Coda: Reporter’s Notebook
While I was writing this piece, California gang injunctions reappeared in the news.
In March, as the LA Times reported, a federal judge sided with the American Civil Liberties Union in its argument that individuals targeted in Los Angeles gang injunctions suffered due process violations, blocking enforcement of the remaining injunctions in effect. Last year, Los Angeles released 7,300 people from the conditions of the court orders, which restrict the behavior of alleged gang members and affiliates within so-called “safety zones.” As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in April, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera called for reviewing the city’s gang injunctions. He asked a judge to remove thirty-four of forty-two people named in one injunction targeting the Western Addition neighborhood, noting that one of the groups is effectively defunct.
Neighborhood nickname “The North Pole” has largely fallen out of use, but it’s the name of a comedic web-series about gentrification and climate change set in North Oakland. Does the phrase’s appropriation mean that, despite police-created stigma, it was a pretty innocuous nickname all along, or that it’s just been long enough for it to lose its potency?
A reader responds via email:
“There was actually more to the gang injunction story — but I liked your framing. You definitely got the gist.
“I should note that Douglass [Keely], the OPD gang expert whose declaration was used to justify the GIs, was a paid consultant for a TV show which claimed there were 10,000 gang members in Oakland.
“And, John Russo who was behind the injunctions was himself a real estate developer who was going to run for a statewide office [before] taking the [City Manager] job in Alameda.”
Writing collectively for Jacket2 in 2014, poets and Commune Editions editors Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr analyzed the “intensely elegiac character” of turf dancing, focusing on a trilogy of videos by Turf Feinz. On “RIP Rich (Dancing in the Rain)”:
“The first dancer is masked up. As others join, it becomes clear that the inexpressive faces are part of the performance: all of the embodied activity with none of the exuberance such motion would ordinarily imply. The dance is soulful, whatever that means, but without spirit. Even as the four members wheel and pivot through space, the dance is flat, or flattened. It is in this way that it becomes fully elegiac. It is about what’s missing, or a missing dimension.
“It is also about the police.”
Number of vehs towed are from outside of the city. This black Scion is from Long Beach
— Oakland Police Dept. (@oaklandpoliceca) November 12, 2017
Local historian Liam O’Donoghue invited me to discuss this article on his podcast, East Bay Yesterday.
When I asked Susan Rodgers to talk, she asked for help retrieving the Terry’s Sound House signage. “Can you get me the neon RCA sign? I’ve been asking for it for years,” she said. “It was one of the first things my husband bought when he got the building.”
I put Rodgers’ request to Resources for Community Development, the Berkeley nonprofit developing the property. “We could certainly honor Susan Rodgers’ request to keep the lovely RCA sign, although we don’t expect to demolish the building for another two years or so,” wrote RCD’s Jake Rosen in an email.
Meanwhile, friends of mine jokingly hatched a plan to steal it for Rodgers. “Baby blue getaway confirmed for the RCA sign heist,” one texted me, referring to their housemate’s truck. “But [my housemate] only agrees if you write that her hair matches the color of her truck.”
While living at RCA, Chloe Watlington started a band with two fellow squatters. “We were called the Urgents,” she said. “We only wrote songs about RCA, and we played our first and only show at RCA.”
“The second year I lived there I built the tree house in the redwood out back,” recalled Sarah Watlington, who followed her cousin Chloe to RCA and who’s now a furniture maker in Fort Bragg. “There were two shacks and two tree houses in the backyard, and then there was the chicken coop in the greenhouse. Somehow the city never said anything. Maybe we were too big to deal with. It kind of felt like we could do whatever we wanted.”
Alongside Terry’s Sound House was another business, a hat shop. “I remember Sarah or Chloe telling me that someone had come by when they first opened the squat and told them not to open up the hat shop, ‘or else,’” Lor O’Connor, who contributed photos to my article, wrote in an email. When the squatters did enter that part of the building, two years later, they found the shop untouched, as if the proprietor locked the doors decades before and never returned. O’Connor discovered photos within, mostly nightlife snapshots. The plan was to launch an apothecary in the old hat shop, but the fire happened first.
From a 2013 post on the squat’s blog, bylined Tramp:
After publication, local history sleuths surfaced more information about the property on the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Way — once the corner of 38th and Grove streets — before Felton Theriot’s arrival in the 1970s.
As early as 1922, according to historical listings, it was one of a handful of Oakland branches of the Rose Waterman Drug Store. In 1933, after prohibition, the shop applied for a liquor license, according to newspaper records. One reader sourced a photograph of the drug store showing a railcar (part of the long-gone Key System) traveling along what was then Grove Street.
On May 1, 2011, another squat on Martin Luther King Jr. Way known as the Safehouse caught fire. The RCA story also evokes the tale of a nearby squat called Hellarity, as Shane Bauer chronicled in a 2008 cover story for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Hasta Muerte Coffee, a worker-owned café and bookstore, opened late last year on the corner of Fruitvale Boulevard and 27th Street in East Oakland after raising $35,000 on Kickstarter. (The previous tenant was an electronics shop accused of hosting illegal gambling and shuttered by city officials.) In March, Hasta Muerte’s policy of declining to serve police garnered national attention, even prompting a protest one afternoon outside.
One owner-worker is Matt Gereghty, who cofounded the 23rd Ave. business The Bikery. Now, Gereghty and the Hasta Muerte operators are also looking to buy their building with the help of the Oakland Community Land Trust. Their lease includes a “right of first refusal,” meaning they’re guaranteed an opportunity to match any offer to purchase the mixed-use property — and recently the owner got one.
“The owner of the property knew that the year of labor we put into transforming the building would add to its value and they are making quick moves to capitalize off of our efforts,” reads a Hasta Muerte crowdfunding page. They’re seeking $75,000.
At the end of the March meeting at 23rd Ave., Devi Peacock asked if there were more people open to talking to media, and then sought a volunteer (none were immediately forthcoming) to attend an awards event thrown by the Northern California Community Loan Fund. “We’re getting an award from our lender, ’cus that’s not awkward,” they said. Weise asked, “Does the award mean forgiveness?”
Days after the December 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which claimed thirty-six lives at an underground electronic music event, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a $1.7 million investment in “safe, affordable art spaces.” What seemed like a substantial government commitment to fire relief was actually the long-planned rollout of “Keeping Space — Oakland,” a public-private partnership between the City of Oakland and the nonprofit Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST). The $1.7 million was one chunk of its private foundation underwriting.
The announcement was widely received as a response to the fire (Rolling Stone: “Oakland Mayor Pledges $1.7 Million for Art Spaces After Deadly Fire”). The confusion, which CAST and city staffers described to me as regrettable, was partly due to timing and media coverage; Schaaf also cancelled a planned press conference, seemingly to not connect Keeping Space to Ghost Ship. But the official Keeping Space press release referenced Ghost Ship in the first paragraph, which many observers found disingenuous, as if officials were leading people to believe it was a post-fire emergency measure.
Nihar Bhatt, who survived the fire, told me about his personal response to Keeping Space:
“When I first saw the [announcement] I thought it sounded too good to be true, but I crossed my fingers that somehow this event was tragic enough that something extraordinary could happen in politics. Scratching just a little bit under the surface showed that my first instinct was right. It was an effective and cynical PR move for the city, because it became one of the first things people would ask us about when we would advocate for supporting marginalized artists. Mayor Schaaf essentially lied to the family and friends of Ghost Ship fire victims in order to make it seem like an unprecedented move was being made to support fire relief, when in reality it was politics as usual.”
Oakland’s “percent for art” ordinance requires most developers to spend 0.5-1 percent of project costs on on-site art, or to contribute the same amount to the city’s public art fund. In May, Oakland city council approved an amendment to the ordinance, enabling developers to instead direct the money to nearby city-owned cultural facilities. Sources close to the legislation say it was designed in part to benefit the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a multi-tenant complex in dire need of improvements downtown.
“When I came into the office, I was terrified about the powers of displacement and was particularly concerned about the cultural community,” said Schaaf. “In fact I’ll admit I put together a working group about preserving artist living and workspace before I even put together my larger housing cabinet.”
Activists with the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition have advocated for restoring the Arts Commission, a peer-based body of grant-application reviewers that dissolved in 2011. But Cultural Affairs Manager Roberto Bedoya is skeptical of adding another layer of bureaucracy to the grant-making process. (He joked, “It’s not bureaucracy, it’s burro-ocracy — don’t pull on it! It’ll just slow down!”) Already the grant process involves five steps of approvals. “That’d add a sixth step,” he said. “So if there’s also commissioners, how do I make sure they’re advocates and ambassadors?”
Schaaf scolded me for not being familiar enough with the painter Squeak Carnwath, whose work hangs in the mayor’s conference room.