Oakland, Calif., is two time zones away from Brooklyn Park and a whole continent away from Harlem. It could either be a utopian vision of some multiculti urban future or its dystopian, post-industrial present. For a long time, Oakland was the cultural anchor on the West Coast for black Americans. If Harlem gave us the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance, then Oakland gave us the Black Panthers (and thus the modern gun rights movement) and a groundbreaking resolution on Ebonics. Oakland’s black population, tiny before World War II, exploded largely due to an influx of workers at the city’s shipyards, and eventually composed nearly half the city.
But now white people make up the biggest group — Oakland’s 34 percent white, 28 percent black, 25 percent Latino, and 17 percent Asian. It’s one of the few cities in the country with significant populations of several major racial groups. It’s become a haven for young, skinny-jeaned, creative-class types — Forbes recently named the Uptown section one of the 10 best hipster neighborhoods in the country — all while the city has remained pretty violent. Although black people make up just over a quarter of the city’s population, they made up three-fourths of its homicides in 2012. Meanwhile, local television news crews are spending less time on the streets reporting on those crimes because their equipment keeps being stolen. It’s a city with neighborhoods on alternate timelines.
The aforementioned Uptown used to be a hub of black life in the city. But today …
“The Chocolate City notion — gone, gone, gone!” said Benjamin Bowser, a sociologist at California State University, East Bay. “There are multiple cultures: chocolate, Vietnamese, you can’t even say Hispanic anymore, it’s Mexican and Salvadoran, Nicaraguan. We even have enough people from Africa to say there’s Nigerians, Senegalese.”
What’s happening in Oakland is definitely gentrification, but it’s not the way we often think of gentrification. It’s not white people pushing out black folks; in Oakland, it’s black folks leaving of their own volition, black folks being pushed out, black folks staying, and everyone else moving in.