FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Boots Riley

Oakland, compared to a lot of other places, is a very friendly place. I mean, walking down the street, most everybody says 'wassup' or 'hi' to each other. And I've been to a lot of places where that's just not the case, and if you do it, if you say hi or wassup, people think that you're crazy or have some sort of social problem where you don't understand social cues or something, and why are you speaking to me? But it's not like that in Oakland.

Oakland: Black people are more recently from the South, than, let's say, other places like Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New York. So a lot of the culture that exists from those areas is carried over to Oakland. That's where the accent comes from. That's where a lot of the ways of being come from. There definitely is that kind-of down-home, friendly feeling.

You have places in West Oakland where many historical events have happened with the Black Panthers, and even before that, in the 1920s and 1930s, with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. There's a strong history of struggle with that. There's also a history of labour movements.

Right now, we're in a time, it's 2005, and there hasn't been any big industry jobs, production jobs for Black people in Oakland for a good 30-something years. You can even argue 40 years, when plants started closing down and being moved to Mexico for cheaper labour. But Oakland, during the 1950s and 1960s, was a Mecca for Black people, simple because of the jobs.

People moved here in the 1940s from the South, because of the war effort, and the factories that existed in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, for people to move to, and those factories ended up producing other things afterward. They quickly were shut down, and it left a large section of the working class, mainly Black people, in the Bay Area having to find other forms of income.

There's no idea that you can have a job that pays enough for your family to live on, and to have medical benefits, and things like that. There's an idea there, but there's no real concrete thing. Most people are working at places like McDonald's or other jobs where the wage is very similar, and really struggling to get by; really working all day, just to have a place to sleep at night. And there's a lot of stress that goes with that. There's a lot of things that get left undone, when you have a culture around that.

For instance, if you want to go back to the 1940s, Oakland was a pretty much mostly white town, and that was mainly in East Oakland. And when Black people started moving into East Oakland, white people got scared and moved away, and that's when the suburbs started being created more. To be like, you can still live near where you work, but not be around Black people.

Black people moved into these areas, and white people moved out. They weren't pushed out, but because of racism, they ran out. And then later on, now, there's a shift. You know, it used to be that, since they did have some industry in Oakland, they needed Black people to be close to the factories, and things like that. Well, they don't got that anymore. So, we don't need the Black people in the cities anymore. What we got the cities for is, we got these office buildings.

What's left of the working class in the United States now are people that sit on a laptop and drink frappacino, and that's the working class, as far as it exists inside the borders of the United States. Now, the real working class of the United States, most of them are not anywhere in these borders. So, now, the idea is, move those folks in closer to where they're working.

The idea of the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] in the Bay Area was to get white people out from the suburbs to downtown Oakland and San Francisco. Now, it's like, just have them there already, so they're moving people to these places that are closer to the downtowns of these cities. So Black people are being moved out. And the way that they're being moved out is, rents are going up.

The other way that people are being kicked out... through places being redeveloped and made in ways that don't let the population that lives in Oakland now be involved. Artist housing ends up being just a way to get around certain codes, so that they can make certain places gentrified, without building them up to all the codes that they would have to build it up to if it wasn't a live-work space.

So many of these live-work spaces aren't being worked in. They're not people that are merchants, or self-contained businesses that need a live-work space. But what they are, are single people, many times without family, without kids. People that are easily not as invested in the community as someone else that may even just move into an apartment, and have to deal with people more.

Many times these live-work spaces are self-contained, in the sense that they have a restaurant in there, and people don't have to go outside of their neighbourhood; a store, even, to where they don't have to go outside; very gated and separated from anything in the outside world. And people could live in a certain neighbourhood for 5, 10 years, and not know anybody a block over from them.

And this is unheard of to me, before that culture of live-work spaces existed. And it allows for people to live in a community, and help make decisions about a community, that affects everyone else a block over in a bad way, but affects them in a good way. They don't end up being part of the community. And there's already going to be cultural differences created by race, economic class, and things like that.

But when you have this culture where people have created their own cocoon, where they can basically live in Pacific Heights, in West Oakland, there are none of the redeeming qualities of bringing income into the community. Because they're not going to the Korean market that's right over there. They're not going to the corner store. They're going over to Whole Foods in Berkeley. They're going over to Andronico's. So you don't get any of that.

We know that one way that gentrification works, is by saying to people that may be consciously or unconsciously racist, that, you won't have to deal with these Black people that are here; they're either going to be gone, or the police have them locked away, or scared enough to not come out.

The idea is that some people will move in and integrate into Black neighbourhoods that really want to be part of the community, but the way to fight the taking over of a neighbourhood is to make art, and make things to where people, where the neighbourhood, can congregate more. And if you're going to come, you're going to end up having to be part of the community, you're not going to be able to just be like, we're creating something new. So that's an idea, things that make the community be out there more.

Not so much in my neighbourhood, but other neighbourhoods where that happens, people will call the police on people if they see a bunch of young Black people hanging out on the corner. And just call the police. Police will come, and harass people, and this and that. And even if nobody gets arrested for having things, after a while, people are like, I'm not hanging out there.

Black people, Black youth, especially, are criminalized, and their image is criminalized, to the point where, we've thrown conferences in East Oakland, where people were like, I'm not coming to East Oakland, I might get my car jacked, or things like that. And the reason that people are criminalized, the reason that the image is:

The image is, Black youth are wild, and have no sense of right and wrong, and are just really crazy. So that they can say to people: Okay, Black people don't have jobs, they don't have money. Here's why: it has to do with their personal ability to maintain. So there's that image out there. So then people are scared of the "savage beast" image that is put out there about Black people.

Basically, part of that image, Black people don't have it together, is to be scared of Black people. So, part of the way to make it okay to gentrify, or make people safe about being part of the gentrification movement, is to say, we'll have the Black people under control, we'll get them out of sight for you, because we know being in proximity to them puts you at risk.

So, if we create art, and create things, that make more community; rather than just beautify the property, but beautify, the ways that we can interact with each other, then that will, in turn, turning into things that beautify the landscape and the property, too.