The San Francisco Bay Area faces perhaps the most severe housing shortage in America, putting tremendous strain on low income neighborhoods, many of which are home to longstanding communities of color, of immigrants, and refugees. Two neighborhoods – the SoMa area of San Francisco and the San Antonio area of East Oakland – face different waves of the gentrification process. Tax breaks and high-rise construction have transformed SoMA (South of Market) into the city’s tech-hub, home to Twitter and many smaller companies. East Oakland, meanwhile, is seeing the slow encroachment of more affluent residents who are looking for affordability, and an upcoming BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line (in addition to the existing BART line) will likely intensify this process.
SoMa has traditionally been home to a large homeless community, many of whom live in the SRO’s (single-room-occupancy [cheap] hotels) in the area and are drawn to the public services located nearby. There is also an older, working-class Latino community, especially closer to the Mission and Potrero areas. San Antonio, Oakland, is home to a diverse potpourri of African American, Latino and Asian residents, including many immigrants and refugees from areas like Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
These two communities are home to unique organizations that are using art and culture to build community, to maintain local identity, and to combat market forces and mediate – if not stop – the gentrification process.
The University of San Francisco, as part of “Urban Studies Week” (sponsored by Urban Studies and Urban and Public Affairs) hosted two leaders from these non-profit organizations: Misha Olivas from “United Playaz” in San Francisco, and Prishni Murillo from Oakland’s “Eastside Art Alliance”. In a forum entitled ‘Art and Culture Against Gentrification’ (moderated by Professor Diane Negrin), Misha and Prishni discussed their approach to community building.
Too often, art and culture are seen (at least in urban theory) as harbingers of the gentrification process: artistic pioneers colonize under-valued urban space, sometimes de-populated former industrial zones, sometimes home to extant low income communities; followed by galleries and trendy parties; followed by cafes and shops and then by mainstream, more affluent residents and destination restaurants – ultimately resulting in the ironic displacement of the artists. At least, so goes the usual story (Zukin, 2011 for example).
Misha and Prishni presented a slightly different – and intriguing – twist to how art and culture can be utilized in a community as deliberate mediators within / against the gentrification process, rather than as facilitators of upscale neighborhood change and displacement.
In SoMa, United Playaz owns and operates a “clubhouse”, which serves as an anchoring point not only for neighborhood-based art groups, but also an important home base for one of the poorest communities in the city. In a city where land and building ownership is elusive for so many, the leveraging of city resources to buy property – and become a permanent neighborhood fixture – sends a powerful message.
Meanwhile, in East Oakland, the Eastside Arts Alliance is helping to curate a strong, intersectional neighborhood identity and a sense of permanence amidst the forces of change. Their mission statement encapsulates Oakland’s long history of activism, empowerment and liberation: “We are an organization of Third World artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color committed to working in the San Antonio and other Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.”
In addition to providing a physical space for the grassroots arts, Eastside Alliance also helps bind disparate and sometimes awkwardly-juxtaposed groups into a sense of shared belonging: one anecdote given was the example of an event, where a “Cambodian youth with gold teeth” mixed with “community elders in a traditional dance.” On March 11, the Alliance hosted a “Feast of Inter-generational Resistance”, featuring an open mic night and curated events relevant to the Vietnamese-American community, both young and old. But topics also included discussions on anti-Black racism, LGBTQIA themes, tools for grassroots activism and the experience of immigrants, among others. By providing a platform for such intra-generational and intersectional experiences – as well as intersections for various racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural histories to intermingle and co-exist – the Arts Alliance helps cement Oakland’s unique diversity and identity within the broader constellation of a fast – changing Bay Area.
There are practical applications within the City Planning sphere as well – the Arts Alliance, which has a presence at Oakland’s government’s table – has been pushing for “cultural plazas” as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route through the neighborhood. These will serve as neighborhood markers, but also, as educational tools for newer residents to say “we are here, this is our history”.
The pressures of the Bay Area economy and the shortage of housing and community space will continue, and the waves of change will reshape Oakland and San Francisco. But within these processes, groups like United Playaz and Eastside Arts Alliance are demonstrating the possibilities for alternative, and emancipatory, conversations and productions of urban space and self. As Prishni Murillo said in her closing remarks, people “cannot live their essence” under the oppression of (market forces, authoritarian government, racism, classism, any ism). Therefore, the arts provide an avenue for liberation; art-produced urban space is thus liberating urban space. In Murillo’s words, “as power pushes one way – it is our obligation to push back”.