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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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It's a familiar story. Telegraph Beach, a punk house in the KONO district, was evicted earlier this year after a decade as a "budget rock" hub where now-famous artists such as Ty Segall once played.

The nearby Ghostown Gallery, another hub for punk gigs, recently shut down after its landlord won a lawsuit against its principal tenant, Damon Gallagher, for illegally allowing subtenants to live and throw parties at the location.

And the City of Oakland deemed a warehouse at 1919 Market Street in West Oakland — which was formerly known as the underground venue Liminal — uninhabitable and evicted dozens of tenants earlier this year (see Darwin BondGraham's news story on this artist space on page eight). Micah Hobbes Frazier's live-work space The Living Room Project — a venue that hosted events such as dance performances and yoga workshops for queer and trans people of color — was among those that got pushed out.

In downtown Oakland, PRIME Development on 15th Street was foremost a clothing store, but also an underground venue. But co-owner Devonte Pitre, who is 24, said that neighboring businesses began complaining about their all-ages and unpermitted late-night gatherings. "We were under this telescope. They were watching our every move," he said.

Eventually, the landlord evicted PRIME. Pitre and his business partner fought what he says was an illegal eviction for the better part of this year, but now PRIME is closed.

He lamented not just the loss of not his business, but also the diverse community that fostered it. "It's crazy how we created such a great place," Pitre remembered.

"And when I say 'we,' I mean every one of us."


Will the Underground Scene Survive?

With all these DIY venues shuttering, former LoBot tenant Raphael Villet said he considered himself lucky. He and several friends were able to rent out a wing of a different artist-studio complex, a former yogurt factory in West Oakland — one that's much more polished-looking than the dilapidated LoBot, and without the illegal living arrangement. But there's a catch: Villet must live with his parents in San Francisco to be able to afford his studio space, and he can't throw noisy events there, either, since it's shared with other tenants.

While the lack of inexpensive space for artists troubles Villet, he realizes it's only part of a constellation of issues facing an increasingly less affordable Oakland: "What's going on now is part of much larger forces and restructuring and changes that are happening in society," Villet explained. "If you want to address the artist issue, how do you prioritize that in relation to all the other issues? It gets complicated."

His patience and attitude will be critical if the underground scene is to ride out this storm of warehouse closures, evictions, and displacement.

The good news is that there are local advocates out there who understand that the underground scene is a key piece of Oakland's arts and culture ecosystem. That it allows young and often low-income artists to experiment and perfect their crafts. That it builds community with little financial commitment. And that it fosters diversity in the arts.

Evelyn Orantes, the curator of the Oakland, I want you to know... exhibit at Oakland Museum of California, has studied how new development can decimate entire cultural enclaves. A prime example, she explained, was the thriving jazz and blues scene of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties in West Oakland: When the federal government began constructing that neighborhood's post office in 1966, many of the area's jazz clubs were forced to relocate. Eventually, the scene disappeared.

"Esther's Orbit Room was a space for local talent to have visibility on a larger platform," Orantes explained, referring to the only West Oakland jazz club that survived, but eventually closed in 2005.

Orantes also cited turf dancing — now an internationally recognized street-dance style with Oakland roots — as an example of local underground youth culture gone global. Without accessible spaces to gather, she said, local communities will lose the ability to define their culture and identity through music, art, and other forms of expression.

"It's about the environment and the circumstances — and the cultural exchange that happens in a community that's experimenting with sound and visuals. But [it's] also just supporting each other and creating the environment for innovation," she said.

There still remain a few spaces for this kind of innovation. Keith Gregory, a.k.a. event producer Tivon, turned a West Oakland house he inherited from his grandmother into a popular underground venue called Regulars Only. He lives there with his roommate, and together they put on shows in their backyard.

Because Oakland has very few venues of comparable size — Venue, Starline Social Club, The Uptown, The New Parish — and booking shows at these places is expensive, the Regulars crew decided to create their own space.

Tivon, who is 34, also said that when Regulars Only started up in 2013, there were few underground warehouses in Oakland that catered to Black partygoers of his generation. His parties, which he advertises through word-of-mouth, quickly attracted a growing audience of mostly Black Oakland natives.

But not everyone has access to a house, especially as property values surge across the Bay Area. This is why the City of Oakland says it is pursuing strategies to help arts organizations stay afloat. In January of this year, for instance, Mayor Libby Schaaf's Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force — consisting of city officials, local activists, and culture workers — drafted a set of recommendations for how to preserve a vibrant arts and music scene.

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