Category Archives: Political culture

Gentrification, colonialism, and bugs? The Calavera restaurant in Oakland

 

calavera

Photo credit: Calavera

It was a big deal when Calavera opened last August. It is Oakland’s only high-end Mexican restaurant and one of the few in the region to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine, which is world famous for its complexity and pre-Hispanic elements.

Also, as an anchor tenant of The Hive, Signature Development’s new live-work complex in “Uptown,” its launch was a vote of confidence in the gentrification of the area—signaling that people with money expect it to remain a place for people with money. Even more interestingly, the restaurant engages major traumas in the city’s history: although it is often considered a Black city, its lands were once Mexican and Indigenous before that. To serve Oaxacan food in Oakland is to evoke these chapters in its past as well as the brutal colonization that closed them.

I had these issues in mind when a friend and I visited Calavera last Saturday. How did it navigate them? Did it do so while tasting good?

The Scene
The restaurant was nearly full when we arrived at 6:00 PM. The hostess whisked us to our table and our waitress greeted us immediately thereafter. Both had the hip, casual-cool style typical of Bay Area food service workers, who are expected to perform physically demanding labor and also to be cosmopolitan. The staff looked mostly white to me; the bus boys being the only obvious Latin Americans among them. The clientele seemed like well-paid professionals, largely but not exclusively white. I did not hear any Spanish spoken.

Calavera occupies a former auto-industry showroom. The din of voices, music, and clanging dinnerware in its cavernous main room made conversation difficult at times, but I suspect this was deliberate. Whereas elites of another era preferred to dine at isolated tables and interact mainly with their servers, now they seek out a more social experience. Calavera’s noise cultivates this, as does its open layout and the close proximity of its tables, all of which compel some mixing. The exposed ceilings and brick walls felt incongruous, but situated the space in Oakland’s industrial past.

The food
The menu offers a range of Oaxacan specialties that run from the familiar to the exotic for American palates. A diner could order tacos and a beer without thinking much, whereas someone who wants to explore has many options. Whatever you get, you will probably try Calavera’s hand-made nixtamal tortillas, which it produces through a unique process that the Mayans invented in 1500–1200 BC.

We ordered the Guacamole Verde with a side of grasshoppers, which the restaurant imports from Oaxaca (through a family connection of one of the owners, our waitress said). They showed up at our table in a porcelain bowl and tasted slightly of garlic and lime, with a trace of salt. I had never (intentionally) eaten bugs before, but these were delightful. We also had the Queso Flameado appetizer, a cheese dish from the Chihuahua region served in a cast-iron pan. It contains Huitlacoche among its ingredients—mushroomy little black beads of fungus that have been regarded as a delicacy since the Aztec Empire.

For entrees, we had the Puerco con Frijol [pork and beans] and three Cochinita Pibil tacos (pork prepared with an ancient Mayan technique). The pork and beans platter was colorful and artfully laid out; the black bean’s creamy texture complemented the chewy meat and the red onion’s faint tang offset the pork’s saltiness. For dessert, I ordered the goat’s milk rice pudding, which was amazing. The entire meal cost $85.

The Issues
Placing Calavera’s approach to food in the context of California’s colonial history reveals that it is making an important critique. Utilizing pre-Hispanic culinary practices in an informed, sensitive way in the middle of the Bay Area, which is an engine of the global economy, suggests that America’s original peoples and European-Americans could have a more equitable relationship. That is, if original peoples’ food can receive a dignified treatment in the belly of the beast, then why not original peoples themselves? The restaurant’s use of bugs and fungi amplifies this. These ingredients are totally forbidden in American cuisine, but Calavera shows that they can be delectable if employed properly. This underscores the irrationality of America’s fears of nature and “the other,” which have been integral to its violent colonial rages.

However, Calavera could have helped us understand how this cuisine reaches Oakland. Oaxaca is bitterly poor and large numbers of Oaxacans survive by selling the state’s food practices to wealthy foreigners. There are scores of cooking schools, culinary tours, and “authentic” eateries there as well as a huge industry focused on exporting local gastronomic expertise and ingredients. In this sense, Oaxaca’s poverty produces Oaxacan cuisine as a global commodity. Unfortunately, Calavera does not acknowledge this in its menu or decor. It could have informed us that many Oaxacans eat grasshoppers as an inexpensive source of protein because they cannot afford meat or eggs and it also could have noted that the FDA found dangerous levels of lead in them—these things would have highlighted the state’s grave economic and environmental problems. At the very least, it could have mentioned Mexican food justice campaigns and cooperatives.

Like a song or a novel, a restaurant can help us think through complicated and painful issues. Calavera does this in a tasty but flawed way. Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, both of Oakland, explore similar questions in their Decolonize your Diet, a new cookbook that argues for an activist use of “traditional” Mexican foods. Although there are major differences between their book and Calavera, both underscore the importance and possibilities of linking politics to food.

~ Chuck Morse

 

SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a  study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests.

Second, SPUR will create problems for Oakland’s Left. The Oakland Tenants Union, Just Cause / Causa Justa, Dan Siegel’s Oakland Political Alliance and the other groups and individuals that compose the city’s diffuse opposition will have a hard time wrestling with SPUR’s paradoxical program. SPUR will work to make Oakland more walkable and environmentally friendly; these changes seem progressive but, in the context of a rapidly gentrifying city, only really serve the wealthy. How will the Left respond? Will it oppose these changes at the risk of seeming like curmudgeons? Will it embrace them and risk complicity? Or will it somehow carve out a middle ground? The Left’s silence around the recent “Plan Downtown” process, which SPUR supports and reflects a lot of its values, suggests a degree of confusion.

SPUR event on housing costs in Oakland at City Hall (November 16, 2015)

SPUR event on housing costs in Oakland at City Hall (November 16, 2015)

Finally, SPUR will encourage gentrification. It is a huge ally of developers and will likely push the city to allow the construction of more market-rate housing, which is too expensive for ordinary working people. Likewise, its “livability” agenda will make Oakland even more attractive to the rich techies who rent this housing. SPUR will also probably oppose any attempt to restrict housing developers that might emerge (for instance, it mobilized against San Francisco’s Proposition I, which sought a moratorium on the construction of market-rate housing in the Mission District).

Only the future will tell but, whatever changes, occur SPUR’s arrival in Oakland portends a shift in the local political landscape.

~ Chuck Morse

 

Mayor Jean Quan’s 10K2 Housing Plan—Don’t Do the Math

quan Last month, when Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gave her annual “State of the City” address, the 10K2 Plan was the only major, new initiative that she announced. With an election coming up in November, and faced with persistently low approval ratings, she clearly hoped that it would help her persuade voters to give her a second term. Under the program, she pledges to add 10,000 units of housing to Oakland—25 percent of which will be affordable—at some time in the future.

Quan’s policy is designed to appeal to people with interests that are typically counterposed. On the one hand, the addition of 7,500 units of market-rate housing will be great for the wealthy tech workers pouring into the region. These are the people who can pay thousands upon thousands each month for a small apartment and who are driving up housing costs, by all accounts. On the other hand, the addition of 2,500 units of affordable housing will be good for poorer residents; these are the people who can’t pay high rents and are being pushed out in droves. On top of all this, the expansion of the housing stock will put some downward pressure on housing prices generally, enlarge the city’s tax base, and create some new jobs. Apparently, this is a win-win-win policy.

Quan looked unusually confident during her presentation, as if she knew that she was scoring a political victory, and pundits gave her performance high marks. The East Bay Express immediately lauded her plan’s environmental aspects. Zennie Abraham, one of her harsher critics, said that she had “finally found her political legs” and grown from an “accidental mayor” into a “real mayor” who understands what it means to exercise power. Her odds of winning reelection started to look a little better.

In some respects, Quan is merely rebranding and taking credit for a construction boom that is already underway but, still, she has presented this as a plan and we should assess it as such. The issue that Oaklanders need to consider when doing so is this: has she found a way to increase the city’s housing stock, make space for those driving displacement, while also protecting the working class’s ability to live in the city? Can Quan actually perform this magical balancing act?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Although the 10K2 Plan contains some modest measures intended to mitigate displacement, it will necessarily make the city more of a place for the rich and the rich alone. There are two reasons for this.

First, the 10K2 Plan embraces an economic model that has been ruinous for Oakland’s poor and urban areas throughout the country. After deindustrialization and “white flight” gutted the city in the mid-twentieth century, planners and policy makers have set out to rebuild the city’s economy around shopping, entertainment, and housing. We see this not only in the 10K2 Plan, but also in Quan’s boosterism on behalf of local sports teams, the hotel and restaurant industry, the monthly Art Murmur gatherings, etcetera. These things generate some jobs (and some tax revenue), which politicians are quick to celebrate, but the jobs are low-end service jobs that are almost always insecure, lack benefits, and do not pay salaries that could support the rental or purchase of a market-rate home in Oakland. The 10K2 Plan embraces this model and, as such, furthers the city’s commitment to an economic form that more or less guarantees that its poor will remain poor and have to go elsewhere.

Second, adding 7,500 market-rate units will bring many thousand more—let’s say 15,000—wealthier residents to the city. These people will push for planning and policy changes that will make Oakland less hospitable for lower income folks. We can expect more parklets, dog parks, and bike lanes, which are great for people with lots of leisure time but maddening for those rushing to get to work. We can also anticipate an increase in heavy handed police tactics, a necessary tool for managing marginalized and discontented populations. Subtly and not so subtly, these things will indicate that Oakland’s streets are not for the working class.

In reply to these criticisms, defenders of the 10K2 Plan might argue that at least the low-end service jobs being produced are jobs, which is better than nothing at all. This is a “logic of lesser evils” argument used to bludgeon people into accepting the bad because it is not worse, but Oaklanders shouldn’t have to endure substandard employment or an economic model that pushes the poor from the city. Likewise, Quan’s allies might say that the city can institute policies to ensure that its planning and design decisions express all residents’ concerns, not just the upper class, but this is naive. These new Oaklanders will demand that the city reflect their needs and they will have far greater resources to force it to do so than the poor. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Although Quan was able to deliver an effective stump speech, no one should be confused about the class-bound nature of her 10K2 Plan, such as it is. It portends more displacement not less, despite the presence of superficial half measures oriented toward working class residents’ needs. There are so many things that cities can do—foreclosure prevention, improve rent control, encourage land trust conversion, etcetera—but this is not what we see here. In essence, expanding the housing stock without challenging class inequality will always serve the upper class. Indeed, no politician will ever be clever enough to create a policy that can override the basic class conflict between the rich and the poor that is dividing our society and our city. Quan may try her best, as she fights for reelection, but we should not be deceived. Housing justice and economic equality are inextricably linked.

~ by Chuck Morse

The Leftwing Alternative in Oakland’s 2014 Mayoral Race 

Doh! There is no leftwing alternative in Oakland’s mayoral race and there won’t be one. The three credible candidates—Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, and Libby Schaaf—are pro-business, pro-gentrification Democrats and no viable left candidacy will emerge from the fringe. Why is this? Because the left has basically checked out of municipal politics in Oakland and that is a huge mistake.

I know it seems nuts to say that the left is absent in Oakland. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Occupy Wall Street protestors swarmed the streets of downtown? And isn’t there always some demonstration or another going on? Whether it’s up in the Hills (isn’t that where Angela Davis lives?), in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, or anywhere in between, there are literally scores of lefty writers, activists, and on-going and ad hoc groups. That’s why it made sense when the New York Times called Oakland the “last refuge of radical America” in 2012.

However, there is a big difference between having leftists in a city and actually having a municipal left. As it stands now, no group is advancing a program to transform the City of Oakland as such. No one is pushing or even talking about comprehensive changes designed to fundamentally alter how the City works or how it fits into the region. People occasionally prod the City to change this or that policy, but no one is trying to rewrite the rules as a whole. Continue reading

Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011

by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

– – –

Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists.

Continue reading