I. Introduction

I. Introduction

This is an upcoming area. Beautiful victorians, artists everywhere, lofts all at reasonable prices for the bay area. Where else can you get a 5000 sq foot lot with a 2000 square foot victorian at or under $600k? All 7-10 minutes from San Francisco. Bart is just around the corner and there is an almost private onramp that puts you directly to the fast track lane.
– (craigslist.org 2007)

Gentrification is a complex process of change in the urban environment that is often accompanied by polarizing debates about the revitalization of urban neighborhoods. Researchers describe gentrification essentially as a process by which higher-income households and more affluent commercial users displace those of lower economic standing. Neighborhoods that were for decades areas of disinvestment become sites that are recognized by private developers, local governments, and homebuyers as sites for new profitable investment. These changes create further transformations in the character and culture of these neighborhoods (Kennedy and Leonard 2001a, Hackworth 2002.) Gentrification transforms both the built landscape and the demographic composition of neighborhoods. It is not simply a succession of different groups in urban space, but a reflection of social struggles around the right to inhabit space. These spatial transformations often follow similar trajectories, but different places undergo these phenomena in unique ways that are conditioned by local political, economic, cultural, and physical characteristics.
West Oakland is a low-income neighborhood within Oakland, California (see Figure 1) whose distinctive experience with gentrification is the result of community members, developers, local media, and political figures articulating and trying to implement their different visions of the neighborhood. These struggles determine the functions of urban space, and who will have access to that space. They contribute to the production of a landscape that is highly varied in its residential and commercial makeup and physical characteristics. Global flows of capital fuel gentrification in cities throughout the world, as cycles of economic expansion and contraction correspond with cycles of speculation into and disinvestment from urban real estate markets. At the local scale, city governments, community groups, and regional economic patterns condition the specific uneven manner in which these global flows of capital are metabolized. Gentrification is the expression of these local forces and the land use policies they help to enact. It reveals the class-based social struggles that take place in cities and ultimately influence the function and form of neighborhoods.
Uneven development simultaneously creates spaces of investment and disinvestment, and at different geographic scales. Within the Bay Area there are richer and poorer cities, and these are comprised of richer or poorer neighborhoods. At the neighborhood scale as well, West Oakland is plagued by poverty and unemployment in some places, while an adjacent block may be the
site of newly built upscale lofts. Gentrification is not a seamless process.
Figure 1. Oakland Within the Bay Area

Source: maps.google.com.

Instead, it grows in flurries of economic activity within the context of local constraints and catalysts. These bursts of development that transform the physical and social landscapes are finite in that they conform to economic cycles of expansion and decline that may follow larger regional or national trends, but adhere to local conditions as well.
West Oakland’s experience with gentrification, although one of shortened duration and intensity relative to other Bay Area neighborhoods, corresponded to the cycle of economic boom and bust between 1998 and 2008. This cycle comprised two speculative bursts and collapses, beginning with the internet, or dot-com, bubble beginning in the late 1990s and continuing with the real estate bubble that came to an end in 2008. These periods of economic prosperity and decline often fuel phases of gentrification in urban neighborhoods, and during this period West Oakland underwent its first cycle of gentrification, as parts of the neighborhood changed rapidly while others remained as they had been for decades. Previous to this first cycle, West Oakland had been mostly a site of disinvestment, whose land values were significantly devalued relative to many surrounding areas and a large proportion of whose residents were vulnerable to displacement from gentrification. Despite the transformation that occurred, there is only a small amount of research focusing on West Oakland’s particular experience between 1998 and 2008. This research looks at various aspects of gentrification in West Oakland in an attempt to inform current land use decisions, so that the community may develop in a manner that reduces vulnerability to gentrification in the future.
The main focus of this thesis is to demonstrate how uneven development occurs in a gentrifying neighborhood like West Oakland, and how specific conditions in and outside of that neighborhood produced a type of gentrification that was late in its arrival relative to neighboring areas and short in duration. West Oakland didn’t entirely escape gentrification, but the tremendous wave of speculation in the Bay Area that produced gentrified neighborhoods bypassed West Oakland to a large degree. Most of all, the case of West Oakland shows at once how vulnerable to gentrification low-income urban neighborhoods are, while simultaneously they exhibit a great inertia toward change through periods of tremendous regional economic prosperity. West Oakland is an urban neighborhood in which the capital flight of the past contributed to deeply entrenched poverty that goes unchanged by the market; rather, the economic pressures brought to bear on a neighborhood like this one decrease concentrations of poverty by displacing its lower-income residents. Although the average home price in West Oakland increased more than 800% between 1998 and 2007, with a concurrent escalation of rents, these changes contrast deeply with the continued unemployment, crime, and deterioration that characterize many areas of the neighborhood. In other words, gentrification is largely a phenomenon that transforms the place in which lower-income people live, while those same people are typically not the beneficiaries of the larger economic shifts happening around them. The degree to which gentrification occurred in West Oakland illustrate the intransigence of economic divisions in American society, and how these social divisions appear in the physical landscape.
Local factors, directing or at times contesting the larger patterns of developer and real estate capital, play a central role in determining the irregular patterns of investment across the landscape that come to define neighborhoods. Areas where new development projects begin to change the demographics of an area, other parts of town where residents demand benefits from developers: these and other visible shifts create the actual contours of gentrification in each locality. Within this framework it becomes easier to see how and why gentrification in West Oakland occurred differently than in other neighborhoods.
This thesis examines the trajectory of this cycle of gentrification in West Oakland, California from 1998 to 2008. It specifically addresses the factors that contributed to or limited this process, and particularly the role that community residents play in shaping development policy and practices there. Through the use of census and archival data, as well as through interviews with community residents, gentrification in West Oakland will be described. West Oakland presents something of a paradox in that its location in the Bay Area, along with other important factors, made it an ideal neighborhood for a wave of gentrification during the economic boom of the late 1990s. Its proximity to downtown San Francisco and to a lesser extent downtown Oakland, along with its supply of cheap Victorian housing stock and easy access to San Francisco by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) and major freeways, all made West Oakland a logical choice for the attentions of city promotion and development capital. Parts of West Oakland did experience gentrification as significant changes in home values, rental prices, and resident demographics. However, in 2008 the neighborhood still remains one of the poorest areas in the East Bay, its appearance little changed on most of its blocks. This research aims to shed light on the changes that occurred there during the decade of 1998-2008, and what influenced these changes.
A variety of factors reversed the disinvestment that characterized West Oakland throughout previous decades and changed the neighborhood in significant ways between 1998 and 2008. West Oakland provides an important case study of a low-income neighborhood experiencing gentrification, albeit in an abbreviated form. Despite West Oakland’s geographical proximity to centers of high-wage, technology-based jobs in the Bay Area, the neighborhood did not experience the unchecked gentrification anticipated during the long economic boom of the late 1990s (Harvey et al. 1999, Yee and Quiroz-Martinez 1999, Nieves 2000.) Instead, the preconditions were established for a more subtle form of gentrification that has become more visible in the landscape only years after the economic boom subsided. A variety of factors, including community involvement in land use policy and continued government neglect contributed to the character of gentrification in the area. A relative lack of active involvement by city government in the development of the neighborhood further served to limit the extent of gentrification in the 1990s. Gentrification did occur in West Oakland, but it remained an area overlooked by large amounts of developer capital that landed in the Bay Area. The entrenched problems of crime and unemployment still characterize the area, because economic boom periods that made gentrification possible did not benefit everyone in the region; gentrification does not address inequities, it simply shifts the problems elsewhere. Although the neighborhood may be primed for a more complete transformation, 2008 economic trends point to an abrupt halt to gentrification in West Oakland.
West Oakland has remained an area of disinvestment through much of the late twentieth century. Yet, after World War Two it was the economic core of the city’s port, industrial, and manufacturing operations. Today, however, despite the burgeoning international trade that fuels the economic vitality along the West Oakland waterfront, the neighborhood is visibly marked by decades of economic decline and neglect. Its physical boundaries are demarcated by major highways to the north, west, and south, and by downtown Oakland’s central business district to the east. The condition and extent of the neighborhood correspond to its diminishing postwar relevance in the Bay Area; West Oakland’s contemporary rediscovery by investors owes to its proximity to the employment centers of both downtown San Francisco to the west and Silicon Valley to the south (see Figures 1 and 2.)
Researchers have identified characteristics that make a neighborhood vulnerable to gentrification, including regional job growth and housing market pressures, along with a community’s social cohesion, political leadership, housing tenure and type (Ley 1996, Smith 1996, Kennedy and Leonard 2001a, Shaw 2007.) West Oakland has had many of these characteristics over the past few decades, and according to theory on gentrification, would be an optimal location for large-scale public and private capital to invest (Harvey et al. 1999, Yee and Quiroz-Martinez 1999, Kennedy and Leonard 2001b, Kennedy 2008.) It did not, however, gentrify to the extent that scholars and community members believed it would during the height of the economic boom, although the changes that occurred there negatively impacted its many working class and poor residents.
Despite rising land values and evictions, West Oakland remained mostly a zone of widespread disinvestment. It may seem incongruous that rising real estate values do not necessarily correlate with visibly gentrified spaces. However, it is important to consider West Oakland not merely as a discrete geographical unit, but as one neighborhood subject to the pressures of a chronic housing shortage throughout the Bay Area that inflates land values even in the less desirable places. It is beyond the scope of this thesis, but worth mentioning, that the real estate market at larger geographic scales condition the final costs of housing in West Oakland, as surpluses of investment capital held by large mortgage lenders became more easily available and cheaper to borrowers across the United States. Unemployment, poverty, and crime figures have
Figure 2. West Oakland, CA, highlighted and outlined by freeways.

West Oakland

Source: maps.google.com

remained among the highest in the Bay Area even as home prices and rents exploded (Padilla et al 2005, ACPHD 2005, McKinley 2007.) The astronomical rise in land values were to a large extent fueled by the flood of speculative capital in real estate regionally and nationally, and did not necessarily correlate with a surge of investment into West Oakland itself on the part of city government or private developers. West Oakland underwent gentrification, evidenced by its significant rise in property values and population shifts, and yet widespread unemployment and poverty eclipse the sporadic changes in affluence that occurred there. Despite the surge in rental prices that followed the rest of the Bay Area during this time, these deep social problems still characterize the area.
The destruction of the Cypress Freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and its reconstruction in 1998 at the perimeter of West Oakland, altered the landscape dramatically, as did previous urban renewal projects. Unlike those, however, the fall of the Cypress Freeway has benefited residents and has drawn attention to the development potential of the area, a change that has encouraged both beneficial revitalization efforts and speculation that has stalled these benefits (see Figure 3.) Its collapse reconnected parts of the neighborhood that had long been separated by this physical barrier, and residents welcomed its removal. Between 1998 and 2008, West Oakland changed in some dramatic ways, as new homebuyers came into the area and development projects went up at rates not seen for decades, raising questions about the impacts of change upon residents. An abundance of capital circulated throughout the area as a result of the speculative financial bubble in the late 1990s and again in 2003. Gentrification is a complex process of urban change that is sometimes difficult to distinguish from economic development that benefits a community. Sometimes the effects of investment are not seen until years later, while an initial burst of speculation and displacement may not precede a wave of investment that dramatically transforms a neighborhood. As the housing market slows, however, this initial wave of gentrification may be coming to a close in West Oakland. I will begin with a chapter describing the significance of this research to the gentrification literature and to urban land use and housing policy. This will be followed by a review of the literature on gentrification, emphasizing recent studies and directions in gentrification research that inform the framework of this research. A methodology section will explain and justify the sources used in this research. Next, indicators of gentrification in West Oakland will be assessed. These data include changes in home/rental prices, evictions, income, ethnic composition, and educational attainment of residents. The factors that play a
role in affecting these changes will then be described; the story of gentrification in West Oakland will be told through each of these frameworks, including city economic and land use policies, local redevelopment policy, and community involvement in revitalizing the neighborhood. Finally, the findings of this research will be discussed in the final chapter in relation to future policy options for minimizing gentrification in West Oakland.
This research is primarily concerned with assessing the influence of a variety of forces affecting gentrification in Oakland, and the flows of investment that constitute the engine of urban development. Economic decisions made by
Figure 3. Urban Renewal Projects and Transportation Construction Through West Oakland.

Urban Renewal and Transportation Projects

Source: maps.google.com, Solari 2001, and Author

private investors and developers are influenced by potential profits, or exchange values, to be gained from commercial and residential real estate investment and production. These pursuits are further conditioned by local political influence, and are often at odds with the use values desired from urban space by local residents, such as affordable housing and community control over land use decisions. As speculative patterns emerge in cities, local governments are more able to direct funds (through tax breaks and other subsidies) than local community organizations. Profitability shapes the patterns in which capital settles in city space (Logan and Molotch1987.) Neighborhoods that are not perceived by investors and developers as having the potential to generate acceptable rates of profit do not change as dramatically or rapidly. West Oakland is one such urban neighborhood whose needs have been placed beneath the regional transportation and economic priorities for decades. Only in the last decade has West Oakland become an area for investment to settle, and only because of two enormous and sustained economic booms that took place during these ten years; the focus of this thesis is to look at the effects of these new circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: