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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.

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During this period, Oakland also absorbed San Francisco's house music scene, and East Oakland venue Homebase became a hub for Bay Area raves, even attracting partygoers from the suburbs.

Charlotte Kaufman, a well-known house and hip-hop DJ who goes by Charlotte the Baroness, remembered the rave scene as an inclusive space for people from all sides of the Bay Area to gather.

But as the millennium approached, the 52-year-old said law-enforcement started cracking down, and the scene dissipated. "The police could no longer look the other way," she said.

"By 2000, a lot of us were leaving the Bay Area."


Venues and Safe Spaces Vanish

Visual artist Rebecca Heikkila sat on the roof of LoBot, gazing at the West Oakland horizon on an afternoon in late July. For more than a decade, the 9,500-square-foot warehouse hosted some of Oakland's liveliest experimental performances, dance parties, and community workshops — much like the eclectic farewell show she booked there two weeks prior. Artist residents pooled their dollars to pay for a large common area, and the rooms they rented were big enough to double as bedrooms and studios — despite the fact that the building was zoned only for commercial use.

But those days are gone. Move-out week was in full swing at the end of July, and Heikkila and her studio mates were busy dismantling artwork and hauling large equipment into storage units. After a year of what she described as steep rent increases, she said the co-owner of the building refused to rent to the collective of twenty-or-so artists on a month-to-month basis.

Now, everyone is gone.

"If [LoBot] was zoned to be lived in, it would be so much more expensive. People wouldn't be able to afford it," Heikkila explained. She said that the space was transformative for her art and creativity. "It's kind of an industrial location, so it's in this place where you can have shows and people aren't gonna be tripping out."

And she wasn't alone in benefitting from a cheap and permissive underground scene. But as landlords chase profits from Oakland's hot real-estate market, there are fewer properties that can host LoBot's style of experimental, non-commercial artistic activity.

Vanishing venues are part of a larger web of displacement, one that disproportionately affects people of color, especially Oakland's Black community. For many of the city's young, creative folks of color, underground venues are vital: They establish community and identity when mainstream clubs and arts institutions aren't accessible.

"Whenever people of marginalized identities have access to means of production and physical spaces, there is radical potential," argued LoBot musician Sierra.

A lot of these issues go back to the influx of white newcomers to Oakland, beginning in the 2000s, which spurred a "hipster-fication" of the city and inadvertently created racial divisions in its underground scenes.

For example, the indie and garage rock scenes of this era, which were largely white, received the majority of media attention — and white artists got much of the credit for the so-called Oakland renaissance.

But the late 2000s and early 2010s saw a move toward integration and inclusivity, and this set the tone for the underground scenes of today.

Now, many folks that throw underground parties emphasize creating safe spaces for people from marginalized groups and fostering racial unity.

For a couple years, beginning in 2009, DJs Neto, Pony Loco, and Roberto Miguel threw Hoodstock, an underground mini-festival that went down in various warehouses. They sought to bridge the punk and hip-hop scenes, and bring together different ethnic groups. But as venues became harder to come by, Hoodstock disappeared.

From 2011 to 2013, the West Oakland warehouse Rec Center hosted parties, where acts such as experiemental pop band Religious Girls would play alongside rappers Antwon and Main Attrakionz and cumbia producer Turbo Sonidero. The scene was a crosspollination between people of different creative disciplines and demographics. But the building that housed Rec Center was later demolished to make way for low-income housing.

Historically, underground venues in Oakland have popped up as quickly as they've disappeared. But with the recent and widespread closures and evictions, many fear untapped, low-cost spaces are dwindling.

Party promoter Vanessa Nguyen, of the collective Le Vanguard, recently began throwing West Oakland warehouse events that feature visual-art installations, rappers, and DJs. Similar to the ways that underground parties of past decades nurtured some of the East Bay's brightest talents, rising local artists such as Samaria and Elujay have played at her parties.

And these shows translated to bigger opportunities for the artists. A few months after headlining one of Nguyen's gigs, Samaria performed at Art + Soul alongside R&B legends Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Elujay played Hiero Day.

She said she views the underground scene as an opportunity for people of color. "I went to all those punk warehouse shows, and I thought it was cool, and I thought we needed something like that for our community a little more," explained Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American.

But the 25-year-old said that the property manager of one warehouse she was using recently stopped answering her phone calls. "[He] keeps hearing that the owner wants to sell it, because they want to build condominiums in [the] parking lot," she explained. Now, she thinks shows there are done for good.

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