Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Oakland Renaissance by Vernon Andrews

Oakland Renaissance: The Art Murmur as Part of an Urban Renewal
Vernon L. Andrews

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

When any conversation I’m in causes me to mention that I am from Oakland, people bristle. Oakland has a bad reputation. Tough city. A “second city.” The same way foreigners view Canada as compared to the USA, or New Zealand as compared to big brother Australia. Oakland is considered half-breed to San Francisco’s high-pedigree.

So imagine this: I attended a function in San Francisco in early March designed to “imagine” what San Francisco would be like–if it was only like Oakland. “What if San Francisco had an art tour in its central city equivalent to what Oakland has?” That was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard about Oakland. Sure, San Francisco emulated all of the Oakland A’s baseball World Series trophies. And Oakland was first with a Super Bowl championship. But art? Oakland was envied for art? I was curious and fascinated.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

But as the young man who had gathered us there at Burning Man headquarters on Market Street on the first Friday in March noted, this was more than about the art. It was about urban renewal through art. Art could produce jobs. Artists could rent dilapidated buildings and add culture. Art could produce civic pride. Art could bring in people who might spend money and engage in consumerism beyond department stores. Indeed, the artist-guide had us assemble at the corner of Market near Fifth Street in San Francisco and had us look in both directions.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

In one direction–toward the Embarcadero and the moneyed shops and financial district–the street bustled with people and traffic. “Now look west….” For the most part, west of Turk Street, it was barren of people, commerce, taxis, and any city vitality, save for the unsavory underbelly of street people and the occasional drug dealer who city administrators still strain to cope with.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

So, there it was. A call to arms. “If we paint it, they will come.” I had never heard such a thing. We walked, talked, stopped at the few scattered art collectives and tried to envision what art could do for a metropolis. And then we went to Oakland. There, I saw what art could do.

PHOTO: VeganBackpacker

There was far too much stimuli for me to take in. My city, much maligned throughout California for being a wasteland, was thriving. Well, at least on this first Friday. I retired with the group of Burning Man Project members to “The Stork” bar and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and watched bohemian folks of all shades enjoy my birthplace.

PHOTO: VeganBackpacker

I had to go back. I hadn’t really seen the Oakland Art Murmur (OAM) to its fullest, so on June 1st, I returned with camera in hand with the intention to visit art studios, eat food from carts, watch musical acts, and engage with people in studios and on the street. The OAM was more than about art. True, art was at the center. But for me it was the collective hive of smiling, multicultural people enjoying being together and experiencing city life as many civil rights leaders died envisioning. Even if for one day.

PHOTO: Lindblom

The OAM is about what is possible when people focus outward instead of inward. The OAM is what happens when we put religion, race, politics (though there are politics aplenty if one looks closely), gender, and sexuality issues to the side in favor of what we have in common: our love of food, music, the bustling of people, and the jostling of shoulders, and art–beautiful, quirky, inexpensive–and expensive–art.

For a sociologist like me, this was ethnic and cultural heaven. I’ve been studying white people and socialization and behavior patterns for a very long time. This work has required me to move to white bastions like Wisconsin (seven years) and New Zealand (fourteen years) in order to conduct my research. The past two years have been spent in a remote, nearly all-white community in Northern California (great research, by the way. I am not complaining). 

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews
Coming home, to Oakland, on this Friday night in June was a welcome drink of water from the fountain of diversity. I have worked with the tireless idea that people can work together, learn from each other, live in the same neighborhoods with each other, and even marry and bear children with the “other” and still co mingle without major friction.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

I grew up with the Civil Rights dream of America as a new multicultural utopia where anyone could do anything if given the opportunity. And that people could get along, if given the opportunity to peacefully co exist with minimal social “problems” like unemployment, crime, drugs, gangs, and racial strife. I knew that was a lie I had told myself, but sometimes we lie to ourselves because we want things to be as we envision them.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

This one day was my vision, and I was having it. There are still massive problems plaguing all urban centers–the loss of jobs, industry, the homeless, crime and drugs, and those gangs I mentioned. And the problems are compounded by (or even started by) white-collar criminals, predatory banks, unscrupulous politicians, a failed criminal justice system that sees more profit in privatization and crime than in education, and wars that sap our collective will. Cities often bear the brunt of those larger societal kicks to the economic groin. But Oakland is fighting back, with a kick in the pants of its own. And we should take note. 
Knitted Chairs
PHOTO: Punk Toad

Maybe the most fantastic bit of this salad of humanity on display (and we were all part of the display–nobody was invisible) were the low-rider cars as art that were parked at ¼ Pound Giant Burger on 22nd and Telegraph avenue–in the heart of the OAM. Cars of all artistic shades sat in the sunset glow of the popular burger stand– an art installation like no other that night. Tattooed gentlemen conversed with people in suits about their cars, the vintage, the tuck-and-roll seats, and sound systems. As badly as I wanted a cheeseburger, I resisted and took a few shots of people, cars, plays, and this moveable art.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews
On up the street, musical acts performed for money or for applause; dancers twirled to onlookers, people darted in and out of bars–meeting friends or flirting with strangers–and artists discussed their art in galleries or on the street stands that many set up, guerilla-style. Food-carts did a brisk business dishing out gourmet pizza, Vietnamese noodles, gourmet sausages and spring rolls, black beans with rice and spinach, tamales, and frozen delights. Best to couple with someone else so as to sample as many offerings as your stomach and wallet can handle.

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

Our final stop for the evening–I was accompanied by a former art commissioner who decided to teach me a thing or two about art–was a small gallery next to a wonderful beef brisket sandwich stand. (Food is never far from my horizon of interest.) There, we enjoyed the late evening joy of exhaustion, cozy sofas, free wine and grapes, a DJ, inside stories on the Oakland Art Murmur (“It’s the people we meet that keeps us coming back”), and artists who are simply enjoying that people enjoy their work. Display and appreciation are as crucial to the work of artists as much they are to writers, dancers, musicians, and comedians, I suppose. To know that others can feel and be moved by something we create from thin air is often its own reward for our efforts.

Oakland is certainly garnering its share of reward for its progressive view of art in the public square. And cities like San Francisco show strength and character when they look eastward across the bay and say, “There is a there, there … and we’d like to be like them.” Maybe our perpetual feud as siblings is over. Maybe we’ve both grown up.

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