The result of a coordinated effort between the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), social practice artist Chris Treggiari, community organizations and over 700 locals is Oakland, I want you to know..., a new exhibit at the museum that doubles as a safe space of assembly.
To create a sense of place, the exhibition contains reproductions of physical landmarks in West Oakland neighborhoods. These are simulacra of a community garden, a BART station, a loft, a music club and the facade of a Victorian home. The visual impact is less like the actual experience of walking the streets of West Oakland and more like stepping onto the set of a children’s television show about West Oakland.
With overlays of blonde wood, the curators have created a comfortable, if artificial, environment for kids, teenagers and families to start conversations about the meanings of terms like "gentrification" and "redlining." In each of the designated areas, paper and writing implements provide visitors with opportunities to answer specific questions or respond to thematic discussion points.
Community responses to the prompt “Oakland, I want you to know...” hang on signs dispersed throughout the gallery. A quote from photographer Julie Plasencia simply states, “Oakland, I want you to know my neighbors.” When Plasencia and her family lived on West Oakland's Chester Street (they have since relocated to Richmond), she made a series of portraits of her neighbors in front of their houses. Each set of subjects stares directly at her lens. The photographs, arranged in a grid inside the faux-Victorian, capture her former neighbors’ sense of pride and ownership.
Plasencia's photographs combine a general feeling of home with the specificity of one neighborhood street. Her artistic vision is the clearest response to the question posed by the exhibit as whole: Who does this neighborhood belong to?
Beyond the strength of these portraits, the exhibition's approach seems designed to placate viewers rather than provoke them. The “landmarks” have a sameness to them; they don't register as recognizable analogs to the places they’re meant to represent. The West Oakland BART station installation is scrubbed clean of any sign of the tent city or piles of refuse that lie just below the real-life BART station's tracks. But then again, replicating the experience of standing on the platform or riding the train may be beside the point.
Inside the station installation, audio selections compiled by Youth Radio as “West Side Stories: Gentrification in West Oakland” are uniquely compelling. For any visitors unfamiliar with West Oakland, the assembled reportage offers an engaging and informative primer on the area and its recent history. Two of the interviews specifically zero in on problems West Oakland residents have faced for decades.
Audio from 22-year-old Malik Byers, who grew up in the Lower Bottoms, addresses gentrification from the inside out. “West Oakland is becoming more peaceful, but the only way this is coming about is because all these white folks is moving in here," he says. "At the same time, us Black people we have a responsibility. We shouldn’t let outsiders come in and take our neighborhood away from us.” His assessment of the changes around him delineate what is to him an impassable line between “white folks” and “Black people.”
21-year-old Joshua Clayton, sadly, is less concerned with outsiders. “I hear gun shots almost every day," he says. "I’ve seen killings, robberies, car thefts, house invasions. But whatever happens on 12th Street stays on 12th Street. I could literally watch a house get burned down from beginning to end but I would never snitch.”
ABOVE: West Oakland Neighbors, Director/Producer: Alex Frantz Ghassan; Editor: Pace Rivers, Think Ahead Studios; Video participants: Kasey Seturn (Youth Radio), Senay Alkebu-Lan (Youth Radio), Donta Jackson (Youth Radio), Seneca Scott (Bottoms Up Community Garden), Destiny Renee Shabazz (McClymonds High School), Proprietor (Born Again Barber Shop), Morning Star Baptist Church. (Courtesy of OMCA)
Oakland, I want you to know... presents the turmoil of a neighborhood at a crossroads. The exhibit shows what’s been lost or is being lost (Black culture, history and housing), but also depicts tenuous efforts to sustain and rebuild a community that’s suffered from decades of psychological, economic and physical trauma.
That over 700 people participated in the creation of the exhibition is notable. Oakland, I want you to know... is a worthy example of social practice art at its best. Instead of a lone curator informing the people of West Oakland about their neighborhood, the neighborhood is educating OMCA visitors about themselves and the reasons why they’re fighting to stay in the place they call home. But even that desire to stay is a double-edged sword, evinced by Joshua Clayton's conflict. “Everybody in my neighborhood would always tell me, ‘This is where you’re from. 12th Street is your home.’ And lately, that mentality started feeling like a jail. I feel trapped, like my entire universe is just one block long,” Clayton says.
Despite its bland staging, Oakland, I want you to know... brings up moments of real anxiety through individual voices and stories: Will Joshua’s participation in this project help his daily struggle to survive on 12th Street? After living in West Oakland for 37 years, will Joyce Carter be able to hold onto the house she owns? Embedded within these questions is a call for civic engagement and activism. In the gallery, a stack of letterhead lies expectantly beneath a map of the Oakland City Council districts. Go ahead, write your councilmember. Your kids will be preoccupied with the felt vegetables and all those colored pencils. OMCA will see to it that your missive gets delivered.
Oakland, I want you to know... is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through Oct. 30, 2016. For tickets and more information, visit museumca.org.