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“Expanding the Frame” Video Now Available!

For those of you unable to attend our public symposium “Expanding the Frame: Multiple Perspectives on Gentrification on Oakland” on May 7, 2016, the edited video of the event is now available on YouTube and at our public symposium page here on our website. A big thanks to the Oakland Public Library for hosting the event and to our participants: Woods Ervin with Critical Resistance, Deseree Fontenot with People of Color Sustainable Housing Network, Jae Maldonado with Street Level Health Project; and Johnella La Rose with Indian People Organizing for Change.

‘Oakland School’ Public Symposium- Expanding the Frame: Multiple Perspectives on Gentrification in Oakland

Oakland School May 7 Flyer (2)

The Locatedness of Gentrification as Process and Theory

by Alex Werth

The idea of an “Oakland School” of urban studies is a source of controversy within our working group. It means different things to different people—at times positive, others negative. Thank goodness. This difference is what draws me into our dialogue. It gives me hope that new ways of engaging with the city in thought and practice—ones that are ultimately more nuanced, accountable, and useful—are possible.

To me, the idea of an “Oakland School” is meant to put this dialogue, and the controversy it necessarily entails, at the center of any attempt to formulate knowledge about a place as complex and contested as Oakland (especially given the disparities within our group and, as graduate students, between us and most of the population at large). Rather than claim a comprehensive and authoritative account, it points to the partial and provisional nature of any attempt to make sense of the city in the midst of rapid transformation. Referring with a nod and a wink to the so-called Chicago and L.A. Schools, the name ironizes the tendency within the social sciences to exalt a specific metropolitan area as a sign of “the urban” as a universal and singular entity. To me, the “Oakland School” is about resisting rather than replicating that tendency. Our aim is not to represent this place to itself (a task as useless as it is irresponsible). Nor is to spotlight it as a model or example to folks from elsewhere. Rather, it is to discuss the contested and contingent nature of the processes of not only urban change in Oakland, but also producing knowledge about this place (and the relationships it entails). To that end, I see the issue of locatedness—in terms of both urban process and theory—as essential. And this is why I see the “Oakland School” as a blessing: it allows me to engage with a group of talented and committed scholars around a common object of study in ways that cross social and disciplinary lines.

This issue of interdisciplinarity was in full effect at our November meeting, at which we discussed gentrification and displacement. I have received most of my academic training in the urban social sciences. In disciplines such as geography, sociology, and planning, scholars have primarily focused on gentrification as a window into the restructuring of urban society and space—as geographical evidence, taken in large part from Western Europe and North America, of changes in the class and profit-making structure of post-industrial capitalism. But in our discussion it became clear that this orientation towards present/emergent time, and on class and capital as supposed universals, has the potential to obscure as much as it reveals. For instance, Savannah Kilner noted that the common use of “colonization” as a metaphor for the gentrification of working-class districts can displace attention from the ongoing nature of settler colonialism in places like Oakland. In a similar vein, Andrea Miller pointed out that, in the context of contemporary struggles against displacement, the discourse of native-ness (as in, “I’m an Oakland native”) works to “normalize the settler,” further eliding indigenous dispossession and erasure.

This, for me, gets at the heart of the locatedness of urban process and theory. Since the 1970s, popular and academic accounts of gentrification have been animated by repeated references to clashes between “pioneers” and “natives” on the “urban frontier” as stand-ins for racial and class encounters and conflicts. In so doing, however, they have ignored the concrete geographies and bodies made and unmade through U.S. colonial conquest. The late geographer Neil Smith’s canonical text The New Urban Frontier exemplifies this tendency. Treating the “frontier” as a universal terrain of capital accumulation that spans time and space—rather than as set of specific geographies, with specific histories of racialized violence—Smith reduces the contingency of urban struggles to a singular fight against the restructuring of capitalism. But as consequential as that restructuring may be, we cannot lose site of the way it collides with and compound other trajectories of dispossession.

For these and other insights, I am grateful to my colleagues (as well as local activists). I believe that such perspectives point to the locatedness of gentrification in ways that, for me, indicate the value of our dialogue as an “Oakland School.”

Oakland’s Changing Narrative

by Dorie Perez

I was drawn to the critique of Oakland that our collective initiated as an academic exercise and aware of its potential to articulate the competing visions of an imagined future for a city currently undergoing mass processes of change. As space, the planning narratives of design and social behavior, proceed placemaking, or the deliberate and ongoing projects of cultural connection to the built environment, this focus on social and physical change amidst a nationally celebrated “cultural moment” made me wonder about the city of 2011 I had left. Would I recognize it now, forever oriented to the nexus of 14th and Broadway and the civic institutions allowing such seismic change to occur?

Our endeavor is as disparate as the group assembled. We are students of geography, cultural studies, planning and anthropology. Our aim is a moving target of reflexivity even as we search for a “grid of meaning,” a toehold to understand the pluralism of efforts by Oaklanders to belong, engage and endure as rents rise, people move and the urban landscape changes.

The significance of the city’s history, traditionally thought of in mainstream discourse as a white and black racial divide (Self, 2003; Rhomberg, 2002), intertwined with the interwar Labor movement, is muted as the city becomes, like San Francisco a decade ago, “annexed” by outside capital (Solnit, 2014).  How can we collectively help define, if that is possible, Oakland’s cultural “moment,” even as we stay attuned to the historical antecedents that have laid out the spatial and social relationships of today’s city? David Harvey (2000) discusses “spaces of hope” as physical sites of communities’ desires to manifest themselves. The linkage between space and hope, staking a claim and recognition are evident in the discourse surrounding the need for queer space and the recursive definition of contested black spaces found in our monthly readings. For my own scholarship, I am interested in exploring the need for balance between highlighting and exploiting a community’s sense of place, the self-styled definitions of placemaking within a community that can turn into “branding” by external forces looking to capitalize an idea. This narrative path, from idea to movement, and its broad conception as part of the development of complex, pluralistic social memory in the urban context makes Oakland such a fascinating place to do work, even as I admire it from afar.

Bridging Disciplines

by Allison Logan

October 20th was the second monthly meeting of the Oakland School of Urban Studies. These meetings allow the group to sort through logistics, hash out and envision future group events, discuss long-term goals, and discuss a set of readings that provide a lens with which to interrogate histories and representations of Oakland. This month, readings were assembled by two members of the group around the topics of history, race, and citizenship in Oakland. We read some excerpts from classic academic pieces on Oakland, such as Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland and Rhomberg’s No There There: Race Class and Political Community in Oakland, supplemented by work from Ananya Roy and non-academic pieces from newspapers and blogs. The discussion was robust, ranging from broad questions about racial formation in the past and present and the politics of belonging to more specific questions about the implications of using West Oakland as a site for elaborating Oakland’s history (which many academic pieces do). One interesting conversation that came up centered on who is granted agency in discussions of Oakland, past and present. As graduate students, it was particularly striking to hear an article from The New York Times, “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America” by Jonathan Mahler, describe protesters as graduate students, professors, professionals, and members of the Black Bloc. As if these are the groups of people who inspire change, not the lifelong residents who are stripped of agency. This dominant representation is a reminder to be relentlessly reflexive of our own role in Oakland’s dynamic landscape.

This was the group first meeting that I could attend and the first interdisciplinary group that I have ever been a part of. It was really exciting to be in a space where a bunch of people are invested in complicating their understandings of a single place or set of ideas. Bringing together people with different backgrounds on several levels is something that doesn’t happen often and really has the potential to generate new insights that can transcend some of the constructed and arbitrary boundaries around knowledge. Although the payoff is often huge, this initial experience also reminded me that it takes time and conscious effort to get there. It was great to be pulled out of comfortable, familiar conversations and inserted into one that was new and malleable. Disciplinary isolation is pervasive and naturalized at almost every step in the production of academic work — from brainstorming sessions to the audiences of finished work. In academia, this exists across the social science-humanities divide, though also between the disciplines grouped into these categories. Even if academic work is not the goal (or only goal), we are each embedded to some extent in academic institutions that shape the questions we ask or how we go looking for answers. Part of the process of interdisciplinary collaboration necessitates a vigorous deconstruction and rebuilding of the language we can use to communicate with each other and audiences outside of our group. Conceptual tools, methodological strategies, and aspirations cannot be taken for granted. Or they can, but we will only talk past and not with each other to generate new questions, critiques, and strategies for moving forward. This meeting has helped to set the groundwork for this process, and I am excited to continue the journey with a group of people that I have much to learn from!