WITH FEWER THAN HALF A MILLION RESIDENTS, Oakland’s complex art ecosystem rivals those of cities twice its size. Muralists, art-school grads, experimental musicians, artist-activists, graffiti writers, and Burning Man sectarians live and work throughout Oakland’s deindustrialized shoreline corridor and flatlands. Its DIY cultures are eclectic and often political, owing to the city’s distinctive history of liberation movements, mutual-aid networks, and labor organizing.
Fifteen years ago, Oakland was, relative to tech-gentrified San Francisco, semi-affordable. Today, Oakland artists battle colossal belligerents as varied as their aesthetic practices: parasitic developers, disingenuous politicos, cannabis carpetbaggers, and pandemic-induced housing and unemployment crises.
Last May, overlapping pressures produced an eruption. After months of Covid-19 lockdowns and job losses, video documenting Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd circulated widely. Floyd’s death, and the traumatizing distribution of its image, recalled the 2009 execution of Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station—the first viral civilian-documented police killing. As civil uprisings ignited across the country, Oaklanders took to the streets.
“Art played an ambivalent role in all of this,” writes Oakland journalist and musician Sam Lefebvre in the introduction to Terrain: Art and Crisis in Downtown Oakland (2021).
Edited by Lefebvre, Terrain catalogs “mutual-aid and cultural production during [Oakland’s] year of interlocking crises and unrest.” Among the dozen-plus contributors are street-medic collective Queers United in Community Care and members of the mutual-aid initiative We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, who offer concrete accounts of resource exchange that transcend charity. Poet and tenant organizer Julian Francis Park pens a primer on mutual-aid’s various applications. Lefebvre himself contributes “Plywood & Paint,” articulating differences between riot graffiti and sanctioned protest murals on boarded storefronts. Throughout, Terrain skewers financialized cultural nonprofits, whose increasing dependence on capitalist philanthropy has necessarily anesthetized their political resolve, turning them into the gatekeepers of dwindling resources and middle managers of dissent.
Ironic, then, that Terrain’s publisher should be Oakland nonprofit Pro Arts Gallery and COMMONS. But Pro Arts, founded in 1973, is a people’s institution. It provided Lefebvre with space, funding, and production facilities. As Terrain took shape, Pro Arts launched a radical, long-form program and opened its doors to protesters, printed protest materials free of charge, hosted free-food distributor Town Fridge, and presented “Landless Not Voiceless,” an exhibition curated by unhoused art collective Cardboard and Concrete. Facing a city-imposed rent burden, Pro Arts also joined the national rent strike.
“Terrain,” writes Lefebvre, “is one of the projects funded with rent withheld from the city.”
Since Jerry Brown’s 1999–2007 mayoral tenure, Oakland has marketed its vibrant culture to developers and higher-earning tax bases. Brown’s 10K Plan, which promised revitalization and ten thousand new downtown residents, aggressively branded and gentrified “Uptown,” a downtown neighborhood above Fourteenth Street near Lake Merritt.
Creative Growth, an organization serving more than 150 artists with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, had been in the neighborhood for two decades when Brown declared it Oakland’s arts and culture nexus. Today, high-rise condos, bars, and boutiques surround it. The welcoming studio and gallery has avoided displacement because it owns its building, a former auto-repair shop at Twenty-fourth and Valdez. While increased foot traffic has its perks—Creative Growth successfully markets artists’ work and provides every artist a stipend, regardless of sales—the incessant construction is disruptive. Skyrocketing rents have forced care and board homes where its artists live further into the East Bay, prolonging commutes. Director Tom di Maria told me that the city never reached out about developing this arts district. Yet he did receive “numerous calls from developers eager to buy our building.”
Although the focus of Brown’s redevelopment initiative was downtown, the shockwaves from it would impact East and West Oakland within a decade. Today, the city’s escalating affordability crisis continues to displace longtime residents or drive them into unsafe properties—the most tragic instance being the Ghost Ship warehouse, where a 2016 fire killed thirty-six people.
After Ghost Ship, Oakland’s current mayor, Libby Schaaf, earmarked $1.7 million for “safe and affordable spaces” and ordered temporary halts on evictions of unpermitted live-work tenants. But inspectors, Lefebvre reported in 2017, largely ignored Schaaf’s order. In an email sent in January, David Keenan of Safer DIY Spaces—a collective of architects, contractors, and organizers providing DIY communities with direct, confidential aid—suggested that habitability complaints that trigger inspections aren’t necessarily about tenant safety. Landlords report violations on buildings they’ve let deteriorate, resulting in red-tagging—a sinister loophole for voiding inconvenient leases. Real-estate agents, hoping to bundle neighboring properties into more profitable parcels, also make complaints to compel vacancies. Further, Schaaf’s public expressions of sympathy for tenants are arguably insincere; developer-baron John Protopappas—whose firm distributed 150 eviction notices despite a pandemic eviction moratorium, among other shady deeds—was Schaaf’s 2014 mayoral campaign-finance chair.
Recently, Schaaf has championed a pilot guaranteed-income program for Oakland’s poorest residents—ostensibly, a step toward closing the city’s racial wealth gap. But the program is heavily means-tested and exclusively funded by Blue Meridian, a Byzantine nonprofit whose financial partners include the reputation-laundering, influence-purchasing foundations of the tech-capitalists who made the Bay Area unaffordable in the first place. Could universal basic income positively impact DIY communities of color? Sure, but it’s unlikely that privately managed contingent allowances could ever effectively combat displacement when redevelopment is so profitable.
Oakland’s warehouses, once home to innumerable DIY communities, are primarily clustered along ten miles of Interstate 880 from West Oakland through downtown and East Oakland. In 2016, this deindustrialized corridor was designated the “Green Zone”: the rare urban district permitted for cannabis cultivation, processing, and sales.
Green Sage, a Colorado-based real-estate developer, purchases massive buildings in cannabis-permitted zones and profits by renting to growers, refiners, edible companies, and distributors. In 2017, Green Sage purchased adjacent East Oakland warehouses at 5601 and 5733 San Leandro Street. But 5733, a former cannery, presented a minor issue: Thirty people lived and worked there—legally.
The Cannery Collective formed in 1975, when painter Arthur Monroe, raised in Brooklyn and considered one of the few Black artists aligned with Abstract Expressionism, leased 5733 San Leandro, importing New York’s downtown-artist loft model to Oakland. Equipped with fabrication and administrative skills, Monroe established Oakland’s first city-permitted live-work building. He constructed twenty additional flats and sublet affordable workspaces. For forty years, Monroe produced intricate paintings and fostered a cross-generational community of artists, musicians, and local organizations. He was eighty-two years old when Green Sage tried to evict him.
Cannery residents raised hell. Media attention and guidance from Safer DIY Spaces stoked an emergency city-council vote in March 2018 that amended cannabis permitting and forbade the incoming industry from displacing residents, including—much to the chagrin of Green Sage—those in legal live-work spaces. Unpermitted residences and traditional studios, however, remain vulnerable to displacement.
Monroe passed away in 2019, but his son, music promoter Alistair Monroe, still calls the Cannery home. Alistair is proud of their victory; dozens of similar live-work buildings were saved. Yet Cannery residents are on constant guard and have alleged dangerous negligence by Green Sage, which rents out the nonresidential majority of the building’s square footage to cannabis operations.
Previously, the Cannery was well kept, but Green Sage terminated the position of building manager James Dawson—a resident since 1994—after eighteen years on the job. Residents have submitted numerous complaints to city leaders, hoping to prevent another Ghost Ship. Among the issues they allege: improper storage of volatile solvents and extraction equipment, which can explode; installation of massive rooftop A/C units without appropriate power upgrades, which has already caused an electrical line fire, a power outage, and near red-tagging; attempted cannabis-related armed robberies; intimidation by private security; nonfunctioning emergency lighting; and expired fire extinguishers.
On June 1, 2020, while mutual-aid communities assisted the George Floyd rebellion downtown, Green Sage sent Cannery residents an alarmist email from its Denver office. “URGENT!” it read. “We have just been advised that protesters are headed in the direction of 5601/5733 San Leandro, we have been advised to request that all evacuate the property ASAP if possible” (emphasis Green Sage’s). The Cannery is a ninety-minute trek from downtown; the “protesters” never materialized.
Having extracted artists’ cultural cachet, Oakland now seems all but outright hostile toward them. Historic DIY warehouses like LoBot, where Liz Harris of Grouper once lived and first performed, or Sugar Mountain, home to Brontez Purnell and his dance company with Sophia Wang, were, from a capitalist point of view, always illogical, but today they feel impossible. Could a community space like Mama Buzz Café, a displaced neighbor of Creative Growth, even secure a lease today? Against these odds, Oakland’s pluralistic art communities have proved durable. Creative Growth and Pro Arts have survived years of change. The once-displaced Rock Paper Scissors Collective tenaciously returned in an adapted form. Monroe just had an impressive posthumous New York survey organized by Alistair. Terrain’s artists represent an electric generation embracing solidarity over atomized, aspirational practices. But like every resilient entity, they have an elastic limit.
While activists, community organizations, and artists confront disproportionate powers of capital, elected officials prattle cynically about harmonizing bloodsucking profit with Oakland’s body politic. Urban renewal, tech, the Ghost Ship fire, and commercial cannabis have permanently deformed the city’s cultural terrain. Inevitably, Oakland’s pro-capital, anti-cultural practices will produce irreparable fracture. Perpetual resiliency has another name: precarity.
Sean J Patrick Carney is a writer in Berkeley, California.