Oakland: The city that told Google to get lost
If pushing your enemy into the sea signifies success, then Google’s decision to start ferrying workers to its campus by boat suggests the revolt against big technology companies is going well. Standing on the docks of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, last week, you could watch the Googlers board the ferry, one by one, and swoosh through the chill, grey waters of the bay towards the company’s Mountain View headquarters, 30 or so miles to the south.
Not exactly Dunkirk, but from afar you might have detected a whiff of evacuation, if not retreat. The ferry from Oakland – a week-long pilot programme – joined a similar catamaran service for Google workers in San Francisco launched last month. The search engine giant is not doing it for the bracing sea air. It is a response to blockades and assaults against buses that shuttle employees to work.
Many fear fresh attacks. A young software designer waiting for a Google bus on the corner of seventh and Adeline street in west Oakland flinches when I approach him. A few weeks earlier, activists here slashed tyres and hurled rocks through windows. Since then a police car has kept watch, but the Googler remains wary. “A reporter? Can I see some ID?” He scrutinises my press card and sighs. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Anarchists are driving this.”
An eclectic range of motivations are behind the wider backlash against technology companies in their Bay Area home turf as well as globally. Fair-tax campaigners complain that they abuse their clout in order to dodge payments and rewrite rules in their favour. Privacy advocates say they pillage customers’ data and facilitate, willingly or not, government mass surveillance. Others accuse them of worsening inequality by enriching plutocratic backers.
Bay Area activists started targeting the fleets of air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-equipped buses last year as symbols of tech-driven gentrification, a process which is fuelling rent increases and evictions. The protests made headlines around the world, seeding hope in some circles, and anxiety or even panic in others.
“Writing from the centre of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘1%’, namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American 1%, namely the ‘rich’,” Tom Perkins, a venture capitalist, wrote in a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal. “This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
The comparison was universally ridiculed. But there is no denying that the home of the summer of love is now experiencing a winter of fear and loathing. “Those people on the buses are quite scared, they feel threatened. Now they want to hide their faces,” says Jonathan Chin, the co-founder of a new security startup, Bannerman, which rents bodyguards and bouncers, many of them veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Techies comprise a third of clients. “They like us because there is no need to sign a year-long contract. You pay when you need us,” says Chin.
Watching Google’s ferry steam out of Oakland docks beyond rock-throwing range it can seem as if here the anti-tech rebellion has found a bastion. It makes sense: Oakland, a gritty, industrial port city of 400,000 souls just across the bay from San Francisco, has been America’s crucible of leftwing radicalism for more than a century, home to socialists, trade-union agitators, poets, jazz musicians, rabble-rousers, civil-rights leaders, Black Panthers and anarchists. Occupy activists clashed with police and stormed city hall here in 2012. A bronze sculpture of Oakland’s most famous writer and activist, Jack London, overlooks the bay like a sentinel. “You have mismanaged the world,” he once told a wealthy, frock-coated audience in New York, “and it shall be taken from you.”
Stirring, prescient words for an era scarred by the recklessness behind the economic crisis. But in Oakland the bold prediction of a reckoning, of the have-nots prising power and wealth from the elite, remains wishful thinking. In reality, there is no insurrection. The bus protests are sporadic and fleeting. They worry but do not repel tech settlers. Google’s use of ferries is a tactical tweak, not a retreat. Resistance to technology workers, corporations or real estate developers ranges from puny to non-existent. Wealthy outsiders are taking and reshaping the city, gentrifying former ideological cauldrons. This should not really be a surprise. It is a pop-culture truism that the geeks shall inherit the earth, and that includes Oakland.
“They’ve kicked out thousands. They’re the kick-out kings,” says Kokavulu Lumukanda, 67, observing a street of Victorian-style houses from the top step of his wooden porch. A former bookshop owner who has seen neighbours evicted and forced out by rising rents, he is referring to corporate landlords, but in his view the young techies who subsequently moved in were equally culpable. “They come here to play the cultural poseur. It’s like dominos falling. Whites move in, blacks move out.” (Oakland has lost a quarter of its black population over the past decade, though on the whole it has been latinos, not whites, who have replaced them.)
A tall, owlish figure in waistcoat and glasses, Lumukandu faces eviction from the handsome if dilapidated four-bedroom house he has rented since 1988. A new owner recently bought it for $400,000. “They want me out. They want to abide in the abode of covetousness.” If banished to a distant, cheaper city – such as south to Fremont or east to Antioch – he will bid farewell to his garden of succulents, camomile, sage, lemon balm and his neighbourhood’s history. “The Panthers had some of their biggest rallies two blocks from here.” Lumukandu will not go without a fight. “They’ll find out who they’re dealing with.”
Google, which declined to be interviewed for this article, rejects the accusation. In a statement, it says: “Google strives to be a good neighbour in the communities where we work and live. In the last year we volunteered thousands of hours with local organizations and gave more than $19m to Bay Area non-profits.” One employee says he and his colleagues help generate jobs and opportunities in the communities they settle – unlike nihilist critics who perpetuate desolation.
Oakland’s poverty, decay and murder rates deterred all but the hardiest would-be gentrifier during the dotcom bubble. But from 2007 the foreclosure crisis hit like a “Greek tragedy”, according to a 2012 report from the Urban Strategies Council, a local thinktank. “What began with an over-inflated housing bubble and the targeting of predatory loan products to homeowners of colour has ultimately peaked with the displacement of thousands.” Some 10,508 homes were foreclosed between 2007 and 2012, with poor, black families bearing the brunt. This created a “colossal opportunity” for wealthy individuals and corporations to snap up real estate, said the report.
Around the same time, a new tech boom driven by the likes of Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google flooded Silicon Valley with cash and talent. Rather than live in sterile valley towns, much of the influx opted for the bright lights of San Francisco, driving up rents – and evictions. With prices there now rivalling Manhattan, even well-paid techies view Oakland, just a few stops east on the local Bart railway system, as a more affordable, spicier alternative. So now condos pop up like toast.
“The foreclosure crisis created this void that global capital filled,” says Steve King, author of the Urban Strategies Council report. “And it certainly wasn’t taking cues from long-term residents over what that investment should look like.”
Gentrification hums through northern and western Oakland: U-haul vans spilling furniture on to lawns, ADT security signs sprouting alongside bike lanes, hubs of yoga studios, music venues, boutique hotels, miniature parks. All brushing up against slums and grime.
Andre Ernest, 47, an Oakland native who opened a bike shop four years ago, says tumbleweed used to roll past his door. “Now I’ve got people walking in every few minutes.” Most are white techies conscious about their health and carbon footprint, he says. Ernest recoils, however, at the coach-loads of business types who regularly cruise down his street taking photographs. “Investors on field trips scouting out the area. In five years this area will completely change. Good for business, but for the people who don’t want to be forced out it’s horrible.”
Ernest’s neighbour, Revolution cafe, a joint too grubby and grungy for the new settlers, recently closed. In its place, a few blocks north, is 10th & Wood, a smart new cafe with Wi-Fi and artisan burgers. Not long ago the area was riven by gangs, guns and drugs, but new residents are renovating homes and opening businesses, beams the owner, Vladimir Levitansky, 39. “It’s a renaissance.”
A former Cirque du Soleil clown, he now hosts geeks, hipsters and assorted bohemians at his pavement tables. Despite a pork pie hat and check trousers, Levitansky sounds more Donald Trump than Marcel Marceau. “I do feel bad for the person who is being displaced, but – on the other side – that’s cut-and-dried capitalism. The person who bought and improved (things) should be rewarded for taking that risk. If you don’t have enough money to live in a certain neighbourhood, your choice is to make more money or live in another neighbourhood.”
A few blocks away, Maggie Larios, 30, a latina single mother sharing a cramped apartment with her two children, is all too aware of that choice. She earns just enough from a care-home job to pay the $685 monthly rent. But the landlord who owns the block is trying to evict her and other tenants who have complained about mould, cockroaches and broken windows. They suspect the neglect is intended to oust them so he can get in more lucrative tenants.
“The mould has made me sick,” Larios croaks, indicating her throat. “When we went to court one of my neighbours had bugs on her. You should’ve seen the judge’s face.” With her budget, Larios stands little chance of finding another apartment in Oakland. “I don’t want to be homeless. My kids and I went through a very bad experience in shelters.” But inevitably they will be priced out, she says. “It’s gonna happen. A few years ago, to see a white person here was unseen footage. Now you see them walking the street even at night.” Resistance could perhaps slow but not halt gentrification, she says. “Money talks, bullshit walks.” Larios has kept one asset in reserve for emergencies: her long, luxuriant hair. “When the time comes I can sell it for $400.”
Jack London’s spirit is not extinguished. Rio Scharf, a young tenant organiser for the East Bay Solidarity network, is helping Larios and others to fight eviction. “We supply legal advice and use people power, pickets and phone calls to wring concessions.” It is ominous, says Scharf, that some arrivals have coined the term Broakland, a nod to gentrification’s poster child, Brooklyn.
The headquarters of another group, Causa Justa – Just Cause, brims with energy and campaigns, including one to put an anti-displacement initiative on a November ballot. Gentrification does not solve poverty, it merely shunts the poor out of the city, says the executive director, Maria Poblet. She laments that resistance has long been a “losing battle” given proximity to Silicon Valley, which activists refer to only half-jokingly as the Death Star. “We’re not in a moment where everyday people can rein in corporations. You can only start from where you are.”
At a 100-strong demonstration across the bay, in San Francisco’s Mission district, orators speaks of mobilisation and action, of striking against privilege, rhetoric likely to make Tom Perkins sweat about anarchist stormtroopers. Two young activists hold up a black banner saying “SMASH GENTRIFICATION”, with a hammer fracturing the offending word. Neither is optimistic. “On good days, I think yes, there’s untapped rage,” says one. “But most days are not good days.” The other, an unemployed waiter called Finn, says America’s social and political outcasts risk losing their refuge. “This is where we come, and now we’re terrified of potential eviction notices.”
Oakland’s activists also despair over the city’s plan to integrate hundreds of cameras, sensors and data feeds in a new Domain Awareness Center, calling it a tool of mass surveillance masked as an anti-crime measure. Adding insult to injury, the police department, which was fined $1m for brutalising Occupy protestors, hosts an annual event, called Urban Shield, which showcases tactics and technology for crowd control to other police forces.
During the 2011/12 Occupy movement, protestors used to harass an auction of foreclosed properties held daily on Oakland’s courthouse steps. Last week the realtors and brokers conducted their business in bright sunshine, unmolested. A woman worried about eviction from her rented home, up for sale, watched quietly from the sidelines, crying.
Street activism stands little chance against amorphous economic forces, says King, the thinktank author. “I don’t know how much of that resistance remains.”
The mayor, Jean Quan, would know better than most. During Occupy militants thronged the plaza beneath her city hall office, chanting and banging drums as police and TV helicopters hovered overhead. When I visit, all is quiet, and the mayor, perched on a sofa, spoke of protest in the past tense. “I don’t see it as a huge thing here. That’s not where it’s at in Oakland. The city is undergoing a huge renaissance.” Billions of dollars were pouring in for office, retail, housing and infrastructure projects, she says. Oakland would absorb the techies as it had previous migrants, even if this time they were “white people from the midwest”.
Militancy in Oakland is not dead. It has deep roots and regenerates. There will be more protests, new causes, other battles. But as sure as the tide rolls into the bay, the geeks are here to stay.