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For the Erased Faces of Oak Park
The color schemes of Sacramento’s gentrification
Our house, a modest two-story structure, sits on 7th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, sandwiched between a Chinese food take-out restaurant and a liquor store. It is in Oak Park, a neighborhood just a couple of blocks away from downtown Sacramento. Black steel bars guard the windows of the liquor store. Posters with cigarette prices are plastered on the windows. A blue tent has been recently pitched in front of the store.
On the side of my house is a narrow alley, outlined with chain-link fencing, leading up to a recently developed UC Davis Medical Center. The center is conspicuously shiny and new, boasting straight edges and a modish grey and blue color scheme—the kind of color schemes that are markers for gentrification. Since the cross-street Broadway was renovated, all the buildings have been painted variations of this color scheme. It’s always a bright color balanced with a cool grey. This color scheme is everywhere. The new loft studios have it. The new store VIBE, a healthy smoothie/acai-bowl bar, has it. The new coffee-roasting café, Old Soul, has it but in brown. Even the Oak Park Brewing Company, which sells artisanal beers, and the new plant nursery have it. The store under construction—a soon-to-be yoga studio or maybe a new boutique store—is only just now putting up isolated walls, but once those suckers are up, they’re sure to get coated in light grey.
There is an old black woman who likes to walk around the block. Her pace is deliberate; she’s looking at houses, stopping to get a closer view. She strolls down the streets, smiling at everyone who passes her and gripping her tote bag tightly. The bulk of the tote bag suggests that it’s quite a heavy load. Upon finding someone out working on their yard or sitting outside, she is quick to start conversation. No matter the topic, she ends her conversations with “I have a great book to recommend you!”—usually a book related to the topic. On a lucky day, she’ll have that book physically in her tote bag. We call her the Book Lady.
Our neighbors are fascinating people. They are a mixture of black and Latino families, all working-class. There is a driver for elderly patients, a worker for a tree removal company, a Mexican folk dance instructor, and a number of food service workers. One neighbor is running for sheriff. Two houses away is a family with a newborn baby, whose cries wake up the whole block at four in the morning. Three blocks away is a fire station, and given the high crime rate of Oak Park, emergency vehicles are routinely heard. Sometimes at night, I can hear the siren and see the red emergency lights flashing on the window, and I know that the baby’s cries will shortly follow. Just this past summer, there were eight shootings and seven homicides within the span of five weeks mostly due to gang violence. A sad playlist of BANG, sirens wailing, and the baby’s cries played for the neighborhood every week that summer.
There is also a middle-aged brown man who rides a dope bicycle. It’s the kind that is decked out with neon lights on the wheels. A cruiser with tall handlebars and tiny mirrors. Its handlebars are worn out and the wheels are very prone to flat tires. Regardless, he always carries a tiny boom box that blasts music, typically rap or hip hop with hard beats, and wears a smile. He nods away, fishtailing on his bike down the street. Perhaps he has a destination, perhaps he just likes going on bike rides. Probably both. I’ve seen him biking quickly at the peak commuting time. I’ve seen him sit down on the sidewalk underneath the shade of the oak trees, listening to his music.
She came to us while my father, sister, and I were in our front yard weeding. We had just moved into our new house three months ago and felt the garden could use some upkeep. We were playing loud mariachi songs on speakers. She hovered over our fence, looking over at us with a grandmotherly polite smile. She looked about 70 years old, with deep-set wrinkles and nostalgic eyes. We turned down the music and my father made his way over to her, expecting her to complain about the music.
“My grandmother used to live in this house,” she said softly. “I live right over there,” she pointed at the senior-living apartments atop the UC Davis Medical Center. “I like to go on walks around here and I remember my grandma every time I pass her house,” she explained.
We introduced ourselves, showed her around the house, and listened to her stories of what the house was like before. It used to only be one story and the layout was slightly different. She smiled at us and said in a wobbly voice that she was happy a family as beautiful and lively as hers lives here. She left a note for us with her name and room number, in case we wanted to visit her.
I was walking my dog early on a Sunday morning, patiently waiting for her to finish peeing. I looked away for a split second and saw him out of the corner of my eye. He was a twenty-something year old white guy biking on a presumably expensive city bike. The sleek black frame and thick wheels moved swiftly down the street. He carried a black Patagonia backpack with a yoga mat strapped to the back of it. He wore thick glass frames and yes, he even had the trademark hipster mustache-beard combination. He looked straight ahead even though the street was empty, as if his destination was the only thing on his mind. Maybe he was late to his yoga class.
There are not one, but two community gardens bordering Oak Park. I’ve never actually seen anyone tending to them. One of them is shared with the adjacent neighborhood, Curtis Park. The shared garden does not provide free or accessible produce for residents, as the name might imply. Rather, residents rent a bed that they then plant in and tend. I don’t know anyone on my block that has a bed in the community garden; most don’t even know it exists. Curtis Park, in contrast, is a majority-white and affluent neighborhood. Lush, well-kept yards are perfectly manicured to fit the design of the house.
Gunther’s, a family-owned ice cream shop, is located right in the center of Curtis Park. Since 1940, Gunther’s has been churning out old-fashioned ice cream. It has a retro design of large panel windows and a neon sign of an ice cream man scooping up a ball of ice cream. At night, he lights up — the neon ice cream ball cascading from the scoop into the ice cream cone. It usually syncs with the classic 1950s music overheard on the speakers. The lines are long but the days are hot, so everyone shuffles along in line.
After being served, you desperately try to finish your ice cream before it melts, and can take in a view of the beautiful houses on the street. Palm and oak trees line the front yards in neat rows. They’re the kind of houses that you choose for trick-or-treating because you know they’ll have the good-sized candy bars.
The newest mural in Oak Park shares a wall with the new development on Broadway Street. Executed in a style that evokes hip-hop graffiti, it depicts human organs and intestines as pieces of machinery, in a bright color scheme of purple, pink and orange. I remember how long it took the artist to paint the mural: driving past, you could see him on a crane armed with paint for well over two weeks. This mural arose from a commissioned mural festival, and was done with the support of the property owner—a steakhouse that serves $41 porterhouse steaks.
I felt uneasy when I first came across the finished mural. It looked so out of place in the neighborhood, even as it matched the vibe of the Broadway development. It was trying so hard to be something it was not. It was as if someone looked at the bougie boutique and the hipster coffee place and thought: you know what this place needs? Something edgy and urban. And out came this monster machine, with its assembly line of organs.
On the bottom of the mural, though, I noticed a grace note in white lettering: the tag “GENTRIFY 101: Make it hip! (FUCK THAT)”.
I don’t know when that part was added, but I imagine it to be shortly after the mural had been finished. I couldn’t help but smile every time I drove past it—that metaphorical act of giving the finger to the new development. I often wondered about the identity of the anonymous tagger. How did he or she settle on those exact words? Were they someone who needed a job, only to get turned down by the businesses opened up with the recent development? Were they one of the residents who got pushed out by the increasing rent? Or were they just tired of seeing generic shops like Starbuck’s pop up in place of the old barbeque joint? The slow, often inconspicuous violence of gentrification pushed this person to take control of the public face of the neighborhood—to add a human blemish to the otherwise sterile block.
Eventually, the tagging was removed. Plans have been made to seal the mural with a protective coating to prevent further vandalism. Maybe this mural will be there for generations. Maybe it will become the face of Oak Park. Maybe it already is.
Half a block over was another mural—this one decorating the wall of a historic building, the Guild Theater. The faces of Adriene Ludd, Dazion Flenaugh, Joseph Mann, Lorenzo Cruz, Desmond Phillips, Mikel McIntyre, and Ryan Ellis—all black and brown men killed by local police departments—were painted. There was a simplicity to the design, with strong vibrant colors contrasting with the melanin of the faces. Candles and flowers appeared overnight, each placed neatly underneath each portrait.
A couple of days after the mural was unveiled, the owner of the building ordered that it be painted over. The job was expensive enough for the property owner to suggest that the mural was an act of felony vandalism—but the re-painting was also done hastily, and left blood-colored blotches in place of the faces of the killed.
Erased were the faces of Broadway & 35th Street: Adriene Ludd, Dazion Flenaugh, Joseph Mann, Lorenzo Cruz, Desmond Phillips, Mikel McIntyre, Ryan Ellis.
I wonder if soon the faces of Oak Park—the nameless bike rider, the anonymous tagger, the Book Lady, the woman whose grandmother lived in my house—will be erased as well.