The night a fire started between the ceiling of our apartment and the upstairs neighbor’s floor, I walked with my person to dinner. We dropped seventy dollars, but after a difficult week working in education and the arts nonprofit world, going out felt recuperative. Worth it. Dropping seventy dollars on dinner wasn’t something we did often, but it was possible, the sort of thing a person can do when you’ve lived in the same house for fifteen years while rents rise around you like water. Between 2012 and 2016, rents in Oakland rose by a little over 50 percent to a median monthly price of $2,500. Why the landlord never raised ours, not even by the incremental amounts allowed for rent-controlled units, remains a mystery. Our low rent was a kind of talisman, something we whispered to one another. When I confessed the amount to friends, they inhaled sharply. Of course we paid in other ways. Sewage in the basement, windows that didn’t open, mold, a mushroom growing from the kitchen wall. It’s an old story, a broken-down palace — the huge living room with original wood paneling where I hosted poetry readings and clothing swaps, the vegetable garden in a yard transformed from a trash heap. In its semi-abandoned state, the house felt like it belonged to us, to our neighbors. It didn’t. But the situation of that house allowed us to get by in a moment when it feels, sometimes physically so, that the Bay Area doesn’t want or need anyone without cash to pay the ever-increasing price of daily admission.
During those fifteen years, we lived through the flipping of an entire neighborhood. There were no Montreal-style wood-fired bagels when we first moved in, no new condominium developments, no beer and sausage gardens, no bone broth, no vintage boutiques, no cafés crowded with people working on laptops. As all of this began to arrive faster and faster, whenever I drank the good coffee, I had the distinct feeling of consuming something like my own death, my neighbor’s death, paying for the goods that are part of what it means to be priced out. And slowly but inexorably, the neighborhood became more white, like me. It is a weird thing to live through, this white flight in reverse, to know you are part of it structurally even if the life that led you here feels more like a series of idiosyncratic decisions that were barely even decisions. Sometimes I say I moved to the Bay Area for love, not exactly to be a writer, although that was in there too, for the rich history of this place, its way of not being New York, or any of the other places so many of my writer and artist friends came from: the Midwest, the South, the Inland Empire. Now they are leaving, going back, moving on. Also now, U-Haul rental costs in San Francisco lead the nation.
As we walked to dinner the night of the fire, there was smoke in the air, but we didn’t think much of it. Those who lived in increasingly large encampments at the bottom of our street often cooked food outside. And as we frantically packed and moved our remaining belongings to a storage unit the week after the fire, we drove through streets lined with the creative, precarious, sometimes beautiful makeshift dwellings of people who have lost their housing and don’t have resources to reenter what can only be understood as a violent, profit-driven housing market.
We are lucky. We have resources. I don’t know how to write this in a way that captures the enormity of that luck, which isn’t luck at all but rather some combination of identity and class, the resiliency and support of arts communities in the Bay Area. In the days following the fire when I wondered if we might have to leave, friends put us up and fed us, donated money, listened to our story. It’s thanks only to their generosity that we were able to land in a house in East Oakland, built on alluvial soil that used to be orchards. I say our new place feels like the old neighborhood used to, but when I look closer, all the signs are there. They say, for sale, or hard hat required. There are other signs too, resistant ones: families and dogs and music, a thriving informal street-food economy, the Tenants Rights Handbook, Causa Justa, Hasta Muerta Coffee. It’s impossible to live here if you’re not rich. But people still do.
Stephanie Young’s books of poetry and prose include Pet Sounds (forthcoming in 2019), It’s No Good Everything’s Bad, and Ursula or University. She edited the anthology Bay Poetics and, with Juliana Spahr, A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism. Young is a member of the Krupskaya editorial collective and directs the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Mills College.