We started Robert Self's book "American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland" to bring the history of race, particularly from post-WWII to the mid-1970s, local to the San Francisco Bay Area. This week, we read chapters 1 and 4.
Chapter 1 titled "Industrial Garden," discusses city planning by the Metropolitan Oakland Area Program or MOAP. This chapter also touches on the segregation of housing and jobs after the war. The MOAP began to push what will later been seen as the 1950s suburban "American Dream": home ownership. Oakland aspired to become the "industrial garden" after the war. A combination of city, suburban, and country life could co-exist in the city of Oakland. Of course, the realization of the dream was limited to those would could qualify for loans at the bank and secure a decent job with benefits. In short, the dream was left only a dream for the new migration of black residents. Many trade unions still acknowledged the "color line" in extending membership benefits to black workers. Some trade unions set up separate unions for their black workers but extended little power within their membership.
I have to admit that the talk of unions was a bit confusing for me. I have a small frame of reference for how unions work since I have never belonged to one and neither of my parents currently belong to one (my mother was once a member of the grocery store union when she worked in a supermarket deli during my childhood). Self describes how incredibly important the unions were at the beginning of the 1950s and how they began to shape local and national politics. There appeared to be a lot of struggle between unions and employers at the end of the 1940s, with good reason. Self outlines many of the benefits that unions were fighting for on behalf of the workers: 8-hour work days, higher wages, and better working conditions. Since unions looked out for the interests of the workers, of course black workers also wanted to belong to them. But they found themselves shut out for a variety of reasons. Black workers often found work in menial or service labor and these industries rarely had unions. So, black workers are finding themselves disenfranchised in a variety of ways: they are unable to work in higher-paying union jobs in the transportation industry because of discrimination, they are then forced to find low-paying service or manual labor jobs, and they are shut out of unions and negotiations because they don't work in jobs that are supported by the union. Yikes. And how does this not affect African-Americans now?
This chapter also shed light on the development of West Oakland as a community for African-Americans. The dream for most workers in Oakland was to own a home and move to the more "desirable" neighborhoods in North Oakland, Berkeley or Albany. Migrating African-Americans, unable to afford homes, lived in the only apartment or tenement buildings available, in West Oakland. Other parts of Oakland lacked apartment or multi-family housing, so the only logical place for struggling migrants to live was in the affordable West Oakland district. Self explores the importance of West Oakland to the black community in more depth in Chapter 4.
Chapter 4 titled "Redistribution" details the redeveloping of West Oakland. From 1955-60, land values in downtown's retail area decreased by 50%. The disrepair and sagging economy of downtown was attributed to "blight." I can't help but cringe when I hear the words "blight" or "urban renewal" or "redevelopment." I think I've been conditioned by all the tell-tale signs of gentrification. As a witness to gentrification both in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area, I know that "urban renewal" means kicking all the people of color out and making way for boutiques and condos. It happened in Silver Lake, Echo Park, the San Francisco Mission District, and the Oakland Temescal district. I've been interested in the trajectory of gentrification but lacked specific historical examples. West Oakland strikes me as a bit different than these other examples because it was never completely restored due to the development of the BART and freeway system. Due to the development of these transportation models, West Oakland was split into fractions and according to Self, the thriving Seventh Street area of black-owned businesses was razed.
This was my favorite quote about blight on page 139:
"Most local officials and business leaders understood decline as a physical and economic problem, what they termed 'blight,' rather than as a symptom of social inequality. In this view, blight did not originate in the racial segregation of housing and labor markets or in the unequal distribution of political and economic power, but in the deterioration of aging housing stock, overcrowding, and declining property values."
This quote stated exactly the issues that most city officials and business owners failed to grasp. Because this structure of inequality was set in place, the center of black community and life declined due to the lack of money coming in from the residents. Since black home owners couldn't secure loans for home repair, their homes began to age. Since black residents struggled in menial jobs, they failed to spend money in downtown businesses. But the nail in the coffin for West Oakland was definitely the literal dividing of the community by the building of 3 different freeway interchanges. West Oakland became 3 separate neighborhoods and the residents were cut off from downtown. And it totally continues today. I can even tell the difference in Oakland neighborhoods from the window of the (I'm not trying to be ironic) BART train. Once the train exits the bay tunnel and arrives above-ground in West Oakland, I can see homes in disrepair and a lack of a cohesive downtown. This infrastructure still exists! That's the crazy thing about all the decisions made 50 years ago, the divides set up back then still affect people's lives today. That's one reason why I get so frustrated with politics, there seems to be a lack of foresight about how decisions made today will affect the next generation. The search for the "quick fix" has a tendency to affect lives in the future.