When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this past January, I felt a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction or anticipated a legal confrontation with my landlord. The oppositional landscape of the gentrifying city was immediate, but was most vividly concretized by seeing the altered transit map in the car I took to a legal aid office–where the name for the station I was headed was covered by a decal (in a glorious act of cartographic resistance) that renamed the station after Oscar Grant, who had been shot on its platform after taking part in New Years Eve celebration in 2009, by a white BART officer.
The decal placed on the urban transit map in the header to this post served to reorient the viewer to an urban landscape that had been changed by cycles of gentrification, many of which had propelled so many residents to the urban periphery in Oakland. Indeed, the city has created a new sense of the suburbanization of many neighborhoods erasing the presence of former inhabitants, it seems to engage the social geography of the city, and the guerilla-style renaming of the station served as more than a marker and a reminder of a past that resisted urban exclusion, or resisted the dynamics of urban change in a city where I suddenly noticed my own precareity on the way to my appointment with legal aid.
There was some comfort in the decal affixed to the wall of the car. It created a chasm in the landscape in that BART car, in some way echoing the huge urban rioting and unrest following the killing of a twenty-two year old in the city–rioting that recalled the uprisings in urban America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr., when the army was called in to northwest Washington, DC to avert social catastrophe. The memory was still so hard to negotiate that only a decade after the event did BART’s Board of Directors name a road near the station after Oscar Grant, an alley between 33rd and 35th avenues, to mark that unnecessary death. Rather selfishly, or out of fear, I was not thinking about the tragedy of his killing so much as the shifting landscape of Oakland and my relation to it.
The changes of rapid gentrification are beginning to be mapped by the Anti-Eviction Project, whose maps chart trace the residues of renters’ place in Oakland’s housing market. The decal oriented me to the changing urban landscape of Oakland, and served as a reminder of the precareity of urban residents as cycles of gentrification forced many living near Fruitvale Station itself, to relocate, recording something like a residue of displacement, that echoed the adoption of a tree as the new urban icon, suggesting a suburbanization of much of urban space, known now for farmers markets and the “unseeing” of many of its earlier residents, and erased much of its urban past–and indeed erased their faces.
A sense of presence was announced with clear resistance in that sticker, commemorating the shooting of Grant, a young twenty-two year old whose shooting provoked a level of rioting and looting that was reminiscent of the rioting in America cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, catastrophic disruptions that led to the army to restore security, was, to be sure, a protest against racial inequality and overt racism of the BART officer. But the sense of instability that it registered in the transit map arrested me as a new site of orientation on a rapidly disappearing past, and as it somehow became an anchor or point of stability that orient me in the changing urban space, increasingly fluid and unsure, where I’d received an eviction notice in 2018.
The effect of cycles of gentrification–if not its engines–are evident in maps of the unlawful detainers served in the city in the past decade, and instability of the urban landscape that this has created. Visualizations of massive displacement of renters in the Bay Area chart escalating evictions in amped up real estate markets. The result is suggests of the changing nature of the commons or of public space over the past decade, as Oakland emerged as a prime site of private residence and rapacious landlords, and the city became something of a microcosm of the heightened pressures that the Bay Area experienced. The contracting commons is hardly able to be captured in point data. But a map of unlawful detainers issued across the city suggests the nature of the earth change, a swarm of ladybugs or less prosaic leeches feeding on the city’s neighborhoods, and ingesting its vitality: the arrival of predators that occasion such unlawful detainers suggest that the economy of home ownership nourish a form of master-slave relations. For across neighborhoods of radically different income levels, the shifting populations that have filled housing markets are mirrored by an ethnically shifting neighborhood, and a lowering of economic diversity. Even in the cordoned off area of North Oakland where I lived, the invasion of unlawful detainers had been felt not only from afar, but within what was a formerly African American neighborhood where home sales approached and far surpassed $1,200,000 for a two bedroom.
The extraordinary density appeared to track the outbreak of an epidemic or urban virus, the embodiment of the affliction of the city by landlord evictions mapped from 2005-15 seeming to be spread in strikingly uniform manner from North Oakland, where I lived, to Fruitvale in an evil effervescence or infestation of increasing gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.
Over the previous years, I had only watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large. But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years.
The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay. And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress. And the remapping of that station–where I headed on public transit–by renaming the station in gesture to a decade-old event piercingly revealed the unstable ground of social justice in Oakland, and made me feel better than since we were first served notice. The alternate embodiment of that map, created by a decal, seemed a powerful gesture of resistance as BART approached Fruitvale Station, and I reflexively looked from the map to the panel that hung above the BART platform a few times.
Although my dispute with my landlord was resolved, if quite contentiously, the sixty-day move-out notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities, and the deep disparities between landlords and renters–and the increasingly adversarial roles of landlords and predatory buyers of buildings in the face of the promise of greater rents– reminded one of the possibilities of legal contestation or assertion of renters’ rights for many in a city where I’d been tensely aware how rents had increased immensely and property revaluations was actively pressing populations on something of forced migration to far flung suburbia from Modesto to Visalia to Fresno to southern California. Arriving at Fruitvale Station to avail myself of public services was entering, if temporarily, into the unknown landscape of the disenfranchised.Continue reading