Gentrification Threatens Oakland Churches and Artists

Coalition of faith-based, housing and cultural groups join to protect sacred spaces, say speakers at Post Salon

Speakers at the Oct. 25 Post Salon at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle were (L to R): Pastor Thomas Harris, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church; Pastor Phyllis Scott of Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries; Anyka Barber, owner of Betti Ono gallery; Theo Williams, SambaFunk!. and co-moderator Pastor Debra Avery. Photo by Tulio Ospina, First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Tulio Ospina

Speakers at the Oct. 25 Post Salon at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle were (L to R): Pastor Thomas Harris, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church; Pastor Phyllis Scott, Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries; Anyka Barber, owner of Betti Ono gallery; Theo Williams, SambaFunk!; and co-moderator Pastor Debra Avery, First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Tulio Ospina

  By Ken Epstein

Oakland and other Bay Area cities are in the throes of a market-driven surge in evictions and rent increases, as long-term residents, small businesses and nonprofit agencies are being pushed out of their communities at an increasingly feverish pace.

Tensions are reaching a flashpoint in Oakland, where veteran residents are finding that a handful of gentrifiers  – perceived as acting out of a sense of entitlement – are trying to suppress the culture and religious worship that many see as the expression of life and breath.

At the heart of the conflict are two incidents that have become emblematic of the deepening tensions.
One of the incidents occurred in August when a resident called 911 to complain about an evening church choir practice at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in West Oakland, which received a city letter threatening penalties.

The second occurred in September when a resident approached drummers at Lake Merritt, tried to take away their drumsticks and called police to press assault charges against the musicians.

Exacerbating tensions, the city has seemed to side with the complainers – by threatening the church with penalties and filing charges against two of the drummers – though all charges were ultimately dropped this week.

Many residents see a double standard on the part of city agencies, which rarely respond when neighbors complain about a crack house next door or when garbage and other trash are piling up on their block.

These were concerns raised last Sunday, when residents, members of church congregations and cultural workers packed into a space at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland for a community discussion led by a panel of religious and arts’ leaders about how to come to grips with the current threat.

“(Our) church has been there over 65 years, and Wednesday night is choir rehearsal,” said Pastor Thomas Harris of Pleasant Grove.

“We were shocked, stunned when we heard that we were a nuisance in the community,” he said.  “We want to embrace change, (but) we also want the community to realize there is a tradition.”

Pastor Harris said he was also surprised by the widespread support his church has been receiving.
“I didn’t know this was going to take off like this,” he said, adding that he has heard from someone in Colorado, who told him, “We can’t hear you – you’re not loud enough.”

“I can’t believe all this is going on,” Pastor Harris said. “ If I’m the instrument to be used to make a change, I’m ready to be used.“

Co-moderator Pastor Debra Avery of the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland emphasized the connections between the churches and cultural expression, saying, “The church and the artists belong together.”

Another speaker, Theo Williams, is head of the drumming group SambaFunk! Funkquarians and co-founder of the Soul of Oakland coalition.

“We are all in this this together – this monster is coming to devour our community and devour our soul, ” he said.   “Just know we are standing with you. It is our job to come together now, not to look at our differences,” he said.

Drumming is rooted in African culture, Williams said, and, “We go to church almost every day of the week (somewhere in the city), and you are saying that it is going to be prohibited and restricted – that is our culture.”

Williams said the city should pass an ordinance to protect its cultural institutions. New residents who are moving next door to churches and cultural spaces should know they are protected by law.

The city should also eliminate policies that penalize or undermine cultural spaces.  “It’s time to look through all the municipal codes,” he said.

Pastor Phyllis Scott of Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries said churches receives complaints because, “We do a major work the city does not do. We feed the hungry, and we have HIV testing.”

Some people are complaining because they don’t want the “flood of homeless people coming into the neighborhood,” because the churches are feeding those who are in need, she said.

Anyka Barber, co-creator of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and owner of the Betti Ono art gallery, explained she was born in Oakland and is committed to fight for the city’s cultural identity.

“It is my responsibility as a native, as a business owner (and) as a mother to step up,” she said. “There is no disconnection between the churches and the cultural workers. Everything I know I learned in church.”

Barber called for the city to reestablish its Cultural Arts Commission, “made up of residents who really represent our interests.”

She criticized the city’s process for creating a downtown development plan. “This planning process is not indicative of the community,” she said. “A lot of people feel like it should be scrapped and start all over. That’s my sense of it.”

Post publisher Paul Cobb, co-moderator of the event, called on the City Council to pass a “Church Pride Day” to acknowledge the churches, “so Oakland can be a sanctuary city for our sanctuaries.”

City development plans should include a “faith-based zone,” where affordable housing can be built around the churches, he said.

“The city needs a master plan for downtown that protects all the nonprofits, community groups and small businesses that are being pushed out because of gentrification,” Cobb said.

He also suggested putting out a national call for people to come to Oakland to hold sit-ins and picket lines at some of some of the city’s hip new restaurants that do not hire Black workers, “to integrate the jobs in these new restaurants in the same manner that we integrated southern lunch counters and restaurants in the 60s.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, October 30, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)