In this light, it’s important to revisit more closely the debate over resurrecting the Kaiser Convention Center’s Calvin Simmons theatre—once a hub of Oakland culture-- as a viable performance space. According to the city’s RFP, any proposal for what to do with this space should include “as many community benefits as possible” including “local and small business participation, commitment to living and prevailing wages, commitment to labor peace and opportunities for job training and mentoring, a high number of jobs created for a range of training and educational levels, and a provision of high quality public facilities and amenities.” (Oakland Post, July 1-7, 2015).
In short, these guidelines seem straightforward in recognizing the need for a true center to Oakland culture. A problem, however, arises when high-paid lawyers have been at work on a twisted interpretation of these words that resemble Orwellian double-speak in their ingenuity. We’re told that the Orton proposal for use of the space is in accord with what these city RFP zoning guidelines demand to create a “multi-floor rehab combining office, flex, public access and food uses.” Notice how “high quality public facilities and amenities” is transformed into mere “public access and food uses.” The facilities won’t necessarily be public, just the access. This sounds more like a store, or a hallway lined with stores and offices (and, reportedly, a brewery). It’s clear that this proposal would “transform the majority of the interior of this building into offices for private business.” In short, this empty public space will become a privatized shell of its former public/civic cultural glory.
By contrast, an alternative proposal from Creative Development Partners shows more understanding of the original intent of the city’s zoning guidelines in ways that would better contribute to the entirety of Oakland’s culture and economy: “The CDP proposal is built around community benefits, including creating 1,700 jobs and a career training program in partnership with Laney and Merritt College for jobs in hospitality, culinary arts, creative arts and landscaping, as well as a partnership with OUSD’s Linked Learning proposal.” This proposal, which “envisions the building as a hub for local music, cultural and performing art companies to use as a rehearsal and performance space,” clearly betters the Orton plan in its adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the city’s RFP.
The CDP plan to draw talent and “content providers” from the students of the state- funded community college across the street from it is a win-win situation for not only the city (and the developer who has found a way to make it turn a profit), but also would help Laney College successfully fulfill the hope of its mission statement (or ILO) of community service and vocational training. Despite being underfunded by the state (and in the midst of an accreditation battle), Laney College is one of the few cultural institutions in Oakland that understands the meaning of the word “community.” Nationally known not only for its “world class theatre program at community college prices,” as Michael Torres proudly claims, but also its culinary, cosmetology, and construction program, Laney provides a pool of talent that is woefully underutilized by the city of Oakland to the detriment of both. And it is to the credit of the creative ingenuity of Randolph Belle and the CDP team that they have recognized how this can help create a better Oakland in which gentrification doesn’t have to equal displacement and an increase in the wealth-gap.
Once again, however, the city has seemed to miss its opportunity, as they’ve all but broken ground on the Orton proposal. [i]But if it’s too late to save the Kaiser Convention Center from the plutocrat’s privatizing plans, it must be understood that this empty arena serves as a symbol of a larger vacuum left by the de-funding of Oakland’s old infrastructure, but also of the hope that we may yet regain what was good about the old Oakland. Beyond merely being a gesture of civic pride, an initiative like the CDP plan can both serve the need of consumers as well as those who value “labor peace” by providing high-quality locally-based affordable culture (arts and entertainment in the broadest sense of the words) that could foster a much needed alternative to the mass-cultural mediocrity that has colonized Oakland (The McDonalds-like culture of Hollywood whose business-as-usual is to rob from Oakland’s economy and communities on a daily basis).
Oakland’s got talent, and many people (human resources) who are willing and eager to work here, who would prefer to stay here and give back to the community rather than resigning themselves to be part of the brain-drain exodus of innovative creative sensibilities to LA or NYC, for instance. These people, however, need incentives to stay here and currently this city is not providing them. It’s not even on any legislative agenda, in any way beyond such lip-service as the mayor’s toothless “Made In Oakland” campaign promise.
2. Schaaf’s “Black Arts District” & The Role Of Locally Owned Media
Consider, for instance, the mayor’s symbolic declaration of a long stretch on 14th Street in downtown Oakland as a “Black Arts District” this past February. This could be an amazingly positive win/win initiative that could benefit all of Oakland did this gesture have any practical teeth. After all, Oakland’s culture, which has largely been a black culture, is a legacy every new resident who calls Oakland her home should be proud of, or at the very least curious about. But it’s been swept under the rug, or never considered seriously as part of a comprehensive practical solution to Oakland’s ills (which some—a very powerful minority—of course don’t see as ills). What—beyond empty words--could a possible Black Arts District look like?
I won’t here propose anything in detail, but I do think we need to encourage homegrown innovative creativity to consider how this can benefit Oakland’s culture and create a cultural export that could help Oakland’s economy. In considering such possibilities, the tech companies are of course welcome to contribute to the discussion as long as they don’t dominate it, and deny the central importance of a grass-roots (worker owned) entertainment venue and arts center that is clearly rooted in the local, from the ground up (we already have enough trickle-down cultural and economic initiative, and look where that’s gotten us).
One example I should mention before closing is the role of radio—good old fashioned terrestrial radio—in helping to create this.[ii] Although Pandora and other Oakland Corporate Tech Firms tell us the days of radio are largely a thing of the past, and not a worthwhile arena for the expenditure of venture capital (or even cultural capital), the fact that the most powerful international media conglomerates currently cling tightly to their ownership of the three (3) radio stations licensed by the FCC to be broadcast from Oakland shows that radio still has a power, and that that power—in its current form—serves a particular agenda, an agenda that, no matter how you slice it, is resolutely anti-Oakland culture.
The fact that corporate conglomerates have systematically hurt Oakland’s culture through their control of the programming of these radio stations is barely a blip on the radar on most people’s thinking of how to improve Oakland; this is due to purposeful miseducation (For instance, how many Oaklanders today even know about former mayor Elihu Harris’s valiant, if ultimately failed, attempt, to keep Oakland’s radio programming local? How many even know Oakland has a radio station?). But, with concerted effort, we could remake these broadcast outlets into a positive good for anybody who truly values the “Made In Oakland” slogan.
It also goes largely unsaid that these corporate owners of Oakland’s airwaves are actively violating FCC regulations that demand that programming must originate in the city to which they’re licensed, and must serve the public interest of the community in which they are located. This illegal corporate maneuvering has become standard operating procedure across the country as these regulations are not enforced (thanks to the lobbyists’ revolving door, for instance), a form of taxation without representation people feel helpless to fight against when there’s so many seemingly more immediate problems (racial profiling, police brutality, to name but two). Yet, at root, the corporate control of radio, gentrification and the PIC are part of the same phenomenon.
I don’t have to be so fatalistic to agree with those who say “you can’t fight city hall” to agree with those who argue “it’s much harder to fight Clearchannel and Disney who in many ways have more power than City Hall.” I’d like to hold out some hope that City Hall, in fact, could be persuaded to become our ally in the fight against Clearchannel, et al.
Our demands our simple: the city should help provide economic incentives, and remove economic obstacles, for a team of locally-based culture workers and investors to buy at least one of these radio stations from the corporate behemoths on the condition that this station will be part of a job training and job creation program for the citizens of Oakland. Ideally, this would be a commercially self-sustaining station that would mandate advertising rates that are affordable enough so that locally-based small businesses in Oakland could advertise (we don’t need Geico and Chevron to survive). Ideally, there would also be one non-commercial station (not merely an LPFM station like the Peralta School District’s 96.7FM, that doesn’t even reach all of Oakland, but more like San Francisco’s listener-supported KPOO 89.5) that would serve underserved populations, emphasizing educational programming (again, in the broadest sense of the word), working closely with Oakland public schools, trade schools and colleges and the diversity of Oakland’s musicians and artists: a true working class (and world class) radio station. Of course, these stations should have a “world wide” internet component, but they would be clearly connected to a place, a venue, a locally run art and entertainment center (even if this can’t happen on the site of the former Kaiser Convention Center)—either in the “Arts District” or in the so-called “Black Arts District.”
In Conclusion….This admittedly broad outline could at least be a discussion starter. I believe that such a plan, in working closely with OUSD, could, in the long term, decrease drop-out rates, by giving hope to the disenfranchised that education truly means something as well as serve the public need for a new cultural hub that could do much to revitalize Oakland culture so that it may rival the current culture we too often import from Hollywood or NYC at Oakland’s expense. This could help reduce poverty, crime, joblessness, and the general disenfranchisement that is epidemic in this city (I’d even argue that—in the long term-- it could even have more positive effects in reducing hypertension, depression, and obesity than in the quick fixes Kaiser Permanente pushes). And, yes, I understand that Oakland’s City Council and the Mayor’s office could only do so much against the corporations--and that we need to work on many fronts—for any plan would be likely to take the form of a “public/private partnership” at first in order to have a chance of getting off the ground—on city, country, state and federal levels (it shouldn’t be too difficult to get Oakland congresswoman Barbara Lee’s ear with a well-developed proposal), but if the city can use what muscle it does have to advocate for this—rather than blocking or turning a blind eye to it—we can promise you this, we got your back! And if the city can’t help this become a reality, we’ll find others who can; we do, after all, have the power to vote you out of office—at least until you drive even more of us out of here. So, this is a matter of some urgency; the time for action is now!
[ii] Charles Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael’s collaboration on the Black Power manifesto, wrote:
“For blacks to gain control of a significant portion of the electronic media would be the most important single breakthrough in the black struggle, and would justify every bit of time, talent and resources expended toward its achievement.” (1971, “Blacks And Mass Media”)