A new Oakland has emerged around us, an Oakland lit by patio fairy lights and furnished with craftsman teak tables, idiosyncratic in its creative use of mason jars as a primary form of glassware. Perhaps your delight at a new bright coffee shop mingles with dread, and what that means — seriously means — for the people in this city. The term gentrification might have been tossed out, flippantly, over Burmese food in Temescal, as a sort of scapegoat or a halfhearted acknowledgement of the dark ripple underneath this type of development. The truth, of course, is that desire will make people do a lot — desire to live and be and consume newer, sexier, better stuff. Desire will willfully blind us to excavated housing, will allow self-proclaimed liberals to walk with ownership down streets they avoided five years ago, to build freeways that rip through communities and buy houses at the expense of the family that rented for years. Perhaps it isn’t an individual’s responsibility; perhaps this desire is coded racism. But the fact is that each trendy pizza kitchen that opens its doors means the closing of whatever was there before. Too often, these attractive spaces are so abuzz, in part, because they are so elite. And it is in this way that old Oakland residents find there are no spaces left for for them in their city.
A less common story, but a more cheerful one, is when those spaces are lost — the ones occupied by minorities, the ones that are affordable — and then, somehow, they come back. This is what happened to The Parkway Theater, which closed in 2009. They served pizza and beer and often screened throwback films. The seats were broken down couches, and the tickets were cheap. “It was a little dingier, in an endearing way,” explained Freddie Francis, the outreach coordinator at the reopened Parkway. “They closed due to money problems and issues with the landlord, which sounds pretty familiar in the Oakland narrative. It was definitely a missed resource and gathering place for Oakland communities.” But The Parkway didn’t die with its closure, as so many old establishments do. J Moses Ceaser, a local community minded investor, started a Kickstarter campaign to reopen the theater, garnering rapid and massive support. The new theater, dubbed The New Parkway, opened in late 2012, and, echoing the tradition of its namesake, serves beer and pizza and is furnished with vintage couches.
At its simplest, The New Parkway is a movie theater with cheap tickets. But with rapidly disappearing affordable amenities and more than 20 percent of the Oakland population living below the poverty line according to 2014 Census data, cheap movie tickets can mean a lot. And really, The New Parkway is so much more. “Most everyone working at the New Parkway, from front of house to programs, wants it to be a space that centers on more marginalized voices.” Francis explains. “Our staff is largely made up of queer people and people of color, and that helps inform the culture we’re hoping to create. As far as people coming in and seeing people who look like them, as well as the programming that might be interesting. It is a never ending journey to create the culture we’re trying to build, (but) we’re doing a lot of work to make that happen.”
Desire will willfully blind us to excavated housing, will allow self-proclaimed liberals to walk with ownership down streets they avoided five years ago, to build freeways that rip through communities and buy houses at the expense of the family that rented for years.
The New Parkway hosts a slew of free events four nights a week: fun and creative activities like Team Trivia, arts and crafts, and an open mic welcoming comics, spoken word artists, musicians and dancers. Francis also organizes a weekly “Karma Cinema,” when the theater partners with local organizations such as Justice Now, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and ACCESS Women’s Health Justice. Patrons pay what they want to for their tickets, and 20 percent of proceeds are donated to the cause. “I try to keep programs focused on large amounts of the Oakland population, from Black folks and other folks of color, youth, to poor folks and immigrants, folks who need legal help, and folks who need help with their landlords.”
At its core, The New Parkway preserves a little space for the oft-forgotten Oakland resident, who is a little more left out with each glamorous remodel. As always, vulnerable populations are being pushed to the side as property values go up; between 1990 and 2011, Oakland lost 49 percent of its Black population according to Alameda County Public Health Department. Of the remaining Black residents, 26 percent live in poverty. More than ever, Oakland needs spaces that welcome poor people, people of color, people who don’t feel protected by their city’s police force or welcomed in their local businesses. People whose accessible community establishments are being taken over by mac and cheese restaurants. People who want to go to the movies but can’t afford it or want to do improv but don’t know where to go. The New Parkway offers a couch, and a fun night, where an average Oakland youth can exist safely in a city that feels increasingly segregated.
Ellie Ridge is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]