West Oakland, gentrification, and environmental racism

West Oakland is being pitched as the hot new neighbourhood in the East Bay, especially for people looking for ‘starter homes,’ and as a result, the historically Black community is experiencing significant gentrification. People are snapping up cheap homes (including a number of foreclosures), sinking work into them, and then settling in there — but this is not a story of neighbourhood renewal and the infusion of capital into making communities stronger. Instead, it’s a more familiar story of a community being warped and pushed out to make way for a wealthier landed class.

In West Oakland, there’s another complex element to this story. Even as it’s being overrun by middle class and wealthy people, not just from the tech industry but across the spectrum, it’s also a snarled nightmare of pollution. Between the docks and manufacturing facilities, West Oakland contains a number of hazards — like diesel emissions from the Port of Oakland and, for decades, the Red Star Yeast factory, which closed in 2003.

These are distinct examples of environmental racism. The Black community was pushed into areas where housing was cheap due to economic disparities and social segregation, and those areas were built up with polluting industries because whites turned those industries away. A feedback effect grew, and created a situation where generations of Black youth faced serious health problems because of prenatal and early childhood exposure to hazards.

Children with issues like asthma and developmental disabilities have a harder time learning, and growing, and pursuing lives and opportunities that offer more chance at economic independence and freedom than their parents had. Intergenerational, entrenched poverty is a serious problem in low-income communities of colour, and disability often goes alongside, and weaves through, that. Disabled children face more challenges in school while being more expensive for their parents to raise — and many get trapped in the school to prison pipeline, with disabled children overall more likely to be suspended, especially if they are children of colour.

Environmental racism also makes adults sick, especially when combined with things like occupational segregation. West Oakland has, for a very long time, made its residents very sick. This didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things, because those residents were Black. They were Black and had no money and resources to fight back. They struggled to survive in a community that made them sick because what choice did they have? They faced limitations that made it difficult or impossible to relocate — though why should they be forced to move from the community they call home? Why shouldn’t that community be a safe and healthy place to live?

But now, a thing is happening. White people are moving to West Oakland, and I can guarantee you that the city will be taking action on decades of environmental injustice. Some may view this as a positive side of gentrification, how the new white people and their money pushed the city to hold companies accountable and start enforcing pollution regulations. They may argue that while white people are creating economic displacement as they flood the community, at least they’re making it safer.

I…don’t really view it this way. We shouldn’t have to plop some middle class white people into a polluted neighbourhood to get people to care about it, because we should have been taking action long ago. Rather than being evidence of a benefit to gentrification, this should instead be taken as a dark symbol of environmental racism, and a reminder that for communities of colour, injustice like this is pernicious and persistent. There are other communities across the Bay facing similar problems and they, too, are being ignored because no one who ‘matters’ lives there.

As the community experiences gentrification, too, the beneficiaries of that greater environmental responsibility and coming cleanup efforts won’t be the people who suffered for decades and sometimes generations. Those people will be gone, driven out by foreclosures and increases in rent and other pressures that make the environment economically hostile. They’ll be moving to other communities with terrible pollution, because those are the places they can afford to live, and the cycle will continue.

Not that long ago, West Oakland was a ‘sketchy’ (code: Black) neighbourhood that many whites refused to set foot in. Then it started to be penetrated with a slow trickle of lower and working class whites who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere, so artists and manual labourers and others began to set up camp. Now that the middle class are shifting in as well, the community is changing, bleaching out, like so many communities before it. It’s happening so quickly that it’s hard to keep track of the ebb and flow of property values and hipster stores and commodities across the neighbourhood, but it’s still happening.

It should bother people to understand that West Oakland has been heavily polluted and left that way because of who lives there, that the drivers fueling the destruction of a low-income community of colour were mediated and empowered by the demands of a white-dominated economy. It should trouble those who are buying up housing stock there that they are contributing not just to gentrification, but to something much more complicated and nuanced, that they are feeding into the system that keeps environmental racism alive and thriving.

Image: Peralta Mural, Russell Mondy, Flickr