News & Opinion » Feature

The Vanishing Underground: Oakland's Housing Crisis Is Also Displacing its Arts and Music Counterculture

Young creatives who flocked to industrial warehouses are now the latest victims of East Bay gentrification.



Young partygoers piled into LoBot Gallery, a West Oakland warehouse and former carpet factory. It ordinarily felt cavernous, but on this particular Saturday night in July there was hardly room to stand. A feminist electronic noise duo used a candle and swathes of fabric in a goddess ritual. An excessively large band performed with nine guitarists. Unframed art pieces hung haphazardly on the walls, most of them priced at less than $5. And there was no stage, so twenty-somethings in stylishly disheveled clothes clutched tall cans and craned their necks to catch glimpses of the performers.

But, despite the room's vibrant energy, the night was bittersweet: It was LoBot's farewell show. The underground artist studio and venue's landlord had discontinued its lease, and the newly doubled monthly rent was too high. It closed for good in late July after thirteen years as one of Oakland's countercultural hubs.

Tenants and the other attendees lamented not just the loss of the space, but also the culture that it fostered. "Our fight isn't just about losing a building, it's about preserving the ability to raise underrepresented voices and offer a safer space to do it in," said Sabrina Sierra, a musician who lived and worked at LoBot.

And LoBot isn't alone. Low-cost and relatively unregulated places for artists and musicians are disappearing all over the East Bay. And now, some advocates worry that Oakland might lose its arts and music underground — the very scenes that produced some of its brightest talents.

"It's a tragedy. It really is," said Stephanie Ornelas, also known as DJ Stef, who's been part of local underground music scenes for decades.

She fears that Oakland will lose its creative spirit if the underground scene disappears altogether. "I'm concerned for young people who are just coming up and getting old enough to go out. Where are they gonna go? What are they gonna experience?"

Over the past fifteen years, many artist collectives such as LoBot set up shop in industrial buildings in low-income areas such as the Lower Bottoms in West Oakland and Funktown in East Oakland. Residents and guests threw late-night events without attracting law-enforcement attention, and took advantage of cheap live-work spaces. These types of venues thrived thanks to many landlords' laissez-faire attitudes. Everything from after-hours raves, punk shows, hip-hop dance parties, noise performances, visual art exhibits — and, often, events that combined all of the above — found homes in Oakland warehouses.

But now Oakland is one of the nation's hottest real-estate markets, partly due to its reputation as a center for creatives. And landlords who previously let artist collectives run amok have their eyes on profits.

Artist advocate Devonte Pitre, who had to shutter his downtown underground venue because of an eviction, said this expulsion of East Bay counterculture is a huge problem. "I feel like, bigger picture, without these places, Oakland's not gonna be as fresh," he explained.

"If we keep driving these places out, what are we truly gonna call home, you know?"

A Legacy of Counterculture

It's a familiar narrative: As San Francisco's tech sector took off in the late Nineties, rising costs of living pushed creatives to the East Bay, spurring Oakland's artistic renaissance. But this oversimplified (and oft-repeated) account doesn't do justice to Oakland's longtime role as a diverse creative hub with its own countercultures — starting with the booming jazz scene of the early Sixties, which earned West Oakland the nickname "Harlem of the West Coast."

Though the history of Oakland's underground scenes isn't thoroughly documented, warehouses, storefronts, and houses doubling as art and music venues prospered since at least the early Eighties. A large number of warehouses — such as The Sauce Factory near Jack London Square — hosted after-hours parties, where people popped ecstasy and danced 'til daybreak. Many of these parties started at 2 a.m., after shows at above-the-board clubs ended.

Patrick Tidd was an Oaklander active in the punk scene at the time, and he remembered these as diverse gatherings. "If you went to a warehouse party in Oakland, it was all different ethnicities," the 53-year-old said. "It was definitely mixed up — hip-hop, punk, heavy metal — and it was always different: The warehouse parties didn't stick to one theme too much."

Ornelas, 54, described the Eighties in the Bay Area as a lawless time for underground parties. "The vibe then — and that doesn't exist so much now — it was a freedom of do-it-yourself," she said.

But there was also trouble that foreshadowed the struggles of today. During the Nineties Dot Com boom, Ornelas recalled many San Francisco warehouse venues being shut down due to noise complaints. This was when the South of Market neighborhood began transforming from industrial to residential.

Meanwhile, warehouse parties flourished across the bay in Oakland, and now-famous artists such as Zion I and Hieroglyphics made their names in the several party warehouses that dotted San Leandro Street in Fruitvale, such as the Living Legends crew's 4001.

Oakland emcee and entrepreneur Dream Nefra remembered the scene as a hospitable place for conscious hip-hop artists with Afrocentric sensibilities, which was important during this time when party rappers such as Too $hort and Richie Rich dominated mainstream clubs.

"It was a greenhouse effect, because you had places for people to be nurtured and cared about, and they could grow to a certain point, before they were planted in the world," the 46-year-old explained. She said that well-known emcees such as MURS and Lyrics Born also cut their teeth at Oakland warehouses.