artist housing and workspaces conducted a similar survey in Oakland and received more than nine hundred responses. The complete survey results have yet to be published, but a memorandum that the task force submitted to the mayor in late December outlined the main takeaways: While 70 percent of respondents said that they do not fear imminent displacement in their workspaces or homes, the majority felt that workspace and housing costs are the biggest challenge to being an artist in Oakland. In addition, half of the respondents said they are paying month-to-month for housing and workspace, rendering them particularly vulnerable, especially for those in commercial spaces because they have no rent control or rent protections.

Kelley Kahn, who works on special projects for the mayor’s office and manages the task force, said in a recent interview that the results show that we’re currently in the midst of a critical window of time during which the city has an opportunity to prevent the same kind of creative exodus that San Francisco experienced. “The time is now to start intervening,” said Kahn. “And our interventions may actually have an impact because the artists have not left yet.”

But even before the survey was conducted, it was clear that Oakland’s artists were starting to face a crisis. For many, that realization came in July when Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a gallery and nonprofit community space that specializes in arts programming for low-income youth, announced that it could no longer afford the space it had occupied on the corner of 24th Street and Telegraph for eleven years. The landlord, who had long worked with the collective’s members to keep the rent affordable, finally decided to raise the rent to market-rate — more than triple what the collective had been paying. RPSC had been the last founding member of the First Friday art walk and Art Murmur — its organizing body of galleries — to still exist in the area.

“This space has become attractive to wealthier tenants because of the years of hard work we have put into building a community of engaged artists, musicians, and performers, and as a reward we are being kicked out to make way for a wealthier class of renters,” read the July 10 announcement from RPSC. “Will they share RPSC’s dedication to making art accessible for everyone? Will they be as community-focused? Will they stand in solidarity with the people of Oakland, as we have?”

The physical closure of RPSC (the collective is still doing programming out of other arts spaces) was followed by a series of similarly unsettling events. Also in July, the city declared that Humanist Hall, a community space on 27th Street, between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, was a public nuisance due to noise complaints from neighbors. The city imposed a $3,500 fine and threatened daily $500 penalties if the complaints should persist. Not long after, a longtime West Oakland gospel church, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, received similar threats of fines for noise complaints about its choir. And in September, as covered widely in the local press (including in the Express), a white Lake Merritt neighborhood resident called the police on a group of Samba Funk African drummers playing at the lake, resulting in a clash between drummers and Oakland police.

The issues collided at the fourth OCNC meeting in October, which was held at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. In the crowd of about one hundred attendees was Oakland Museum of California director Lori Fogarty; Pleasant Grove Baptist Church pastor Thomas A. Harris III; Samba Funk African drummers; and curators, dancers, and visual artists of all stripes — all airing grievances about Oakland’s apparent cultural shift. At one point, Pastor Harris took the floor to passionately demand that the church community be included in the coalition’s campaign. In the moment of tension, Barber made it clear that she felt every issue that had been brought to the table was part of one complex struggle to fight displacement and cultural erasure in Oakland. “The issues that are impacting the churches are the same issues that are impacting the arts and culture community,” she asserted. “It’s not separate.”

Marvin X Jackmon, a West Oakland native, co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, and seminal writer on Black radical politics, can often be found across the street from Betti Ono Gallery, at the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street, where for years he has set up his “academy on da corner.” There, Jackmon works to preserve Oakland’s legacy of Black radicalism — for which the 14th Street corridor has historically served as an anchor — while urging pedestrians to wake up to the reality of the Black struggle in America.

For the past year, Jackmon has also been an essential advocate for a resolution — sponsored by city council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney — to create a Black Arts Movement and Business District along 14th Street, from Oak Street to Frontage Road. The stretch includes Betti Ono, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, the Niles Club, Joyce Gordon Gallery, Club Vinyl, The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, and a number of other longtime Black-owned businesses.

The Oakland City Council unanimously passed the resolution on January 19. As is, the official designation only entails signage for the district — Jackmon envisions Pan-African flags flying above the street. But proponents hope the council will also enact legislation that will ensure community members have a powerful voice in how the district develops and are protected from displacement. In a recent interview, Jackmon said that his ultimate goal is to build a trust fund that would allow for community members to acquire the buildings that their businesses inhabit. “The main point is how do we maintain the longevity of this district after what we went through in West Oakland, in the Fillmore, and what Harlem is going through right now?” said Jackmon. “It’s the same thing, so even if you build it, will it stand? And how long will it stand?”

At the January 19 council meeting, when the resolution was passed, a number of prominent community members urged councilmembers to not let the designation prove to be an empty gesture. “This is the first step, and I appreciate it, but there’s so much more that we need to do to ensure that we don’t become a relic and this Black Arts District is not just superficial, but we actually have Black bodies that are living in the city that can continue this legacy of artistic engagement and Black businesses,” said Carroll Fife of Oakland Alliance, a coalition for racial, social, and economic justice. “Folks at the Malonga Casquelourd Center … will they be able to impact the decisions that could displace them? Like the condo that is going up in front of the mural across the street from [the Malonga Center], what kind of say will these individuals who are part of this district, and who are business owners, have in the development of the city moving forward?”

Fife was referring to a 126-unit condominium project that’s planned for a parking lot across from the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a historic home to some of Oakland’s most vital dance communities, such as Bantaba Dance Ensemble; Dance-A-Vision Entertainment; Diamano Coura West African Dance Company; Dimensions Dance Theater; and AXIS Dance Company, a company that works with disabled dancers. Members of the Malonga community have opposed the development in part because it would cover a large cultural mural that was the product of a three-year effort by the mural arts organization Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP). The mural project cost $80,000 — and nearly half of the money came from Oakland’s cultural funding program.

In a recent interview, CRP director Desi Mundo said that the city had initially recommended the wall as a location for the mural because it was blighted. To create the mural, CRP muralists interviewed Malonga’s artistic residents and Chinatown cultural leaders in order to create art that would depict the cultural legacy of the area and its resilience in the face of ongoing threats of gentrification. But only three months after the mural’s completion, Mundo learned about the development plans.

At a planning commission meeting earlier this month, developer Maria Poncel said her company, Bay Development, plans to help “kickstart” a replacement mural project on the Laney College campus to make up for CRP’s loss. But during public comment, Mundo urged the commissioners to delay the project’s approval until Poncel offers the CRP a memorandum of understanding concerning the funding.

“The idea that we’re just gonna be capable of re-raising all that money and that the developer won’t be responsible for it, even though they said that they would, feels very disingenuous to us,” Mundo later told me.

The planning commission, however, green-lighted the condo project without requiring a firm commitment from the developer, thereby seemingly not taking the community’s concerns into account.

Since the project’s approval, Mundo and others have filed an appeal of the decision and are waiting to be notified of when it will appear in front of the city council. They ask not that the project be denied, but that the developer include community benefits in the project, including funding 100 percent of the mural replacement costs. Supporters also marched on City Hall on February 11 to draw attention to their concerns.

On the evening of January 13, a group of Uptown artists and curators convened at the 25th Street Collective, pulling up about twenty mismatched chairs around a snack table. They were nervous that the city doesn’t care about preserving their neighborhood.

Signature Development Group, run by Michael Ghielmetti, has been buying up properties in the area in order to build condos. And, as the Express reported, the Oakland Planning and Building Department, at a planning commission meeting last fall, attempted to sneak through a zoning change that would have benefited Signature by allowing the developer to construct taller buildings than would normally be allowed in the area (see “Special Deal Would Benefit Influential Developer,” 11/4). After an uproar from gallerists, who are concerned about rising rents, construction inconveniences, and depleted natural light, the city postponed the decision.

Members of the Uptown artists contingent are also vying for their own cultural district designation. But they hope to have artist-protection legislation folded into the designation from the get-go, possibly including a requirement that a certain percentage of each new development in the area go toward cultural use. They are also considering proposing that the city offer landlords incentives, like tax breaks, in exchange for renting to cultural arts spaces at below market-rate.

Vessel Gallery owners Lonnie Lee and Ken Ehrhardt are currently spearheading an effort to write a resolution based on the community’s input, and rallying people to ask their city councilmembers to support it. Their hope is that if it gets passed, it can serve as a template for other cultural districts to be designated throughout the city.

Lee and Ehrhardt moved into the neighborhood before much was there in the way of art. Like many gallerists in Oakland, they completely renovated the space, which had once been a stable for the Oakland Fire Department’s horses. Now, the worn wooden floors and vaulted ceilings add a hip charm to the loft, which glows with natural light in the afternoon and often has a pleasant breeze passing through it. Such improvements, however, have also contributed to what makes the area enticing to developers and wealthier tenants.

“[Developers] say, ‘Oh, look at what the arts have done. Isn’t it cool? We want to buy property here. We want to be here because of them,” Lee said.

For some, the Uptown gallerists’ attempt to protect the area’s art scene is already too late. The 25th Street Collective — the venue for the January 13 meeting and a shared incubating space for local makers — will soon close. The collective’s rent recently shot up by nearly 40 percent, and by August, all of the resident artists will have to be out because they can no longer afford it.

But Hiroko Kurihara, founder of 25th Street Collective as well as Oakland Makers — an organization that supports small-scale local manufacturers and artisan producers — seems more concerned with the bigger picture. She’s worked at the intersection of manufacturing and social enterprise for many years, and has also been an active member of Mayor Schaaf’s Artist Affordable Housing and Workspace task force, which Kurihara has represented multiple times at meetings for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan.

Kurihara is interested in creating a citywide cultural district that would try to reap funding benefits from the statewide California Arts Commission budget. That way, Oakland’s arts community won’t be divided. “There’s a little pot of money, and then all these competing interests end up squabbling over scraps,” said Kurihara. “We can’t do that if we’re gonna really try to coalesce and build a cultural arts-based community.”

But she’s also concerned with how the housing crisis crucially plays into the plight of Oakland’s artists. She argues that without development impact fees to pay for more affordable housing — a program that the city has yet to approve — attempts at saving art spaces will be futile, because there won’t be any artists left who can afford to live in Oakland.

“I understand that the mayor, her platform is ‘Made in Oakland,’ but she really needs to be able to say ‘Stayed in Oakland,'” said Kurihara in a recent interview. “And I understand that right now, the city doesn’t have the revenue [to build affordable housing], and there’s a fear that if we don’t create a transitional easing into what the impact fees are going to be that development will cease. But I think if you were to ask anybody — I mean anybody — if Oakland will remain dormant [if impact fees go into effect], it’s just not gonna happen.”

The city has been studying the idea of requiring market-rate developers to pay impact fees on new housing projects for more than a year. Earlier this month, a city council committee voted to move forward a plan to launch the fee program in September, but the full council is not expected to officially approve the proposal until sometime in March — at the earliest. Numerous other Bay Area cities, including both Berkeley and Emeryville, already have such fees in place to pay for affordable housing.

Kristi Holohan of RPSC said Schaaf recently assisted her in setting up a potential deal for RPSC to move into the bottom floor of a new condo project to be built by Signature Development Group on the parking lot directly behind the building that RPSC used to be in. Holohan said it would be a relief to finally find a space after months of being turned down by landlords all over the city, but she is also concerned that if there’s no affordable housing in the area, it may no longer be an appropriate place for RPSC’s programming.

“Are they going to have affordable housing?” Holohan asked, while painting a mural with youth in San Francisco. “Because we serve a demographic that is really diverse.”

At the January 22 opening of the newly expanded San Francisco Arts Commission galleries, attendees could barely move through the three exhibitions. The main gallery, which featured work by recently deceased East Bay artist Susan O’Malley, was packed so densely that you could barely hear internationally celebrated performance artist Guillermo Goméz-Peña giving a monologue in the center. Housed in the War Memorial Veterans Building, the galleries are a gorgeous new addition to the city’s arts landscape, yet the support that the galleries are meant to offer to local artists has arrived a few years too late. Most of the local artists who show there will likely be commuting from the East Bay.

Over the past few years, San Francisco has partnered with organizations like ArtSpan and The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) to preserve what’s left of its arts community. ArtSpan organizes art exhibitions in underutilized or vacant spaces in San Francisco. CAST is a nonprofit that uses foundation money to purchase buildings that are already inhabited by important cultural hubs, then leases the buildings back to them at an affordable rate with the intention of eventually selling it to them at the same price that the nonprofit originally paid.

Joshua Simon — who is CAST’s treasurer and is the executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (a nonprofit community development organization) and a member of Mayor Schaaf’s task force on artist housing and workspace — described the problem that CAST addresses as a “space chase.” That’s when buying property is just financially out of reach for arts organizations, leaving them perpetually vulnerable. CAST attempts to close that gap by buying an artspace and helping the arts organization build itself financially until it’s ready to purchase the space at the same price that CAST paid for it. In the last few years, CAST has acquired buildings for San Francisco’s CounterPulse and Luggage Store Gallery.

The memorandum that Schaaf’s task force submitted in December outlines the top strategies for preserving the arts in Oakland based on case studies from across the country. Most of them focus on ways for art spaces to achieve ownership and long-term affordability. One of the most promising strategies is to create an acquisition program for Oakland that’s modeled like CAST. Other strategies include creating community land trusts through which artists could collectively own properties; leasing underutilized city-owned buildings to artists at affordable rates (until tenants are found); incentivizing private developers to offer affordable, long-term artists spaces by using zoning tools; and greatly increasing available technical assistance and educational resources for artists. According to Kelley Kahn of the mayor’s task force, the city is currently devising programming for training artists and gallerists on topics such as how to negotiate a long-term protective lease, how to build a business plan, and how to get funding from foundations.

“Where Oakland is and where San Francisco is, I think there’s a lot more hope for Oakland,” Schaaf said in a recent interview. “I think we are intervening at a much earlier stage than San Francisco did. We are absolutely looking to learn lessons from San Francisco and avoid the displacement.”

But according to Kahn and Schaaf, in order to move forward with many of these strategies, it will be crucial to reinstate the city’s arts commission in order to work through complicated details. Kahn also pointed out that the last Oakland arts commission stopped meeting because they were having trouble reaching quorum. And she thinks that’s because the commission had very little power to influence the city and rarely dealt with heated issues. She and Schaaf also both want the city to resurrect the Cultural Affairs manager position that was cut a few years ago, and for the council to then heed both the commission and the cultural affairs manager’s recommendations.

“We also need someone who can just be mindful of the very issues we’re all talking about,” said Kahn. “About what does it mean to be an artist in Oakland? What kind of support can the city give them? What can we do from a real estate perspective to improve their ability to stay in Oakland? What can we do with our own arts and cultural space that we own? There’s a broader scope of work that needs to be held by this unit than they’re currently capable of doing.”

Schaaf said the city received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the purpose of creating a cultural plan to preserve Oakland’s arts and to reestablish the city’s arts commission, but that process hasn’t started because Oakland needs a Cultural Affairs manager to lead it. Plus, the commission can’t be reinstated until the cultural arts department hires more staff to support it, she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who does not support having a cultural arts commission,” said Schaaf. “It’s just that we don’t want to ask people to volunteer their time if there’s no staff support to provide them the assistance.” Schaaf, who has been mayor since January 2015, said she plans to bring forth legislation to the council on February 23 to reinstate the Cultural Affairs manager position.

Meanwhile, the full results and analysis of the task force’s survey will be publicly released in about a month, although it could be longer, according to Kahn. Schaaf said the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a major funder of the arts, has agreed to partner with the city to move forward with some of the strategies presented by her task force. The Rainin Foundation recently formed its own working group to conduct a study of Oakland’s art ecosystem to identify how best to support those strategies, said Schaaf. When asked for a general timeline, she offered only that “work is underway.”

At the most recent presentation for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, which was held at the Malonga Casquelourd Center, the plans presented were meant to reflect adjustments made based on community input. For example, in the uptown area (technically called Koreatown Northgate), planners had applied a “surgical” approach to infill development so as not to displace galleries in the area, and plans for the 14th Street corridor were titled “Black Arts Movement and Business District.” The adjustments were somewhat promising, but seemed like baby steps to many.

As he presented, the planning head, Victor Dover, projected a slide that read “Development Without Displacement” in large, bold letters. But toward the end of the lengthy presentation, an older Black woman could not wait any longer. She walked in front of the audience to exit, and voiced angry concerns about local, Black-owned establishments having already been displaced because of development.

Soon, Betti Ono could be the next of those to go.

“We need something implemented right now. Today,” Barber told me. “We’ve needed it before the lease expired, and we’ve needed it for four or five years, so to say just hold on and at the same time we can’t even do business is damaging.”

“We’re being pushed out,” she continued. “We’re being priced out, and we need the city to act now. What are you waiting for?”

Correction: The original version of this report erroneously referred to AXIS Dance Company as Axis Dance Group.


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