Fifteen Years In Jingletown
I lived for fifteen years in Jingletown, a district of Oakland, California. I originally moved there as an act of desperation (I was essentially broke and needed a large space for a photo studio and business), and only left the neighborhood when my rent went up 50% overnight a few months ago. I could long see the writing on the (rapidly gentrifying) wall for people like me; and on top of the strain of dealing with the increasing piles of garbage on the streets, the junk, the graffiti, the pollution, the noise, the crime, and the traffic, the rent increase was the last straw. I never wanted to leave like that, but there you are: you just move on (you really have no choice).
This is an unreliable, opinionated, and personal memoir of my fifteen years there, sparsely-illustrated by some snapshots I took over the years. Note that if taken strictly, the name “Jingletown” refers to a fairly small area that doesn’t even cross 23rd Avenue, but almost no one really uses it to mean just that, so I’ll use it the same way a lot of inhabitants use it, to mean some bits of the surrounding areas as well.
Jingletown exemplifies some of the ways Oakland has changed over the last couple of decades: in that time, the neighborhood changed from a little-known commercial and industrial area with a few artists, musicians, crafts people, and just plain old residents like me sprinkled unobtrusively between the factories and freeways and businesses and railroad yards and vacant lots, to the sort of place whose better bits are typically nowadays described as “vibrant”: young middle-class people strolling and cycling around a neighborhood of purpose-built high-rent lofts and apartments, repurposed and refurbished factories and commercial buildings, nice walkways and paths, waterside access, etc. It’s gone from being a mostly-anonymous low-rent area between Fruitvale and the Estuary to being, ahem, the self-proclaimed “Jingletown Arts District” (which, we used to joke rather bitterly, meant that all the actual artists were being priced out by all the galleries moving in). It used to be a place people mostly just passed through on their way elsewhere (Alameda, Fruitvale, the Coliseum, San Leandro, the freeways, etc.); now it’s a destination in its own right.
In other words, it’s the old story: gentrification. But it’s more complicated than that: it’s also a story about how an urban environment can deteriorate badly at the same time as it’s becoming shiny and new(ish). Jingletown’s developed a growing garbage, junk, graffiti, and homelessness problem; parts of it are now one of the dumping grounds of Oakland and surrounding cities. As so many of the better parts of Oakland succumb to gentrification and social cleansing, so much of the resulting detritus and the socially-cleansed end up exported to East and West Oakland, i.e. places like Jingletown, where the gentrifiers can look the other way even as they cohabit with the mess and the homeless at some level.
Jingletown’s wedged between Fruitvale and the Oakland Estuary. It’s still a fairly mixed area demographically and in terms of business and residential usage. It’s split down the middle by the freeway (Interstate 880); what most people think of as “Jingletown” nowadays is west and south of the freeway (towards the Estuary), but a substantial part of Jingletown is on the northern and eastern (Fruitvale) side of the freeway as well. That part of Jingletown is more residential, and typically less self-consciously arty (at least nowadays), and is a lot less known to outsiders. It’s always been difficult to go from one side to the other, either physically or metaphorically, and I’m afraid I remained wedded to the Estuary side, because that’s where I lived.
When I moved there, people were confused about where it was. You could say it’s Jingletown, but almost no one knew where that was. You could say it’s down by Park Street Bridge or the 23rd Avenue off-ramp from Interstate 880 — that sort of worked if the person was already at least somewhat familiar with the area. Or you could say “it’s right near the old Wonderbread factory”, and if they’d lived in the East Bay more than a few years, they knew where that was, too. Or it’s Fruitvale-by-the-Estuary, which was at least amusing, but since few people really know where The Estuary is, it doesn’t really work either (ditto for “Embarcadero Cove”, a real estate agent’s fave). So I always had trouble with people trying to find my studio, which wasn’t helped by the weird one-way street system and traffic-circle-(roundabout)-in-all-but-name leading up to the Park Street Bridge, which always caused visitors to get lost or have to double back several times before finally working out how to approach my place.
And it’s significant that the name “Jingletown” wasn’t really in widespread use back when I moved in, even in Jingletown itself — the common use of “Jingletown” seems to have developed in parallel with the area’s gentrification and associated growing self-awareness.
For all those fifteen years, I lived in a large old building that was a converted factory. It was an early conversion, not one of the purpose-built latter-day lifestyle lofts that have cropped up in the area over the last decade. I’d actually noticed the building a decade earlier (at least) when I rode my bicycle along the Embarcadero all the way to the end, and when it was still a factory; it amused me all those years later when I realized that that was the building I was about to move in to.
The building fronted a busy four-lane industrial road, with Interstate 880 just out the back; it’s surrounded by things like concrete plants and light industrial or commercial buildings. The noise there is constant, whether it’s the traffic on the freeway or the main road, or the refrigerated trucks idling overnight just in front of the building, or other tenants playing music (live, in some cases) or doing the recreational furniture throwing thing that seems so popular in places like this, or the loud fans at the ConAgra grain elevator howling through the night. The air was always heavily polluted, whether from the nearby concrete plants and trucks that operated night and day, or from the freeway or idling trucks out front. Thick white dust settled quickly on everything in the building (yes, I breathed that air for fifteen years). But it was home, and it was convenient (close enough to walk or ride my bike quickly to Fruitvale BART), and it was comfortable. And it suited me — my unit was larger than most, the light was good, and its size worked well for my photo studio. And it was affordable (mostly).
The immediately-surrounding blocks were almost entirely commercial and industrial, but fairly well maintained and tidy. There were a lot of small and medium-sized businesses in the neighborhood — machinists, boat yards, car repairers, flooring installation shops, blacksmiths, a concrete testing lab, etc. — and a handful of larger places: the Wonderbread factory (which filled the early-morning air with the inescapable smell of fresh baking bread back then), the ConAgra grain silos, the two cement plants, the huge recycling plant down by Fruitvale Bridge, etc. There were container trucks and containers on trailers parked everywhere around the immediate neighborhood. There was a small freight train (inevitably nicknamed the “Jingletown Express”) that slowly and very loudly ground its way down the middle of local streets a couple of times a week (usually past midnight) to drop off and pick up freight cars at the ConAgra yard (the noise of the train close-up in Glascock Street was astonishing — thrilling, even, unless you lived there). The area was actually very walkable, as long as you were careful with the relentless traffic; but when you walked, you rarely saw any other pedestrians.
Crime wasn’t a huge issue — it was definitely a problem, but manageable , at least on our side of the freeway — nor was graffiti (the striking thing about photos I have of the area from back then is how virtually none of the neighborhood walls were graffitied, which nowadays seems incomprehensible). Homelessness in the neighborhood wasn’t much of an issue either — it was no better or worse than most other parts of Oakland. There were no chi-chi coffee shops or hipster food outlets (organic or otherwise) within walking distance. You could comfortably walk across Park Street Bridge into Alameda, but Alameda’s Park Street back then was mostly full of second-hand car lots, bars, or low-rent cafes and restaurants (which I loved, of course — The Ark up on Park Street being a fave destination for dinner, and the old JavaRama even further up Park was coffee central for me for years). Or you could walk up to East 14th / International Boulevard in Fruitvale, which was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday (especially eating at the Otaez Mexicatessen or the Guadalajara). There was the old neighborhood standby — Nikko’s 24 Hour Diner — right in the neighborhood as well, but actually eating there required a death-defying dash across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic if you didn’t want to drive (or die). The Taco Oaxaco food truck had a semi-permanent place on Kennedy Street at Diesel; it was definitely not part of the emerging gourmet / hipster food truck thing (but it was pretty damn good, and popular with local workers). And there was the Buttercup Grill a few blocks away, another old standby which I used to go to every now and then.
There was even wildlife in Jingletown — just not the same sort of wildlife you’d see up in the Hills or out in the Bay. I even made a jokey photo gallery of it all, The Wildlife Of Jingletown; it gives a flavor of the area immediately surrounding where I lived back then.
And nowadays? In many ways, the neighborhood’s thriving. A lot more people live there; the overall feel is more prosperous, less industrial. The Tin Sheds next to the Estuary (see the photo heading this article) are long gone, replaced by fairly generic-looking condos and lifestyle lofts; needless to say, the people who lived and had workshops and studios in the old tin sheds have been replaced as well. Typically, the old Victory Motors shed across the road from the old sheds on Glascock Street is now an expensively-architected hipster live / work space (ditto for its inhabitants, I’m sure). A lot of people know of the area now because of the very popular Oakland Museum White Elephant Sale periodically held there in an old warehouse (it’s actually well worth going to…). The somnolent old Pier 29 restaurant right on the Estuary next to the Park Street Bridge became the short-lived (and somewhat livelier) Tiki Tom’s, which subsequently burned down in suspicious circumstances; the resulting vacant space was cleared out for the large new multi-story assisted-living building that’s gone up next to the water (“Phoenix Commons”, which really isn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be).
The big old industrial-scale Wonderbread bakery evolved into the Earthgrains distributorship, then closed completely a year or two ago; its (block-size) site is now being sold for redevelopment (I can’t imagine it coming back to life as another factory — I sense a large set of lifestyle lofts and expensive condos in its future…).
There’s a huge brand-new five story apartment block on 29th, overshadowing Kefa Coffee (a really nice local neighborhood coffee shop in what used to be the Cafe Andalus place), and replacing the couple of small older single-story houses that used to be there. Jingletown’s namesake sound studio, Jingletown Recording, once associated with people like Green Day and Iggy Pop, has gone. Otaez Mexicatessen is still up on International — but its owner, Jose “Chuy” Campos (a guy so many locals knew), was shot dead right in front of it as he was opening up early one morning in 2011, and the business’s center of gravity is now in Alameda. Taco Oaxaco is still there, the surrounding area no longer a vacant wasteland, its newer customers probably more familiar with the gourmet food truck thing now.
Almost all the artists, musicians, and crafts people I knew in the neighborhood have also been priced out over the past few years, and are now living elsewhere, never to return (hint for those who care about things like this: Richmond’s the new Jingletown. Or maybe it’s Vallejo… or maybe there is no new Jingletown in the Bay Area any more). Straus Carpets is still there with its deliciously surreal signs — but for how long (Tom was a bit pessimistic when I last saw him)? Ditto with Kefa — if the rents go up for them (as they will), can they survive? Will the inhabitants of the new apartment building next door go to Kefa for coffee or breakfast — or will they go somewhere hipper and further away (or will they just get Uber Eats to deliver some expensive snacks right to the door?). And Nikko’s isn’t open 24 hours a day any more, and it’s not clear who its customers will be in the future as its original customers disappear from the neighborhood (maybe it’ll reappear as an ironic or hipster reinvention of its original self — you know, “Nikko’s”). But you can now walk across Park Street Bridge and buy decent organic produce, free-trade coffees, hipster food in hipster cafes (well, the Alameda version of “hipster”, anyway), boutique beers in micro-breweries, and stroll Park Street Alameda in safety and some style (and that’s a good thing). And there are some serious long-term improvements being made to the local traffic problems and pedestrian access, and maybe one day you’ll actually be able to walk from the High Street Bridge all the way to Jack London Square along the water’s edge (it’s almost doable now).
And the Art… as I wrote earlier, the area’s become self-consciously arty, a place where a significant proportion of the population seems to like the idea of living in an arty neighborhood (despite the fact that there are probably fewer artists per square mile now than fifteen years ago). There are new installations and murals here and there around the place along with outcrops of self-consciously surreal street art; there are well-attended open art studio weekends where you can stroll from studio to studio (but there seem to be fewer “real” studios nowadays); and the new architecture is tending towards the post-industrial “industrial” look. But self-aware surrealism isn’t much fun when it’s so self-conscious; industrial landscapes aren’t that interesting when they’re actually tweely post-industrial re-creations; and street art’s just not that artless (in the good sense) when it’s sanctioned or even sponsored. And the art is playing up to the sort of people moving in, which is never good news.
On the other hand, over the last few years the neighborhood’s been inundated with garbage and junk, often dumped there overnight by outsiders who know they can just get off the freeway, toss that mattress or bunch of garbage bags out of the car or off the truck, and get straight back onto the freeway without getting caught. But even locals seem to do it, and pretty much every green patch or park is now fair game for dumpers; ditto for back streets and even busy sidewalks. And petty crime is rampant, especially breaking and entering.
And the graffiti… around 2010 it started appearing everywhere, a flood of tags that drowned walls, bridges, street signs, windows, cars, even trees (yes, it wasn’t uncommon to see tagged trees in the area); several local street murals were graffitied over as well (disproving the naive graffiti-enabler’s belief that taggers never tag over art work or murals). As I said earlier, one of the surprises I had when looking back through photos I’d taken of the neighborhood back in 2001 or 2002 was that the walls were basically graffiti-free back then, and were right up to maybe 2008. That’s simply incomprehensible now. I actually kinda like smart, thoughtful graffiti or posters (whether political or arty, it’s good when someone’s put some thought into it), but there wasn’t much of that — it was mostly just local taggers pissing all over the neighborhood every night, which got demoralizing.
I like to use two places as metaphors for, or symptoms of, the way Jingletown changed over the fifteen years I lived there: the building I actually lived in, and the piece of land that eventually became Union Point Park.
When I moved in to my new home sixteen years ago, there were maybe twenty-five people living there in about twenty units; a lot of them were artists, musicians, crafts people, etc., who made a living in the building, or at least used it as a base for making a living (I used it for the photography business I had back then; there was another professional photographer just down the corridor who did wonderful hi-res food photography in her studio there; the guy across the corridor was a graphics designer; etc.). Many of the tenants lived there on their own — single-tenancy units were relatively common in the building. The tenants were pretty diverse (in every way), and at least somewhat representative of the surrounding bits of Oakland. We had a fairly strong sense of community, bolstered by occasional building-wide tenant get-togethers; our landlord seemed like a nice guy who clearly rather liked having people like us as tenants, and had no obvious plans to change the way the place was run. I knew everyone else in the building by face, if not always by name (but I usually knew most tenant’s names). The rents were basically affordable — a little high for the area back then, but not so high as to make life too difficult for most of us.
By the time I moved out, at least twice as many people lived in the building (some units had four or five people living in them by then), and most of the tenants seemed to be professionals who just lived in the building (and worked in the City or somewhere nowhere near Jingletown). The people living there were a lot less diverse in every way, and I knew far fewer of them. There hadn’t been a tenant get-together for nearly a decade. There were still some musicians and artists, but not a lot. And the rent was now market-high — and the building, under new management, looks increasingly ready for make-over and expensive reinvention. Crime is now a hot topic — almost everyone (including me) had their cars broken in to in the last few years, sometimes repeatedly, often just the usual smash-and-grab through the car’s windows. Street assaults had increased tremendously. Graffiti is now omnipresent — I got tired of the giant logos spray-painted onto every wall on my daily walk to Kefa Coffee. There are multiple homeless camps hidden away or in plain sight (I was attacked twice by an off-leash pit bull from one of them); garbage and junk is now dumped brazenly on the block every night. And still the rents and costs increase.
Fifteen years ago, what’s now Union Point Park was a typical industrial wasteland — a few flat overgrown vacant acres between The Embarcadero and the Estuary. It had some discarded furniture and fridges lurking in the long grass, but was otherwise the sort of wasteland that no one really ever visited or walked across. It was next to a nice but fairly basic marina, and the views from the northern end of the lot across the Estuary to Alameda and up towards Jack London Square and the Port were wonderful.
And then, within a few years, Union Point Park was created on top of this wasteland. A nicely-landscaped park with kids’ play areas, BBQ areas, paths, open spaces, the obligatory weirdo sculpture (a statue unkindly nicknamed “Frankenwoman”, that I actually liked), and access to the water’s edge in the Estuary, Union Point Park was successful in pretty much every way. You know something like this is working when locals spontaneously play soccer on the open spaces there, or kids are buzzing around the playgrounds while their parents relax and talk in the shade, or extended local families have BBQs while their kids play around them, or people start riding their bikes along the paths through the park rather than trying to avoid it. It quickly became a part of my life — a place to stroll in the evenings, a pleasant alternative to riding along the Embarcadero, a really fun place to take my little nephews (who both enjoyed playing on the playground or walking along the water’s edge). It has a little artificial hill with a spiral ramp to the top; you can stand up there and watch the tugs and barges and kayaks and sailboats and speedboats pass by or idle down on the Estuary, or look further up the Estuary to the Port, where those great symbols of Oakland — the container cranes — loom in the middle distance. Or you could watch the large Coast Guard cutters on Coast Guard Island just a few hundred yards away. I loved the place.
And then, starting around 2010, it began slowly coming apart. Graffiti started appearing everywhere in the park — not just on the usual things, but also on trees, on playground structures, and on landscaped rocks and things like that. Most of it was just the usual taggers pissing all over the neighborhood, but it can get a little demoralizing having to walk past and through this every day — and seeing tags sprayed all over playground equipment makes you think twice about bringing the kids along. And over the last few years multiple homeless camps sprung up in the park, with the inevitable sea of garbage and junk around each of them spreading slowly and surely across paths and open spaces. And the off-leash dogs from the camps started getting scary, especially if you were walking with children. Kids started saying they didn’t like going there any more — I don’t blame them. Neither did I, especially after getting yet another punctured tire from the broken glass strewn across the paths there — and after watching one of the local homeless guys pissing vacantly into the kids sand lot, I stopped going there at all.
I drove past Union Point the other day — it now hosts a demoralizing collection of broken RVs and cars, pools of junk and garbage, and homeless tents, all worse than ever. People still go there — it’s not a terrible place, for sure, and the junk and garbage comes and goes in waves — but it doesn’t feel much like the inviting part of the neighborhood it used be. It’s becoming a place to avoid rather to go to. And it feels like a bit of a metaphor for the way the larger neighborhood itself is getting pissed on and dumped on by so many.
But you can’t blame the homeless for setting up camp in the park — where the hell else can they go? They’re homeless (and they’ve been socially-cleansed from most other plausible places in Oakland and nearby). And what the hell else can they do with all the junk and garbage? And in any case, why the hell should they care about a neighborhood that’s full of people who basically don’t care about them?
And it’s almost as difficult to blame the people moving in to the neighborhood in search of cheaper housing for the rising rents and social cleansing, too. They usually have little idea about the history of the area they’re moving in to, and they’re typically just as subject to market forces as the people they’re replacing. When you see a middle-class family of four — two adults and two small kids — living in cramped proximity to high-pollution concrete plants and busy industrial roads, you know they’re not really there because of the art or food scenes, no matter how much they rationalize it: they’re there because that’s all they can afford within feasible commuting distance of suitable jobs.
Without things like rent controls or local government intervention or determined local action, the more livable you make a place like this, the less easy it is for the original inhabitants to live there. As I’ve said elsewhere, social improvement is so often social cleansing by another name.
And it’s too facile to say Jingletown’s lost its soul. It’s definitely lost something, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s also gained a lot: Jingletown is probably a better place for most people now than it was fifteen years ago, even if someone like me can’t afford to live there comfortably any more.
I guess the rest of us just have to move on, as we always do.