After the Murmur

Pub date May 2, 2006
WriterTim Kingston


One could be forgiven for staring. Oakland’s lower Telegraph Avenue on a wet, cold, windy Friday night is not a location renowned for its street parties, particularly those involving dozens of young, white hipsters happily mingling with an equal number of young African Americans, both watching an impromptu rap show.

But a street party is precisely what was happening outside the Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) Gallery, at Telegraph and 23rd Street, that night. Welcome to Art Murmur, Oakland’s very own art walk on the first Friday of every month. What started in January as an eight-gallery venture has, in a mere four months, blossomed. A dozen Oakland galleries now participate, exhibiting everything from installations featuring massively oversized pill bottles and pillboxes to traditional oil portraitures and, in the case of the Boontling Gallery, unnerving little sculptures that co-owner Mike Simpson described as "whimsical takes on decapitation."

"We want to improve the art scene in the East Bay so that people will call Oakland an artistic force to be reckoned with," the lanky Simpson told the Guardian. "Oakland has a lot of potential, and I have a lot of pride in the city…. A lot of artists who show in San Francisco are from Oakland. Why not represent where they are from?"

But jump-starting an artist-driven revival of lower Telegraph also has its potential hazards, prime among them gentrification. As San Franciscans know all too well, such revitalization carries the danger that the community will be made safe for real estate agents, developers, and urban professionals who quickly eliminate less desirable residents, i.e., the folks who were there first and the new artists’ community.

When asked about the issue, Sydney Silverstein of the RPS Collective knowingly said, "Oh, you mean artists laying the groundwork for gentrification?"

Setting the gentrification question aside for a moment, something new and very exciting is happening along Telegraph Avenue, come rain or shine.

"We want to get people to buy art that have never bought art before," nattily attired Art Murmur cofounder Theo Auer said as he sipped free wine. It is not just the young and trendy who show up more than one gray-haired art aficionado was spotted making purchases at Boontling.

How did it all start? According to Auer, the midwife was beer. "It was after a show, and we asked each other, ‘Why doesn’t Oakland have an art walk?’ ‘How hard can it be?’" The result was a meeting last year at which RPS, Mama Buzz Café, Ego Park, 21 Grand, 33 Grand, Auto Gallery, Boontling, and the Front Gallery all chipped in money for logistics, postcards, an Web site, and a newspaper ad.

"It’s a tight community," said Tracy Timmins, the pale-blue-eyed and enthusiastic co-owner of Auto Gallery. "We are all very supportive of each other." And that support also comes from her landlord, who is only too happy to have a group of impoverished students who want to improve the neighborhood with art.

This, of course, is what raises the specter of gentrification. History shows that the shock troops of gentrification a Starbucks on every corner, a yuppie in every Beamer are the artists, freaks, punks, and queers who move into marginal areas. They happily pay low rent and live in iffy areas so they can create alternative communities. But that success can sow the seeds of a community’s destruction.

What makes the Art Murmurers different from alternative communities of the past is they are well aware of how they can be a mixed blessing for neighborhoods. The night before the April Art Murmur, Murmurers held a five-hour meeting to revisit their founding principles, which include a commitment to a sustainable neighborhood as a way to prevent yuppification.

"We are trying not to alienate the current residents," Silverstein said, while noting the harsh reality of gentrification. "If this neighborhood goes to hell and becomes another Emeryville, I don’t think you can do anything about it."

Silverstein said RPS is proactively linking to, and becoming part of, the community by offering sewing classes, art classes, a community space for events, and by forging a partnership with a local high school so the collective is not just an invasive bohemian Borg.

Silverstein told us she sees more new faces at classes offered by the gallery, a statement backed by the youths of color running in and out of the gallery space. Timmins too sees a role for the galleries to provide a place for art and education for local kids, because they "are not getting it in school."

Other galleries are less clear on the concept of community and gentrification. Esteban Sabar, owner of the upscale Esteban Sabar Gallery, moved from the Castro to affordable Oakland with a grant from the city of Oakland.

"This is affordable for me," Sabar said. "It will take awhile for gentrification to happen. By putting a gallery here I will help artists and the community. I will not let anyone kick me out." But he failed to address what might happen to the poorer local residents already living there if gentrification heats up.

Perhaps Jen Loy, co-owner of Mama Buzz Café, has the most realistic take on the issue. Lower Telegraph isn’t like areas that used to have vibrant communities until they were decimated by dot-commers. She said there were few people living in the area.

"The more people, the better," Loy said. "People [who have been] living here 10 or 15 years are saying, ‘Thank you, it is great to have you here.’" Loy says businesses like a local market, a pizzeria, and the bar Cabel’s Reef all benefit from an influx of capital.

So the question is, as always, who benefits? If an area is revitalized, tax revenues go up, more people move in, and a more vibrant area ensues, but where do the artists and people who were there first go? Will they be able to create a community strong enough to resist displacement?

Or will they do what Tracy Timmins of Auto Gallery has already had to do: "As far as being pushed out, it happens," she says. "If that happens, I start again somewhere else." SFBG