Artists at Jack London Square fight for visibility and a permanent store in Oakland, showing one of the remaining groups pushing against gentrification.
Early Sunday afternoon at Jack London Square, Oakland’s historic waterfront district, pedestrians stroll by outdoor vendors and shops on Water Street. Nestled between Webster and Broadway, the Square epitomizes a changing Oakland.
At some points in the district, the building and commercial developments show how the seaport city is part of the Bay Area’s desired districts to live. Whereas warehouses and residences, still untouched, reveal a rocky past for a city with a history of art, activism and inclusion stimulated through Black power and Chicano advocacy
On one side, the marketers sit under modestly arranged tents. Most of the sellers are local artisans and merchants hawking $15 silver jewelry and $80 African print dresses. Contrastingly, across the walkway, a row of posh shops gleam in newness and money.
However, before the brick-and-mortars is a nondescript storefront with a simple sign proclaiming, Artist Collective Gallery. The signage pales in comparison to its neighbor, a boutique market owned by Ayesha Curry called, Homemade, which offers domestic, hipster millennial cookery and trinkets.
Curry is wife to Stephen Curry, one of the most dominant players in the NBA and several-times winner of professional basketball championships. Her store is well-stocked and perfectly designed in color and feng shui, an indicator that Jack London Square’s once roughened area is getting more than a superficial buffer.
An artist stationed outside the store contrasts the one-note placarding at the gallery. He methodically paints on canvas — ignoring passersby because he is deep into his art. By the door of the showroom, a man draws in the foot traffic with his bold announcement. “Come in,” he says. “You want to see this. You’re never going to see anything like this.”
When you enter, the room transforms into an impactful exhibition. Meticulously aligned along the walls are two- and three-dimensional pieces expressing feministic power to mystical powers of nature. Centered in the gallery is a long table with figurines and small objects. With vivid colors and bold brushes, the art magnifies once the town-crier encourages visitors to put on 3-D glasses. Then the pieces grab your perception, sending you on a serious sensory trip.
The prices of the pieces are decent, especially in comparison to the $65 iron pan next door at Homemade that was marked down and imported.
“We’re trying to promote our artists to not charge like other galleries which is a 50 percent commission, which kind of sucks because you have to then price your art higher to at least try to break even,” explains the gallery’s curator, Maria Pacheco of Pangea Revolt.
“The space promotes and highlights local, Bay Area artists,” Pacheco explains. “We’re still here, and it’s important to show[case] us and our art.”
At the collective, all the artists represent an endangered group in the Bay Area — the creatives. However, artists have become the last wave of defense in encroaching gentrification.
Artist-Activists in Oakland
Pacheco, like many other artists, has been fighting to stay included in the reconstruction of Oakland, an area experiencing one of the most rapid forms of gentrification in the country, as stated by The Governing, “the nation’s leading media platform covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders.”
In the 1980s, Oakland was 47 percent Black, but the 1990s saw a visible dip in the population, with 43.9 percent of the residents still Black. Today, only 24.3 percent are Black in comparison to whites at 36.7 percent while Hispanics connected to any race show to be 27 percent of the population.
“Neighbors in Oakland would completely change in a matter of like, two years,” describes Sherice J. Nelson, an Oaklander and an adjunct professor teaching at UC Berkeley in the area of political science.
The rapid shift, she cites, came after the powerful, revolutionary group, the Black Panther Party, dismantled. She also talks about the rise of drugs during the crack era, which also ushered in more violence to a community already terrorized by police. However, those were not the most effective forces in the change of Oakland. “The tech industry is the biggest reason for gentrification,” she opines.
Nelson goes on. “Silicon valley and its growth has been at the heart of gentrification yet there is now a new wave that is pushing people to live in Stockton or in Sacramento. The ability of big tech and all of its ancillary business to pay rent directly to tenants and providing housing down payments for valuable employees has made Oakland the Wild, Wild West. This inability to regulate supply-and-demand has promoted even bigger businesses and driving up homelessness in the city as many don’t have the means to move.”
Through the city’s transitions, art is a constant phenomenon. By the mid-20th century, a migrant Black population established a jazz, blues and funk scene that resulted in a plethora of performance spaces all over the city. So influential Oakland was to musicians that artists such as Prince trekked to the Bay Area in the 1970s to work with musicians such as Carlos Santana and Sly and the Family Stone for his first album.
Prince was riding off the heels of an intersectionality in the city where art exploded. At some point, the Black Power movement intersected with art which fueled the Black Arts Movement started in New Jersey with Amiri Baraka.
Librarian, Dorothy Lazard, wrote about this moment for the Oakland Library:
Local artists responded by embracing African cultures, rhythms, and design motifs. This was exemplified in their dress, hairstyles, art themes, writing, and performance.
As the Black Arts Movement grew, galleries and cultural centers sprouted all over the East Bay in storefronts, church basements, and private homes. African Americans were hungry for representation, and African American artists took it upon themselves to make art that expressed what they were feeling politically and personally.
Alongside Black power movements and radical art were a bubbling Chicano Movement. The Mexican American Liberation Art Front (MALAF), a Chicano artist collective operating from Jingletown and Fruitvale, campaigned and changed the political voice of Mexican Americans. MALAF put on exhibitions expressing racial pride and supplied political art for movements.
Even before Black and Brown arts and activism, 19th-century Oaklander, Jack London, who the Square is named after, sat on the ports of the city writing one of his dozens of pieces. Along with this creative life, London was an active social critic and political figure as well as a member of the Socialist Labor Party.
Evident in its history, art and activism are embedded in the fibers of Oakland. “Arts and culture make up the foundation of Oakland’s unique history and identity,” says the city’s mayor, Libby Schaff, adding that the commission will support Oakland’s “future cultural and artistic health.”
The residue of the radical waterfront city occasionally surfaces in clashes over who defines the space. Acts like the annual “BBQ’n While Black” at Lake Merritt in response to the white Oakland resident, Jennifer Schulte, who called law enforcement on a group of African Americans who were grilling, or the multiple marches against the Donald Trump administration and city workers protesting vacancies in positions, nod to a history of resistance and labor organizing.
Regardless of the resistance, the presence of artists lessens as areas like Jack London Square go through redevelopment.
“Some of the artists who have been leasing studios or work spaces or galleries are seeing higher increases in their rent,” says Kelly Kahn, Director at City of Oakland Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
The toll of high rents shows with the recent announcement that nearby, Ashara Ekundayo Gallery on 23rd Street and the Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, both respected galleries, will close their doors this year due to rising rents.
To infuse the artist community with support, Oakland announced a $1 million annual grant to support the arts. An anemic gesture, the city also re-instituted the Cultural Affairs Commission in July after an eight-year suspension. Plus, they are putting in place a 30-year cultural plan to “lift up the role of culture in building a just and equitable city – so that every Oaklander in every neighborhood has access to cultural amenities.”
Through artist-in-residency programs, as well as, working with local businesses so that they provide services to cultural and performance venues and events, the idea is that culture and economics can develop a productive symbiosis. Part of an economic initiative informed by what they call a cultural asset map, the City of Oakland surveyed local businesses and organizations to create designations for them, then drew up their locations within the city.
The Artist Collective Gallery at Jack London Square is a template of strategies used to keep local art and artists embedded into the city. To entice businesses, local artists are temporarily parked at empty spaces. For the artists, they can gain more exposure and sell their art in the pop-up shops.
It might not be the best solution for artists representing the multiple Bay Area municipalities, but Pacheco fiercely supports her fellow artists. “Right now we’re [district officials and real estate developers] just modeling the place for Jack London, but it would be nice to remain.”
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Thank you Kaia for such an insightful article. The solution to the further encroachment on prime urban spaces must be collective. Much respect to the artistic collaborators who understand the importance of their mission to mirror and critique the society..even if it is in a pop up space.
Thank you Kaia for showing me what’s happening in my own town. I will make it a point to go and visit this gallery.