Things I’m Processing: Gentrification & God’s Shalome in Oakland

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Uptown Station- site of the new Uber headquarters

Recently I was asked the question, “So what’s new in Oakland?”  They probably weren’t asking for it, but my response was an explanation of the change occurring in the city I love and have lived in for the last few years.   I shared with the inquirer about the conflict arising near our home as new folks move into neighborhoods and price out locals- how some people have been racial profiling on a local social media site.   I gave a cliff-notes version of recent news that Uber is moving into town and adding 3-5,000 new jobs, which will inevitably create more demand for housing, in turn driving up rents and property values.  Essentially, the last few years have brought a tremendous amount of change to Oakland, for better or worse.  For people who have grown up in Oakland, many can no longer afford to live here, and I’m sure for some folks, every new cafe, brewery, and barber shop is salt in the wound created by gentrification.

Oakland is one of the most dynamic cities in the world, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a life long, die hard A’s fan.  Unlike most major cities, there is no majority demographic.  This level of diversity has made Oakland a rich and vibrant community.  Some even say it’s the soul of the Bay Area.

Now many are worried that Oakland is changing, that the free markets are making it increasingly difficult for low income folks, artists, and minorities to maintain Oakland residence.

Confession:  I am newer to Oakland even though I’ve lived in the East Bay for almost all of my life.  I am a young, white, millennial.  Even though it’s a church, and one that is trying to care deeply about the community, I started a business here. I’m riding the wave of new interest and gentrification.  I come from privilege.  And every time I read an article about gentrification, I know that they’re talking about people like me.

So what do we do about it? Leave?  Pretend it’s not an issue?

Well, I’ve got a few ideas.

First I think we need to tell the truth.  If we deny the changes going on in many American cities, we perpetuate the problem.  I remember driving around the Sunset with my grandfather as he pointed out Chinese restaurants that used to be Irish pubs.  The reality is that demographic change is a constant.  People are born.  People relocate.  People sell and buy homes.  We shouldn’t feel ashamed of being a part of societal transition because it’s always happening, but we must be honest about it, and we should think critically about our responsibility to one another.  So let it out- if you’re new, keep it 100, be honest.  And if you think of yourself as an ethical person (personally, I try to follow the ethics of Jesus- though I routinely fall short), consider the ways change can happen in a way that protects and elevates the poor, marginalized, and voiceless.

Second, I think we need to listen and learn the stories of those who have lived here before us.  As part of the Christian community, I’ve been blown away as I’ve learned about the work of people in Oakland who care for the poor, speak out for the voiceless, organize politically, and live into the gospel.  There are literally hundreds of churches who have gone before us, and it’s on their shoulders that we stand.  This includes organizations like Project Peace, Oakland Community Organizations (and all of their partner churches), Trybe, Oakland Leadership Center, Oakland Nightwalks, individuals like Pastor Deborah Avery, Andrew Park, Ben McBride, Albert Lee, Larry Adams, Josh McPaul, Jim Hopkins, and way more.  It’s been incredible to learn the ways in which justice, hope, reconciliation, and peace (God’s Shalom) have been building here long before Oakland became our home.  I hope we can learn from and build on the work of these and many other local heroes of mine.

Third, I think we need support the work of those who are already here.  One of the compelling aspects of the gospel is that God incarnates himself into humanity, meaning that he comes to us where are.  That means we’re not bringing God some where he’s not, but that we find God already there.  Therefore, we’re called to join in on what God is already doing instead of thinking it’s our job to be god in a new context.  Practically, we should support already established businesses and organizations instead of just frequenting the cool new spots in town.   I know this might sound hypocritical coming from some one who has started a new church, but I think I can make the case that churches are a little different.  That we need lots of new churches- and that we can create new churches in a way that both benefits and learns from existing church communities- but we must be willing to build a relationship and take a posture of humility.

Fourth and lastly, I think we need to be willing to get messy.  That’s good advice for lots of things, not just the gentrification issue.  But seriously, unless we’re willing to put in the work and listen before we move in and change things, we’ll likely alienate the people who represent the legacy and history of our city- and it’s these people that have made places like Oakland such treasures.  Sometimes the mess will come as we engage the political system in such a way that protects and elevates the marginalized, and sometimes the mess will come as we get lunch at a restaurant that isn’t as cool as the newest brew-pub.

In summary, if change is inevitable, my opinion is that we need to ask the question “how can we do change in an ethical way that doesn’t hurt people but uplifts many?”. 

One last comment:  I’m learning.  If I’m off base in my thoughts, or need to rethink this stuff, I’m all ears.

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