Category Archives: Streetscapes

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

 

Red, Bike, & Green: The Interview!

The link between transportation and racial justice has been an explicit part of American culture since Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycot in 1955, if not earlier. Most of us understand, if only intuitively, that who moves around, where they move to and from, and what they move upon interacts with complicated histories of oppression, rebellion, and innovation.

This is one of the reasons why Oakland’s Red, Bike, and Green collective is so exciting. They have not only created an an affirmative, welcome spacing for Black urban cyclists but also established a platform for a new discussion of the politics of mobility in the city.

I recently had a chance to ask Red, Bike, and Green about their work and views. The following is a transcript of our exchange.

~ Chuck Morse

* * *

Q. Can you tell me how Red, Bike, and Green (RBG) got started and what exactly you do?

Design by Nick James

A. Five years ago, becoming more and more disenchanted with driving, the cost of regular car maintenance, insurance rates, gas prices, and the overall expense of having a car, Jenna Burton decided to ride her bike more regularly. She began to think about creating a space and culture for Black folks that would promote biking as a safe and viable mode of transportation.  Burton organized a small group of Black bikers to go on random weekend rides.  Further conversations with colleagues and friends led to naming the group Red, Bike, and Green.  For those unfamiliar, Red, Bike and Green is an ode to Marcus Garvey’s idea that Black people in the United States need their own nation and flag, which would be symbolized in the colors of Red, Black, and Green.

With a little help from some friends, Burton officially launched the first season in April of 2010. Red, Bike, and Green now rides every third Saturday and First Friday of the month from April until November of each year.

Q. One way that White supremacy operates is by limiting the mobility of Black people and people of color generally—from the laws that prevented people from moving into a specific neighborhood to the ongoing police harassment of motorists (i.e., “driving while Black”). Do you believe that encouraging Black people to get around by bike is a way to challenge White supremacy? If so, how?

A. Yes. And no.  First and foremost, we see RBG as a psychological and spiritual departure from White-supremacist values.  While we are not gathering with the intention of directly challenging White supremacy, we are not trying to feed that machine either.  If the indirect outcome of being pro Black (not anti-White) and asserting autonomy is a challenge to White supremacy, then so be it.  We are functioning out of a love for Black people and the need to create a space where we feel safe and part of a community that cares about our well-being.

When you see fifty plus Black people on bikes in ANY neighborhood it is a symbol of Black power.  The rides are a way to make a space where Black love and healthy Black living is visible.  As a result of RBG’s success in outreaching to a community of Black folks who have largely been ignored by mainstream bike culture, it has given us a platform with which to fight different sorts of oppression and we are grateful for that.

Q. Black people have long been marginalized in the cycling sports—from the prohibition on African-American membership in the League of American Bicyclists, which was not rescinded until 1999, to more subtle signals that push Black people out of bike networks. What do you think about the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay today? In what ways is it an affirmative, inviting place for Black people and how is it not?
Continue reading

Oakland Streetscape: These Benches are Revolting!

Social struggles occur in diverse places in Oakland: at street protests, in debates at City Hall, and sometimes even where you plant your butt! Take the benches in this photo: though modest and unassuming, they are actually a salvo in the battles over public space that are presently unfolding in Oakland and cities worldwide.

They sit steps from a West Oakland park known as a hangout for the homeless and super-poor. At this park, it is common to see a half-dozen shopping carts full of belongings, people drinking from paper bags, and to smell pot smoke wafting through the air. Those present are almost always black men, middle-aged and up, with a sprinkling of younger adults and women of assorted ages. I have only seen kids there twice during the dozens of times that I have passed by and the absence of swings or play gear of any sort suggests that no one expects them to show up more regularly. I have never witnessed the police harassing people there, though surely it would not be hard for them to come up with  reasons to do so if they wished. It appears that authorities have decided that it is okay for the uber-marginalized to congregate at this site. Something similar would not be allowed in Berkeley or San Francisco, which rank among the “meanest” cities to the homeless in the United States.

An inspection of these benches yields insights into their origins (click the photo above for a larger view). First of all, we can see that they are not city-issue products. Local authorities construct benches out of steel, or a mix of steel and composite wood, whereas these are simply painted wooden planks bolted to the sidewalk with cheap “L” brackets. We can also conclude that they are not the work of a business hoping to accommodate its customers—they lie in front of a trash-strewn lot, not a store or restaurant. Everything indicates that some guerrilla decorators installed them surreptitiously, presumably under the cloak of night and inspired by the outrageous thought that poor people also have a right to sit down.

The built environment is inherently political. This is obvious in the case of things like monuments and palaces, but seating and politics also have a particularly strong connection. In Home: A Short History of An Idea, Witold Rybcznski sketches the long evolution of approaches to seating and argues that what has changed over the years is less the technology of seating than its cultural use. He points out that seats are often means of articulating and representing power. We see hints of this in our everyday language: the head of an academic department is the “chair,” a judge “sits” on “the bench,” the center of authority in a country is the “seat” of power, a monarch occupies “the throne,” etc. Continue reading