Setting the Tone

I had the privilege of attending GIA’s Preconference After Ghost Ship: Supporting Artist-led Solutions to Equitable and Accessible Space Development on Sunday, October 21. While I am not an Oakland native, I have been living here ten years and feel increasingly protective of the city. Living in a rapidly gentrifying city makes you weary of change and suspicious of newcomers. At first, I didn’t really understand why GIA chose Oakland as the site for this conference on “Race, Space, and Place.” Oakland really is a unique place; unique because of its diversity, radical political history, and extremely high concentration of artists. What lessons could Oakland teach other cities when there’s no-one-size-fits-all approach to stopping displacement?

It makes sense to study Oakland when you are looking for solutions to displacement because we’ve been dealing with it for such a long time. Gentrification and displacement often feel too big to stop, so it was encouraging to see a variety of people with experience at putting practical solutions into place. I think one of the greatest strengths of this panel, curated by Claudia Leung, was that it featured subject matter experts on several different approaches to stemming gentrification, on the larger policy level of community benefits agreements and pushing an equity focus in city cultural planning, and on the more micro levels of buying buildings and getting them to comply with city codes.

GIA Program Manager Sherylynn Sealy began the panel by acknowledging that it was taking place on the occupied, unceded land of the Ohlone people. She then introduced keynote speaker Ashara Ekundayo, who helped set the tone for the preconference. Here are a few things Ekundayo said that particularly stuck out to me:

  • “I invite us to take our presence here very seriously”
    I interpreted this as her cautioning people to be conscious of the way they take up space, both as non-Ohlone people on Ohlone land, and as non-Oaklanders in a city where many of long-time Black and brown working-class residents are being pushed out to make room for whiter, wealthier new residents.
  • “I wonder is it possible for us to have love and greed occupy the same space.”
    This encapsulates what is happening in Oakland right now so well and so simply. We have a lot of people that love The Town and are fighting to keep it a place where people of color and low-income people can live. But we also have massive greed on the part of developers, politicians, business owners and landlords, who see the new residents as more profitable than the old ones, and don’t seem to mind seeing old (Black, brown, immigrant, working-class) Oakland swept away.

Ashara then shared a five-minute passage from James Baldwin’s speech “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here is a quote from Baldwin that stood out to me.

  • It does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, in the way that sand has some function. It is impersonal.”
    Here Baldwin is speaking of the poet’s higher purpose, to tell the truth, as only a poet can, even to those who do not want to hear it, regardless of what dangers it might bring upon the poet herself. The reason this passage stood out to me it because I think it does matter what happens to us, and I think we need to be conscious of who is using us. I feel that Baldwin was implying an argument that I have heard before, that the artist’s role is to serve as a conduit between the human and the divine. While having a higher purpose may drive many artists, in the context of a conversation about gentrification, there are other ways artists are used, and I think it is important to reflect on these and acknowledge them. I don’t claim to fully comprehend the role that artists play in gentrification, but I do see that they are often one of the first waves. That once a critical mass of artists moves into a neighborhood that was previously deemed unsafe, people with money follow. As a class of renters, artists serve as a buffer between the rich and the poor. How can we resist being used as people who make “unsafe” neighborhoods “safe” for people with money to move into, often causing the rents to rise so much that we ourselves are pushed out?

More coming soon.