In Oakland, a community center fights gentrification

Hanna Raslan/Staff



As commercial bulldozers and bougie coffee shops invade West Oakland, on the corner of San Pablo and West Grand avenues, there remains a plot of land embodying the fight against gentrification: Qilombo.

A radical community social center that offers a space for meetings, gatherings, educational workshops and classes, and celebrations for its surrounding community, Qilombo’s website states that it “provides public space to all peoples during these times of intensive gentrification, systemic oppression, and displacement, while also striving to empower those whose political and economic voices have been marginalized.”

The space did exactly this in early November when it threw “Afrikatown Presents: An Anti-Gentrification Block Party.” Afrikatown, a community garden tangential to the Qilombo space, provides free vegetables and community meals to locals. It been threatened with eviction notices and developers in the past because the owners of the land plot wanted to sell the property to luxury condominium developers. But, thanks to Qilombo and other active voices, the garden has managed to keep thriving and providing goods to the community.


The block party, held at the Qilombo center and Afrikatown, embodied a “decolonial storytelling space.” Through music, poetry and dialogue, the group that gathered touched on a myriad of issues — from the struggles of fighting against gentrification and police brutality, to discrimination black people face everyday in America as well as beautiful lyrical tributes to Africa.


During the event, an Afrikan mural was painted facing San Pablo Avenue to symbolize that this is community that won’t be leaving.


“It really was to combat contemporary colonization,” said Emani Dawan, activist and Qilombo organizer, referring to the block party. “In Oakland, what’s going on right now is cultural genocide and it’s really fucked up. A lot of people are getting displaced. A lot of people can’t afford to live here anymore. A lot of people who were born and raised here are struggling to stay here.”

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Dawan is correct — Oakland is being transformed at the expense of working-class underrepresented minorities. According to PBS’ definition, “Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture.”

In Oakland, many people point to the last decade’s wave of new residents as positive — crime rates are decreasing and the economy is being stimulated by new, high-brow businesses and skyrocketing rent prices. But this phenomenon looks completely different for a long-time working-class Oakland resident. It manifests as a whitewashed new community that is leaving underrepresented minorities homeless. Oakland has seen a decrease in local businesses, a loss of jobs for the working class, and impossibly expensive new apartment buildings built on the water of Lake Merritt–a space that was once filled with underrepresented minorities, but now, after its renovation, has noise and gathering restrictions so that it can no longer be a community space for traditional Oaklanders.

Alameda County of Public Health Department analysts took census results from 1990 and analyzed them against 2011 census data. In just 21 years, Oakland’s African American population declined from 43 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2011. In North Oakland specifically, 50 percent of homeowners were African American in 1990. By 2011, this number dropped to just 25 percent.

This harsh war on culture and underrepresented minorities is deeply correlated to rising rents. This same report concludes that between 1998 and 2002, rent in Oakland doubled. The rate of no-fault evictions in the city tripled. A no-fault eviction is when the tenant’s lease is terminated because the landlord decides not to renew it, as opposed to termination by a lease breach. Landlords continue to not renew leases in Oakland because they see the opportunity to raise rent.

Gentrification is a harsh reality that is only becoming more prevalent. According to research conducted by UC Berkeley, gentrification rates are increasing in Oakland; the displacement of low-income underrepresented minorities is going to occur even more rapidly in coming years.

But, voices of resistance, such as Qilombo, refuse to silently let this occur. Qilombo is African- and indigenous-led and made up mostly of Oakland natives, according to Dawan. Many cannot watch developers wage cultural genocide on a community that once felt so diverse. As an organization founded to support and sustain movements and build resistance, they continue to be a leading voice in Oakland’s fight against gentrification.

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