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Hipster Invasion

Downtown Oakland's fledgling art scene is booming — and some artists and residents aren't terribly happy about it.

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General grievances are aired. Brain dumping occurs.

Neditch of Mama Buzz calls for some type of an agenda.

All parties agree to introduce themselves, and do so.

Issues of Murmur eligibility emerge: Should it allow galleries that sell crafts? What about galleries farther from the target area? All parties agree: "It's a question of, where do you draw the line?"

That line is not drawn this night, but many of those involved in Murmur would have preferred it drawn to exclude a new gallery that appeared right around the corner in January. Every underground art scene needs an enemy, after all; someone to call a sellout, someone who's in it for the money. That gallery owner is part of Art Murmur, but he didn't show for tonight's meeting. Esteban Sabar knows when he's not wanted.


I's hard to imagine anyone hating Esteban Sabar, who weighs about as much as a case of Pinot and stands all of five foot eight in his designer shoes. He smiles like a feline as he smokes a light cigarette and speaks in a thick Latin accent about business and backstabbing.

The Oakland entrepreneur and Fruitvale resident is a transplant with his partner Marty McCorkle from San Francisco's Castro District, and a perfect example of the new money coming to town. Sabar moved to the block at the same time the art cats self-herded into copromotion, but the similarity ends there. In age, sexuality, ethnicity, style, price points, and goals, he is their foil: forty versus twenty; comfy homo versus awkwardly hetero; brown versus white; East Village hip versus warehouse grunge; world-class show space versus hipster clubhouse.

Sabar's goal was clear from the beginning: To sell high art at a hundred times the typical average price to rich folk from the Oakland Hills, New York, Los Angeles, and London. It wasn't long before the discontent began manifesting itself in petty vandalism, such as the "Esteban Satan" sign left on his building by the Rock Paper Scissors gallery kids, and backroom discussions of cutting him out of Murmur promotions.

"Nobody says anything to my face," Sabar says. "I just hear it secondhand. I don't care if they hate me. I'm here to make money." The art maven smiles, puffing on his cigarette and turning the subject to two art buyers who flew their plane up from Santa Barbara this afternoon to look around. He's trying to attract Oprah, and is already making waves as a board member of the Oakland Arts Commission, where he is attempting to break through the bureaucratic gridlock and gain approval for edgy new public art.

Sabar stalks big sales like a sniper — with total commitment and a deep knowledge of his trade. He's pulled in some serious sales of $15,000 and up, but that's not enough. Indeed, for Sabar, seven months of hard work has translated in a less-than-stellar gross, and the patent knowledge that the scene to which he's contributing hates him for claiming Oakland. He can't wait for business to pick up.

The gallery owner's fortunes lie with the continued growth of the neighborhood's more affluent demographic. His gallery is just one block from Signature Properties' 421-unit condo development, downtown's second-biggest residential project. The units are designed to attract middle- and upper-class money to a region long labeled "transitional." The underground gallery world scorns Sabar as the most visible capitalist on their block and a sign of things to come. But the mostly black residents and artists who've lived here their whole lives reserve their scorn for the kids who attracted him.


As expected, the August 4 Art Murmur brings more babies, grandparents, yuppies, and outsiders than ever. Sabar makes the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area section, and his gallery is hot with bodies. The street party outside attracts the likes of Howard Junker, editor of San Francisco-based literary journal ZYZZYVA, who is embarrassed to admit that he learned about the Murmur from the Chron's weekly 96 Hours supplement, then took BART to MacArthur and hiked the sketchy ten blocks to where the action is. "I wasn't afraid," he says. "But there were a few gentlemen I was happy to pass by."

After taking in seven or so galleries, Junker pronounces the scene nascent and vibrant, a Bergamot Station before its time. All it needs to mutate into a proper scene, he says, are some upscale fashion boutiques and clubs. The kids have it good right now. "It's still a proto version, typical of emergent arts," he notes. "The trick is getting some space before it gets too expensive."

Parker and Haesin Thomas, 35 and 36, are also first-timers. They take in the sights as baby Hana rides on Parker's shoulders and smiles at the street drummers and dancing. "I'm pretty blown away," says Haesin, an Oakland educator. "I used to live around here, so when someone said, '23rd and Telegraph,' I said, 'Really? That place is dead.'"

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