Essence of Oakland: Preserving local art in the face of change

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

“I mean, do you see Oakland in the New York Times for anything but art and homicide?” joked Kristi Holohan, one of the directors of Rock Paper Scissors Collective.

The city of Oakland is the seventh largest in the state of California. The metropolis of industrial buildings and thick Bay Area fog is home to roughly 400,000 inhabitants. It prides itself on its ethnic diversity — more than 125 languages and dialects are spoken in Oakland — and its creativity, with more artists per capita than any other city in the United States.

Yet, because of the changing social climate in Oakland, its community is changing.

As the city’s increased exposure brings an influx of new residents, the very founders of the Oakland arts scene are beginning to see massive displacement across its sprawling 54 miles. Three prominent art institutions — Rock Papers Scissors Collective, SoleSpace and Impact Hub — detail Oakland’s growth and their struggles with development’s subsequent effects as they learn to accommodate change in the city they still proudly call home.

Rock Paper Scissors Collective — affordability in the face of expense

Although many people today know Oakland for its burgeoning art scene, few know how far back its roots extend. In winter 2006, the Oakland Art Murmur held the first-ever First Friday Art Walk. That Friday in January, eight participating spaces held concurrent showings. Now, the event takes place every first Friday of each month — and spans more than 40 galleries and creative spaces.

Rock Paper Scissors Collective, or RPS, a volunteer-run arts organization, is the only original founding organization left. “I feel like I’m always talking about this,” Holohan laughed. “But the mission of the organization is to strengthen and foster community through art, craft, skill share and performance.”

Over the years, RPS has “really worked pretty hard to provide a space where folks from all different parts of the community have a space to show their work.” The organization was previously located at a storefront on Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street but lost its lease this summer, no longer able to make the rent in a neighborhood where average rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs about $2900 per month.

At its old shop, RPS offered many different services. Workshops were held for everything from writing prison letters to silk screening, from painting to sewing. Anyone could participate. Holohan revealed she has “never said no to somebody who didn’t have money.” In juxtaposition to the new, expensive art spaces popping up downtown, RPS works to provide affordable access to the arts.

“You try to take a sewing class in most places around Oakland, you’re going to be paying, I don’t know, $200? So, for us to have a sewing class that’s $20…” Holohan trailed off. Samaiyah Mustafa-Zareef, a high school senior with kinky curls and a small gap between her two front teeth, chimes in.

“Now, it feels kind of like a business. Before it was… a community thing. People come in and just sit down and sew and make things.” Mustafa-Zareef joined the organization through Holohan’s art class in sophomore year. She now hopes to pursue visual art in college — an opportunity she couldn’t have afforded without RPS’ aid.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Holohan said, referencing the loss of the organization’s space. When RPS was first pushed out, she thought “no influx of money can really kill a passion,” but again and again, the “real estate people have fallen through. … And the price for a storefront downtown is outrageous.”

RPS has potentially found a new home on Fruitvale Avenue. The organization won’t stop fighting to “ensure that our cultural capital is maintained, that the integrity of people in Oakland are valued.”

“You can’t just come in and force a cultural change,” Holohan said heatedly. Yet, her tone turned playful moments later, her light-hearted attitude shining through the heavy topic. “Like, this is why Oakland’s super cool, you know?”

SoleSpace — art in unworn soles

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On Telegraph Avenue and 17th Street lies SoleSpace, a unique creative and event space. SoleSpace co-founder Jeff Perlstein explained the shop’s set up as an amalgam of a shoe store and an art gallery.

“Four years ago… a lot of galleries and independent spaces (downtown) that had been part of a long tradition of Oakland-grown arts and culture — the ones accessible to community groups — were being pushed out by new development,” Perlstein began. “There was a certain need to claim space.”

The idea of SoleSpace was first conceived at a New Year’s Eve party. His “friend Olivia had a great, fly pair of shoes” and, when asked where she’d purchased them, responded, “Hayes Valley.” He “kind of blew up…being like, we still have to go to the fucking city to get shoes, and she was like, ‘shut up and open a shoe store already.’” Seven months later, thanks to Olivia’s words and the necessity of creating an accessible, community place downtown, SoleSpace became a reality.

With its central location, the shop “engages a broad cross-section of folks,” showcasing a repertoire of work by local artists. Perlstein tries to keep gallery submissions “pretty open,” noting that most of the artists SoleSpace showcases are “folks who come in and talk to us.”

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At its core, SoleSpace aims to create a space to “host community events, nonprofits and cultivate conversations in and around affordable housing.” Perlstein does concede, however, that “artists, in some ways, are the leading edge of gentrification.”

Ten years ago, downtown Oakland used to be “vacant storefronts… that made it more accessible for artists to come in… and make it cool.” As Oakland’s hip, alternative culture began to make the public spotlight, “more venues and opportunities” appeared hand in hand with massive development — exemplified by the street construction right outside SoleSpace’s glass walls.

Although originally projected to go for eight months, the street construction on Telegraph Avenue may actually be extended for another “three or four months.” SoleSpace has watched its sales decrease by almost half, due to being in an impacted zone where “the street is closed, but they (also) have signs for a three-block radius saying, ‘Telegraph is closed!’” Jeff laughed.

“Today’s actually our three-year anniversary,” he added proudly, but his wide grin dimmed upon the loud beeping of a construction tractor outside. “Things are pretty challenging here, to be honest, until they reopen this street.”

“We’ve had a lot of businesses close already, and holiday season is when retail makes up costs from the year, but we’ll still be under the street closure, so…” Perlstein trailed off hesitantly. “But I tend towards being very optimistic, so that’s not a bad attitude.”

“We’ll just see if it’s a wise one,” he winked.

Impact Hub — a ripple of collaborative creation

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On 24th Street and Broadway, Telegraph’s lesser-known cousin, sits the huge, two-story space of Impact Hub.

Founded in 2005, Impact Hub Oakland has become an institution in the East Bay arts scene. The hub is a co-working, multi-use space open to all community members. Its mission is to “empower, support and connect a community of local changemakers,” said co-director Lisa Chaco.

Another co-director, Konda Mason, added that, right now, “there is a movement… to work towards a regenerative world,” which involves “collaboration, coming together and community.” In Oakland, it seems that the movement and conversation were “already here. (Hub Oakland) put a frame around it” and gave it a “physical space,” but “it’s been fairly easy from the mission side.”

In Mason’s opinion, the city’s artistic ties are intertwined in its focus on “self-awareness, equity and consciousness.” She feels that “wherever the artists are is where change is happening. …Art leads a movement. Courageous artists give everyday people permission to be who they really are.”

Chacon believed that art “shifts people’s perspectives in earnest,” adding that the group has “had some really powerful shows in the Omi Gallery,” the art exhibition space of Impact Hub. The work that Ashara Ekundayo, fellow co-founder, curates is, in Mason’s words, “local — and provocative, typically.”

“It’s the kind of art that makes you think. You hate it; you love it; you don’t understand it — it doesn’t just go by you,” Mason described.

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Interestingly enough, in contrast to other struggling creative spaces, Impact Hub appears to be thriving. The growing technology presence in the East Bay, especially Uber’s notable purchase of the Sears building in late September, is something the group approaches differently than most.

“It is not inevitable,” Mason began slowly, “that it has to be a negative effect.” Her point is that, although the gentrification story usually results in massive relocation of lower-income groups, “it doesn’t have to displace people… or change a culture.” She stressed that people can have trouble “just seeing another vision. … All you can look at is what you’re against.”  

“Okay, so what are you for?” she prodded. “What’s that other world look like?”

At Hub Oakland, the group holds “courageous conversations,” which are spaces where “all the stakeholders come together… to try to figure this out.” Chacon hoped that “policy is the end result, that we make some different choices about how we want our city to be.”

“I believe we can figure this out here in Oakland because Oaklanders love Oakland so much,” Mason said with a laugh. “We love Oakland.”

“Can we create a world for everyone that’s beautiful? And then, can it scale?” Mason sat back in her chair and flashed a confident, winning smile. “I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair if I didn’t think so.”

Contact Eda Yu at [email protected].

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