A Tale of Two Cities: Redemption and gentrification in a “transitioning” neighborhood and a pop-up middle class neighborhood

When I was pastor at First Christian Church of Oakland, a couple of our regular members were homeless. They made most of their income by recycling. They could tell you where to go on Saturdays when the regular recycling center was closed, and how to get money for the wine bottles that don’t have the triangle arrow you need normally, and how to strip the plastic off phone wires to redeem the valuable copper underneath. (Although in retrospect they were a little embarrassed they admitted to their pastor that they knew how to do that last one.)

Monday through Friday, they took their recycling to Alliance Recycling Center in west Oakland, a few blocks from the home where some of my other congregants lived. You can actually catch glimpses of them in the documentary Dogtown Redemption, made by my now-friend Amir Soltani, whom I met and came to trust because my congregants had seen him in action and could vouch for him.

We showed a community preview of the film at the church in 2007 and would show it to youth groups who stayed at the Oakland Peace Center as a tool to discuss gentrification

This all came back to me because of a colleague’s post on facebook today expressing the same frustrations the film brought up for me: the debate between people who have moved into the neighborhood and the people who make their living from recycling continues to be an issue. The people who have moved into the neighborhood expect the neighborhood to be exactly how they want it to be and are frustrated with homeless people hanging out in the park and near City Slickers garden by the recycling center; they would rather see the recycling center moved to a remote area. And a little nuance I would like to add: some of the longtime residents are also ambivalent about homeless people hanging out in their neighborhood, but the ones I knew recognized that the people who recycled at Alliance needed to go somewhere and didn’t have a sense of a better place to send them. They also didn’t generally perceive them as a threat–the recyclers were generally recycling, they suspected, in order to avoid doing threatening things like robbery and violence.

The reason this has lingered with me isn’t just that I used pastor and continue to be friends with people intimately mixed up in this conflict. It’s that I now live a block away from a small-scale recycling center, too. But I live in a very well-off neighborhood that emerged sui generis from two mayors’ visions of building middle class housing near the water and turning a warehouse district into a trendy eat-live-work community.

So when I read my colleague’s post, I self-righteously thought to myself, “Well, recyclers and residents live in perfect harmony in Jack London Square; why can’t they make it work in West Oakland?”

See, here’s where gentrification becomes some tricky ish.

The part of Chinatown Oakland where I now live got cut off by the 880 at least five decades ago, so when my building went up 8 years ago, it didn’t displace anyone. Produce trucks dominate the streets from 3AM to 10AM, and a mixture of the bourgeois and bourgie dominate the streets from 5PM til 2AM or so. Mostly Asian immigrants and a handful of other people quietly make their way to the recycling center at 5th and Madison during the day.

Here’s my current theory as to why there are tensions in a transitioning West Oakland, rife with displacement and gentrification and us and them, whereas there is no such tension where I live: I didn’t have to gentrify my neighborhood. It was built by the culture of gentrification at its logical extreme: if I choose, I can enjoy the many perks of urban living without ever having to interact with the diversity of humanity in my urban community.

I knew the homeless people in my old neighborhood. There were incredible inconveniences to it and very occasional threats to my safety, but I usually took the time to hear their stories and sometimes intentionally left out my recycling for them. Either way, I couldn’t avoid knowing them as real human beings like me.

I don’t know the names or really the faces of the recyclers in my current neighborhood. This community was built and planned around them being invisible, so there’s no need for tension. There’s no convenient place for them to hang out where they would inconvenience us or make us uncomfortable. They stay quiet and invisible and don’t linger, and we don’t complain.

I will not lie. I love my building, which is incredibly racially diverse and has a lot of really cool people my age in it. I love my neighborhood in walking distance of Chinatown and old Oakland and with a free shuttle that gets me in spitting distance of the Oakland Peace Center on workdays. My parents love that I no longer have to worry about my safety from when I lived in the basement of the church for four years. I love that my car hasn’t been stolen or broken into since I moved here and that I don’t have to worry about my safety as a single woman coming home late at night any more. Most of my life’s work is dedicated to making sure that other people have all of those same things in their lives. And yet I know that my current home removes me from the realities that most of the people I work with face every day.

When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, he was talking about two different cities: Paris and London before the French Revolution. I think of my colleague’s frustrations with new residents disrespecting the people who were living and working in the neighborhood long before they arrived. And I think of my own intentionally constructed isolation from the same people in my neighborhood. And I am reminded that Oakland also has a tale of two cities; I wonder if it is also a tale of two cities before a revolution. And I wonder what my own role is in that pending revolution.

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