Where Do Black Folks Get to Thrive?
(I know there is a lot more timely stuff to write about, but this has been on my mind…)
Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend from Brooklyn, where she grew up before its Guiliani-era sanitizing. Like me, Micia was in search of a “black American cafe society”: a progressive black community with a thriving creative class, one built on the foundation of cornerstone institutions like churches and restaurants and barbershops and funeral homes, but not bound to the socially-conservative limitations of those places. Where black art galleries and diasporic food and grassroots organizations thrive.
Oakland is the closest place that I’ve seen to that kind of community, which has precious few counterparts in the world. Perhaps we can chalk up Oakland’s special brew to the California dream of freedom and expression, hope and possibility, recreation and re-creation. Oakland is the soul of the Bay Area; is America's "Flyest City."
I’m breathlessly afraid that I’m watching an Oakland replay of what has happened in San Francisco: the disappearance of black folks from the city fabric. San Francisco’s Fillmore District was once declared the Harlem of the West, a lively neighborhood vividly described in Maya Angelou’s early memoirs of her high school and young adult years. Black communities also grew in Bayview, Ingleside, and Lakeview. African Americans seemed to be woven into the city’s tapestry. Life wasn’t perfect here, but black folks were an undeniable presence. Now I wonder if most of those people are gone, faded into family memories or relocated - by choice or force - to “greener” grass. With a population of 6% and falling, blacks in San Francisco today at best seem an ad hoc presence and, at worst, interlopers, a civic nuisance.
Oakland's black population declined by a third in three decades, from 47% of the city in 1980 to 28% in 2010. I keep wondering, where is a thriving, vibrant black community, one that is safe from gentrification? Are any black communities doing well? Harlem? Bronzeville? PG County? Leimert Park?
Bruce Kelley, the former editor of San Francisco magazine, once wrote in his regular opening column that he couldn’t imagine living in a city without African Americans; he would feel like something energetic and creative and flavorful was missing. When white people — and I’m purposely omitting other people of color here — speak about wanting to live in a diverse place, are black people in that mix? Or is “diversity” a generic nod to an abundance of global-themed restaurants and street festivals, a real-life EPCOT? I’ve wondered aloud if people really mean that they embrace that a mix of humanity - working class to wealthy, kids to elderly, artists to actuarians, and people of every shade, gender expression, and body type. Frankly, I think they’re just talking about (diversity of) food.
New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, and DC all have signs of being “saved” by newer, wealthier, whiter energy and people coming in: people who seem to like different kinds of food, but not so much the people who created it. "Saving" cities because their initiative, creativity, and hard work are recognized as “entrepreneurship” and not — unlike black folks — dismissed as a “hustle.” And maybe because they’re better resourced in the first place.
So as debates about gentrification and displacement rage, no real answers seem forthcoming, not as long as potential solutions are so detached from the capital needed for people not to move out but to stay put. To invest in businesses and property so that black folks don't keep getting outpriced and bumped out.
Robert Moses’s legacy taught us that where redevelopment wiped out a once-prospering black community, the gaping hole became either a highway or a ‘hood. A center of concentrated poverty. A rabbit hole with no way out. We US denizens love the Horatio Alger story of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, but that is damn near impossible today. Stagnant wages, crushing student debt, insufficient investment and lack of other capital compound the issues at hand.
I want to live in a thriving, truly diverse city, one where I’m part of a black community that is an active, valued contributor to the larger social and civic fabric and vibe. Where our cultural, intellectual, and economic contributions are respected, celebrated, and deemed irreplaceable. Where, if we weren’t present, the city would have the reputation of a flat, uninteresting, monochromatic bore.
I want it all: a stable and energetic black community, alongside a range of neighbors and residents who speak different languages, eat different foods, celebrate customs tied to ancestral homelands, and contribute to the overall well-being of humanity and the environment.
I really don’t think either of those things are too much to ask and, if they are, we owe it to ourselves to ask why.
Photo from Oakland Peace Ride by Matt Werner, Oakland Local