If you live in Oakland, or are looking to buy or rent a place here, you might've noticed a new neighborhood name has arisen in the last year: NOBE. What the hell is NOBE you ask? It stands for North Oakland Berkeley Emeryville, and is the name that realtors have been using to attract young urban professionals to a once blighted swath of North Oakland.
I know because I live in Longfellow, a community located west of Telegraph Avenue, within the newly invented 'hood. The much celebrated Temescal district is just a short walk away, but the streets in my area aren't quite as tree-lined, the cars aren't as shiny and new, and there aren't any fancy restaurants or boutiques on my side of the 24 overpass. A recent article in The San Francisco Chronicle called Longfellow a "swing neighborhood" because it teeters on the edge of sketchy. Still, because of the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco and areas of Oakland like Temescal and Rockridge, people looking for housing in North Oakland are starting to branch out. I'm one of those people. I absolutely fall into the socio-economic demographic that NOBE-enthusiasts are targeting. But still, I'm wholeheartedly against embracing the newly invented name. Why? Because it's stupid and it's disrespectful.
When I lived in San Francisco, the same thing happened with NOPA. I lived in that part of Western Addition but I never referred to my neighborhood with the acronym because it irritated the hell out of me. I first moved to the area when Divisadero was still a somewhat socially sleepy street, where hubcap and auto shops shared the strip with liquor stores, Open Mind Records (RIP), the Film Yard (RIP!), Eddie's Diner, and a couple of mom and pop health food stores. Living in the Western Addition wasn't fancy or cool, but it was comfortable. By the time I moved into a second apartment in the neighborhood, this time on Divisadero, the area was taking a turn because of gentrification and that's when "NOPA" happened. The community was changing, for better and worse, but I still didn't understand the need for a whole new name. If you can't stop development (and with the way things are in the Bay Area these days, you can't), why not respect the history and the long-time residents of the area by at least keeping the name? Even people who get major plastic surgery and are nearly unrecognizable as their former selves (MJ, RIP!) keep their old names. A fancy-sounding moniker doesn't suddenly give a place credence, nor does it erase the hard times that have fallen on the community that (once) lived there.
I understand a want for things to be better. As I type this blog post, police sirens are blaring somewhere not so far from my house. I hear gunshots a little too regularly for my comfort. The week I moved in, I was stopped by a neighbor who told me I should be careful, a woman was robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the day just around the corner from my new home. With the shorter daylight hours, the short staffing by the Oakland PD, and the holidays looming, there's been a rash of muggings in Longfellow lately, as well as in Piedmont, Rockridge, and Berkeley. It's scary and it's worrisome, but the reality is my neighborhood is still in transition, and the change is both helping and causing the crime and resentment. Gentrification brings in people with money, people who call the cops when something bad happens, and people who have connections to media outlets and politicians, who can (sometimes) make things change for the better. But the influx of these newbs is also a source of anger and resentment from those with more neighborhood seniority but with less opportunities and money. Some who may feel frustrated that the police and the powers that be have ignored them and let their communities get run down and unsafe, who feel they're the victims of racial profiling, or who feel they are about to get pushed out of their homes. No new name is going to immediately dissipate that period of growing pains that any transitioning locality goes through.
Recently, North Oakland guerilla produce collective Phat Beets Produce started a petition on Change.org, asking for signatures to stop Linnette Edwards of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate – an OG "NOBE" user – to stop using their name in her online media to sell flipped homes. Their argument is that the realtor is exploiting its social programs (like community farmers' markets and farmstands) that Phat Beets implements in the area to attract rich, white people to buy homes, while at the same time, disregarding, excluding, and driving out the area's mostly African American longterm residents. The petition, according to Oakland Local, collected 50 signatures in two days. I understand the frustration with exploiting the oh-so-P.C. idea of diversity for financial profit, and I do hope Linnette Edwards will realize her videos are pretty clueless and transparent to anyone who knows Oakland. But I wasn't compelled enough to sign the petition. There are bigger battles to be fought. Maybe there are people who move here because there's an organic farmers' market nearby, or because they read that the SF Bay Guardian thinks it's cool and the New York Times named Oakland #5 of the top 45 places to visit in the world. If those are their main reasons, I feel sorry for them; they're not going to love living here. But I don't think anyone believes Oakland is Walnut Creek. At least I hope not.
Gentrification (and by that I mean more affluent people moving in, long term minority residents moving out, house prices going up) is happening in Oakland, whether you like it or not, and there has to be a better way to ease the transition. No one wants their neighborhood to suck, everyone wants it to be safe and beautiful, but how do you do it gracefully, fairly, and without losing the original character and charm? I'd like to see more efforts to bridge the gaps between the haves and have nots, and to actually embrace and celebrate the good that both old and new residents bring to the area. I'd also like to see our elected politicians and police department held accountable for making Oakland safer and better for everyone. I'd like to see the new businesses opening in North Oakland hire and cater to people of all socio-economic stripes. I'd like to see folks be proud to say they live in Oakland. That's why I ask, please, don't call it NOBE. We shouldn't be hiding Oakland behind some letters that don't mean anything; we should be trying to make what we have even better, while keeping the awesome people and local gems we have here.
In Longfellow, some of my neighbors are trying their hardest to find ways to do just that. The Longfellow Community Assocation has monthly meetings where issues are brought up and resolved. The group organizes beautification committees that clean up streets and plant trees. It holds events like blood drives and potlucks, where residents get to know each other. For those who are online all the time, there's an LCA Facebook page where people can discuss everything from needing a babysitter to sharing news articles to posting warnings about recent crimes. Local historians lead tours of historic houses, where we learn amazing things that help us remember and commemorate the past. There's a 1920s Craftsman home on 42nd Street, for example, that once housed a former speakeasy and boxing club in its basement during the Italian heyday in Longfellow. My street, and many around me, also participates in National Night Out, an annual event in the summer that encourages community safety and general neighborliness. People block off streets for BBQs; for kids to bike, run, and skate; and for everyone, new and old, to meet. At this past National Night Out, I learned the history of my house from some long-time neighbors, who told me about the generations of different families who once lived there. I could've looked up past housing records, but I could've never heard the stories without my neighbors.
Maybe it's naive to think that getting familiar with neighbors is the answer, but I've already found solace in knowing mine and feeling like we're looking out for each other. It's feeling alone and powerless that seems like a way more dangerous place to be.