II. Significance of Research

II. Significance of Research

This thesis contributes to the literature that examines gentrification as a consequence of urban economic development, and more specifically to the identification of factors that play a role in either hindering or advancing gentrification in urban space. It also contributes to a body of knowledge regarding West Oakland, emphasizing the particularities of the place and its inhabitants, and describing its transformations in the context of shifts occurring in the Bay Area. Although the Bay Area was the epicenter of the Internet boom of the late 1990s, very little literature exists regarding Oakland during this time. It is my hope that this research can be used to inform future land use decisions in West Oakland and other neighborhoods around the Bay Area before the next cycle of gentrification begins.
Within the past ten years West Oakland has undergone a process of gentrification in which certain areas changed significantly while the majority of the neighborhood remained much the same. This research attempts to fill some of the gaps in understanding gentrification as an uneven process of development in cities, and looks at the multiple forces both internal and external to the neighborhood in question. West Oakland is an excellent case study for observing these forces; it illustrates how gentrification is engendered by a variety of influences from economic development policy choices at the city level to individual consumer choices. Equally important are revitalization efforts brought about through community-led activism and participation in redevelopment planning.
Gentrification represents a decidedly different course of development than revitalization. Policies that emphasize improving employment, housing, and environmental conditions for residents of low-income areas will result more often than not in a revitalized neighborhood. Unmanaged real estate speculation, poor tenant protections, and a planning vision that encourages projects that contrast with the needs of low-income residents promote gentrification instead. Gentrification occurs because a place itself becomes commodified, and these market forces subsume the previous significance of the place. The false choice of gentrification being the only way for urban areas to move out of poverty only allows the market to shape urban development. Additionally, revitalization efforts can simultaneously improve communities in ways that, without the existence of adequate tenant protections and other measures, make the area a potential site for gentrification.
West Oakland’s future may include a combination of revitalization that enhances the lives of its current residents, and gentrification that displaces some of these residents. This research aims to examine some of these contradictions in community involvement in the redevelopment process. It also contributes to an understanding of the important role of community organizations in opposing gentrification through various modes of engagement, from shaping public policy to more direct involvement with developers. While much of the current literature on the subject promotes the idea of “managing” gentrification, this research follows from the perspective held by others that gentrification research can and ought to contribute to understanding the phenomenon better in order to fight it (Slater 2006.)
This research does not attempt to refute gentrification theories; it seeks to point out the complexities of urban economics, politics, and culture through which gentrification takes shape. It attempts to explain West Oakland as a place that gentrified in a particular way because of its local context, and did so in ways that differed from the expectations of both gentrification researchers and local observers. The limits of gentrification, and the resistance of both people and place to the process, is a phenomenon that goes largely unexamined by urban geographers in recent years (Slater 2006;) an analysis of these spaces integrates the different approaches to understanding the causes of gentrification that are outlined in the literature. In the next two sections I provide background on West Oakland and review the main themes of gentrification literature, emphasizing that which is most relevant to my own research.


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