1:44am

Wed April 17, 2013
Code Switch

Seeking Oakland's Soul In The 'New Oakland'

Originally published on Wed April 17, 2013 5:17 pm

Oakland, Calif., was once a hub of African-American culture on the West Coast.

In the 1940s and '50s, Oakland was home to an entertainment corridor nicknamed The Harlem of the West. In the '60s, the city gave birth to the Black Panther Party. By the '80s, black folks made up nearly half of Oakland's population.

Today, Oakland is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the U.S. — it's now 34 percent white, 28 percent black, 25 percent Latino and 17 percent Asian. But some worry that diversity will dilute the city's black cultural identity.

This is an issue affecting cities across the country. Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., have all seen their black populations decline.

When I lived here 10 years ago, I never would have expected to find what I did in Oakland in March — a trio of mustachioed white guys playing old-timey music smack in the middle of Telegraph Avenue on a Friday night.

But, now? That kind of thing goes down on the first Friday of every month. Which is where I was, walking with hordes of people, eating food truck grub, popping in and out of hip bars and art galleries.

This event, known as "First Fridays" or "Art Murmur," takes place in a part of Oakland that once was called Downtown. But after redevelopment, it's now Uptown.

"This is very new Oakland," said Chris Riggins, who performs stand-up comedy at Art Murmur every month. "But the only issue we're having right now is getting new Oakland to accept old Oakland."

You hear that a lot: "new Oakland" vs. "old Oakland."

Riggins explained: "When I say 'Old Oakland,' what I mean is really the people that were born and raised here, that often get forgotten. And that's basically black and brown people in Oakland. Because right now we're having a big gentrification, [and] a lot of people that aren't from Oakland — that wouldn't come to Oakland 10 years ago — are moving to Oakland."

And the people from old Oakland? They're moving out. Parts of Oakland that were affordable are being revitalized. Gentrified. People are leaving neighboring San Francisco because the rents are crazy high. That's pushing Oakland's rents up.

But violence is also up. The murder rate here jumped 22 percent last year.

Everything stopped for a moment at March's First Friday to honor Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old student shot and killed the previous month. Three-quarters of the murder victims in Oakland are black, like Kiante.

Those two factors — higher rents and crime — are triggers for the nearly 25 percent drop in Oakland's black population over the past two decades.

Dave "Sweets" Ward is one of the black Oakland natives planning his suburban escape. He doesn't want to raise his daughter around all that shooting.

Ward's dad, "Sweet Jimmie" Ward, was one of the most successful bar and nightclub owners in Oakland for decades. "Let's say Michael Jackson is the king of pop — let's just say Sweet Jimmie is the king of the nightlife," said his son.

Sweet Jimmie reigned over Oakland nightlife until 2006, when he sold Jimmies, one of Oakland's largest black-owned-and-operated clubs. (He has since passed away.)

"I mean, he owned the building, the property — he owned it," Ward said. "No renting, no leasing, all his."

Sweet Jimmie came from Louisiana in the mid-'50s to work as a longshoreman. Many African-Americans in Oakland have ancestors who moved from the South to work in the shipyards.

Longshoreman by day, bartender at night, Sweet Jimmie opened his first bar in 1969 on Telegraph Avenue. Back then, Jimmie's patrons nodded their Afros and nursed cocktails while they listened to blues greats like Bobby "Blue" Bland.

The bar's investors were Sweet Jimmie's cousins Melvin and Huey Newton. Yes, that Huey Newton.

Black Panthers and the blues: You can't get more old Oakland than that. But when I asked Dave Ward what his dad, Sweet Jimmie, would say about Uptown Oakland in 2013, Ward said, "He couldn't say nothing but that it's beautiful ... but ... it ain't for black folks."

Today, on the former site of Sweet Jimmie's, sits a place called the New Parish, with a crowd that looks very new Oakland: white, Latino, Asian and black, but a lot less black than the city used to be.

The club's owner, Michael O'Connor, is a San Francisco native with Irish roots. O'Connor said Sweet Jimmie's building was empty for a couple of years before he bought and remodeled it. Old Oakland now houses new Oakland. He hopes the two can co-exist.

"If we want to have a successful Oakland, it's got to be diversified," he said, "but I think that there still and hopefully there will be always a dominant thread going through that fabric of African-American and black culture."

O'Connor said Oakland has the potential to maintain its strong diverse identity — something San Francisco lost. He says it helps that what he calls "identity politics" are no longer en vogue.

"We went through a period of time in the '90s where there was a lot of white guilt," he said. "I think that all races can over-analyze what they are and who they are — 'I'm this and I'm going to teach you a lesson,' or 'I'm this and I feel guilty because of history.' But when you're out at a show on a Friday night, those things aren't that relevant."

I spoke with Oakland natives born in the '90s who never knew there was a Sweet Jimmie, don't know much about the Black Panthers or the blues, and don't really think of Oakland as having a black cultural identity.

It's just not that relevant to folks such as Antoinette Allen, a high school senior.

Antoinette is black, and her new favorite jam is an R&B song by a group of Pacific Islanders raised in Oakland. The song's video was filmed on Oakland's International Boulevard. The vocalists croon to their love interest in front of a Taco truck called Tacos Los Amigos:

This is Oakland in 2013. Some say it's the heart of multicultural America; others tell me it's losing its soul.

But whatever it is, it's changing fast.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR's launched a new team called Code Switch, covering race, ethnicity and culture. That name refers to the practice of code switching, changing the way we talk when we talk with different kinds of people in different conversations.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, our Code Switch team is exploring the impact of the huge demographic shifts in America. They're focusing on Oakland, California, once a hub of West Coast African-American culture.

INSKEEP: In the 1940s and '50s, its music scene was dubbed the Harlem of the West.

GREENE: In the '60s, the city gave birth to the Black Panther Party, and by the '80s, blacks made up nearly half the city's population.

INSKEEP: Today, Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, but some worry that diversity is deluding its black cultural identity. This is an issue affecting cities across the country, like Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Newark, New Jersey. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Ten years ago, you wouldn't see a trio of mustachioed white guys playing old-timey music and drawing a supportive crowd smack in the middle of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland on a Friday night. I know. I lived here back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: But, now, that kind of thing goes down on the first Friday of every month, and that's where we are tonight, walking with hordes of people, eating food truck grub, popping in and out of hip bars and galleries. It's called First Fridays, or Art Murmur.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everybody, let me get an art murmur.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Art murmur.

MERAJI: And it takes place in a part of Oakland that once was called downtown, but after redevelopment, is now Uptown, Oakland's new entertainment district. Chris Riggins performs stand-up comedy at the street festival every month.

CHRIS RIGGINS: This is very new Oakland. It's new Oakland, but the only issue right now we're having is getting new Oakland to accept old Oakland.

MERAJI: You hear that a lot: new Oakland vs. old Oakland. Riggins explains.

RIGGINS: When I say old Oakland, what I mean is, really, the people that were born and raised here, that often get, you know, forgotten. And that's basically black and brown people in Oakland. Because right now, we're having a big gentrification. A lot of people that aren't from Oakland, that wouldn't come to Oakland 10 years ago, are now moving to Oakland.

MERAJI: And the people from old Oakland? They're moving out. Parts of Oakland that were affordable are being revitalized, gentrified. People are leaving neighboring San Francisco because the rents are crazy high. That's pushing Oakland's rents up. But violence is also up. The murder rate here jumped 22 percent last year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Stand where you are. Stay still, everybody, for a moment of silence.

MERAJI: Everything stopped for a moment at this First Friday to honor Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old student shot and killed last month. Three-quarters of the murder victims in Oakland are black, like Kiante. Those two factors, higher rents and crime, are triggers for the nearly 25 percent drop in Oakland's black population over the past two decades.

DAVE SWEETS WARD: That's so funny, because I'm one of them.

MERAJI: Dave "Sweets" Ward is an Oakland native planning his suburban escape. He doesn't want to raise his daughter around all that shooting. Sweets is like an old Oakland rep now that his dad, Sweet Jimmie, has passed on.

WARD: Let's say Michael Jackson is the king of pop. Let's just say Sweet Jimmie is the king of the nightlife in Oakland.

MERAJI: Sweet Jimmie Ward was one of the most successful bar and nightclub owners in Oakland for decades, king of the nightlife until 2006, when he sold Jimmies, one of Oakland's largest black-owned-and-operated clubs.

WARD: He owned it. No renting, no leasing, all his.

MERAJI: Sweet Jimmie came from Louisiana in the mid-'50s to work as a longshoreman. Many African-Americans in Oakland have family who moved from the South to work in the shipyards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL IT STORMY MONDAY")

MERAJI: Longshoreman by day, bartender at night, Sweet Jimmie opened his first bar in 1969 on Telegraph Avenue. Back then, Jimmie's patrons nodded their Afros and nursed cocktails while they listened to blues greats like Bobby "Blue" Bland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL IT STORMY MONDAY")

BOBBY BLUE BLAND: (Singing) They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad.

MERAJI: And the bar's investors were Sweet Jimmie's cousins Melvin and Huey Newton.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Huey Newton sprang to national prominence in 1966 as one of the founders of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.

MERAJI: Black Panthers and the blues: You can't get more old Oakland than that. But when I ask Dave Ward what his dad Sweet Jimmie would say about Uptown Oakland in 2013, Ward says...

WARD: He couldn't say nothing, but, I guess, it's beautiful. But it ain't for black folks.

DJ Z-TRIP: Oakland, how you feeling? You doing good?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MERAJI: Later, on that same Friday night in uptown, DJ Z-trip rocks the turntables at a club called the New Parish for a crowd that looks a lot like new Oakland: white, Latino, Asian and black, but a lot less black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: New Parish owner Michael O'Connor is a San Francisco native with Irish roots.

MICHAEL O'CONNOR: And by saying this is the New Parish, it's kind of like a new area of town.

MERAJI: O'Connor says Sweet Jimmie's building was empty for a couple of years before he bought and remodeled it. Old Oakland now houses new Oakland.

O'CONNOR: If we want to have a successful Oakland, it's got to be diversified. But I think that there's still - and hopefully there will be, always - a dominant thread going through that fabric of African-American and black culture.

MERAJI: And O'Connor told me Oakland has the potential to maintain its strong, diverse identity. He says it helps that what he calls identity politics are no longer en vogue.

O'CONNOR: We went through a period of time in the '90s, particularly, where there was a lot of white guilt. I think that all races can overanalyze what they are and who they are, that when you're out having fun at a show at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night, those things aren't that relevant.

MERAJI: I spoke with Oakland natives born in the '90s who never knew there was a Sweet Jimmie, don't know much about the Black Panthers or the blues, and don't really think of Oakland as having a black cultural identity.

ANTOINETTE ALLEN: Occasionally, I hang out with a lot of Polys.

MERAJI: Antoinette Allen is a senior. On her high school campus, Tongan and Samoan students go by Polys, short for Polynesian.

ALLEN: Recently, I started listening to their music, and I can tell you I have a few songs on my phone that I just play nonstop.

MERAJI: She whips out that phone and starts searching for one of her favorites.

ALLEN: I love this song. I love it. And I play this song for everybody, because, like, I love this song.

MERAJI: Antoinette is black, listening to R&B sung by Pacific Islanders raised in Oakland. The song's video was filmed on International Boulevard, and the vocalists croon to their love interest in front of a Taco truck called Tacos Los Amigos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: This is Oakland in 2013. Some say it's the heart of multicultural America. Others told me it's losing its soul. But you get a sense that whatever it is, it's changing fast. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: