MICHAEL AUSTIN

“My buddy, he has this good definition of gentrification and it’s where people come into a place and try to change it to what they want it to be or to something near. So some people they want to make West Oakland, San Francisco East, but it’s not San Francisco East, it’s West Oakland. So when you moved to West Oakland, you need to understand the community that you’re already moving into. And just because it’s seven minutes away from this other piece of land. It’s different and when you move into there, you need to understand how the community works and and try to be a part of that and enhance it without destroying what has already been there.”

 

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Your name and age.

Michael Austin, 39

What neighborhood of Oakland are you from or would you say feels like home?

I’m from East Oakland, above the zoo in a neighborhood called Grass Valley.

What was it like growing up on your street?

It was great! As a kid, I remember driving through the forest and then coming out to this neighborhood that had all these houses. There were a lot of kids in my neighborhood. Grass Valley elementary school was three blocks down from my house and there were kids there all the time. And a lot of the kids I grew up with, I still see around today, you know, going to people’s weddings, going to baby showers, finding out people who I’ve known or people related to somebody who I just knew kind of casually. But growing up there, it felt really familial, everybody kind of knew each other. A lot of everybody kind of knew each other, the kids knew the elders, the elders know the parents, the parents, the principal, the principal knew the daycare provider that was down the street. So it was really pretty tight knit community. It felt real, real family.

When did your family arrive in Oakland and what brought them here?

My grandparents, my father’s mother and father were in north fork, Virginia. My grandfather moved out here first and then my grandmother, my father and his two sisters came afterwards, they grew up in Berkeley. My father played professional football, so he was on the east coast where he met my mom who was from Philadelphia. They met in DC, they got together, got married, after they got married, they moved to Oakland in the early seventies. My sister was born in the mid seventies. So they were here for a while before she got here but they settled in Oakland. My dad, he was thinking about Emeryville, he was thinking about Berkeley,  he wanted to be more in Oakland. He grew up and he spent a lot of time in Oakland and so he said he wanted to live in the city of Oakland.  And then my sister and I were both born in Oakland.

What does it mean to you to be born and raised in Oakland as an Oakland Native?

It means a lot to me.  I found kind of a identity in being from Oakland, especially going to the different places that I have been to or that I’ve been there’s a sense of pride that comes with living and being from Oakland. There’s a little bit of edge that comes from being from Oakland. I’m not the most edgy person, but you know, people know that if you’re from Oakland,  it’s kind of scrappy, and it’s not easy being from Oakland and it’s not as hard as people would think. But there’s some elements here that give you perspective that you wouldn’t gain from being from someplace else. I feel it kind of gives you a little bit of an edge and also gives you a worldliness, so many different types of people are in Oakland, people that come to Oakland. So you get to see how the world operates on a microcosm  right here in Oakland. That’s something that I’ve always liked, that perspective so I can go to other places and really see into the issues and the opportunities that are going on within any kind of given community. Cause it’s something that’s already familiar. I haven’t been to a place where I saw something that I did not see in my hometown except for snow. No. It snows here sometimes, so we really do get it all.

What do you think makes open special in comparison to other cities of its size and stature?

I don’t know, there’s something unique about Oakland I think, because it’s this combination of all the different elements from San Francisco, San Francisco is more on like a point of land. It’s at the end of  a peninsula but Oakland sits on a bay up against these hills, so it’s a convergent place. And then they from Oakland, they decided toput this bridge that connects to San Francisco, they could have moved to down, they could have moved it up, but there was something about this area and how it was formed that made it a connector. It’s a convergence of all these things. So much has happened here that has spread out all across the country, music, culture, this was a migration point, so people came here. People have always been drawn here, people have always lived here. There’s something in the soil that kind of attracts people and then grows the things that spill out across the world. Crack was here first, a lot of blues and funk and came from here, a lot of political ideologies came from here. It’s just always been something about this place that has been a starting point for so many different things. And I really think that’s what makes it so unique and that you have all these different  lifestyles and people  of socioeconomic statuses that come together in proximity. So you get these really kind of convergent ideas and they catch on and take off. Oakland has a little bit of what everybody has.

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What is the reason you think everybody wants to move here now?

I think people are drawn to Oakland. I think everybody wants to live here because of, it’s a nexus, it gives you access to a big city without the kind of drama that comes with living in like a major city. San Francisco you can go to these restaurants, these Michelin Star Restaurants and it’s a quick drive away in a very nice scenic drive. It has something where if you want to leave it, know  you don’t even have to leave. Those Michelin Star restaurants are right up the street from where I used to take karate. People have always wanted to come to California, so then you’re coming to California you had to go to LA or you’re going to San Francisco because of the lore, but I think people end up in Oakland because there’s somethings more familial, I think the city (SF) can be anonymous,  I don’t always feel like a San Francisco, has its own identity, for the larger part its a pretty general big city but I feel like Oakland has had a little bit more uniqueness in that it has more people that are here, I feel like the city (SF) is very transient. People come, people go, there’s not a lot of people who actually grew up in the city that really get a voice. I feel like there are maybe more people who are from Oakland, have been in Oakland for a long time that have a say in how Oakland is run for better or for worse. The weather is better in Oakland. Like the weather is great in Oakland, it’s warm. When it’s hot it’ll, it’s sunny,  there are parts of the bay area that are socked in and fog, cloudy, rainy, and then you come into Oakland and it’s nice and sunny, bright and warm.

There is also the aesthetic of Oakland, when I think of, I think of Oakland, I think of how I view it from a couple of different places. I think about looking at it from a Merritt college, there’s a parking lot that’s right off the edge of Merritt college and you could see  all of Oakland right there in front of you. And it’s gorgeous. You have these rolling hills that connect down to all these houses that are shining, then there’s this strip of lights from the freeway that’s in the middle then it leaves out to this shimmering body of water and this bridge that’s coming out of it off to the world, it’s breathtaking. Oh and then in the middle there’s a city downtown, city skylines, blue skyscrapers and those lights,  I think of it from there. Then I think of it from the bottom of Lake Merritt looking up towards the hills. So, you have this this natural body of water, this majestic sign, a movie palace,  it’s a grand sign, that says Grand Lake. And then rolling into the hills, these green hills that are touching right up to the sky filled with trees and houses and all kinds of stuff. It’s just the beauty of a city like that. You know, I’ve been to a lot of different places. I’ve lived in a few other places and they don’t have all of that. They might have some of it, but they don’t have all of it just Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, right there, right there next to each other. I think people are attracted to that and when they really kind of see it and they get to take it in on a regular basis, it gives them a feeling and it makes them want to want to be here and stay.

What do you wish people knew about Oakland before they came here? Or what would you tell your new neighbors are the guidelines to be a good Oaklander?

I wish people who came here would know is that this has been a vibrant city without them for years. So what they’re coming and discovering and falling in love with is nothing new, this is old for many, many people. It has a new kind of face on it but that,  feeling that you feel has been here and to act appropriately, you might personally be discovering something, but you have to acknowledge the history and what has been here for this entire time. Just because you’re discovering it now doesn’t mean it’s new. That just means that you’re just now getting to the party. And I think people should really understand that. Just like, you don’t call the police on people who are drumming out by the lake, you should take a moment to think that the reason why they’re out there, is probably because they have been out there. You don’t call the police on a church that’s  practicing their choir rehearsal,  when you could look at this church and tell it’s old, like it has been here. There’ve always been people who lived in right next to this church and they have somehow managed to keep having choir practice. So you should understand that there is a community, there is a rhythm that has been here and that you coming into it, you have to learn how to adjust to it and not try to change it.

I think that’s what I would tell people, don’t try to change Oakland. My buddy, he has this good definition of gentrification and it’s where people come into a place and try to change it to what they want it to be or to something near. So some people they want to make West Oakland, San Francisco East, but it’s not San Francisco East, it’s West Oakland. So when you moved to West Oakland, you need to understand the community that you’re already moving into. And just because it’s seven minutes away from this other piece of land. It’s different and when you move into there, you need to understand how the community works and and try to be a part of that and enhance it without destroying what has already been there.

What do you not like about the current changes?

I don’t like that the people who were here kind of building the foundation for what may Oakland Cool, no longer get to be a part of it. They’re priced out of it, a lot of people were here when it was emerging or when it wasn’t cool, they are there times where I held it down when there was nothing in this neighborhood and now when there is stuff within walking distance, now there’s finally a grocery store in this neighborhood that I lived in my whole life. But the neighborhood has changed so much I can’t afford to now live here. I can’t afford to enjoy the things that I’ve always wanted from my neighborhood. That’s  what I don’t like is that the people who were here, the people who these changes really would benefit, don’t get to enjoy it,  like people who could just plop down the money and now take part in it. You look at First Friday and all of our friends, the people who kind of got into kinda got into trouble And if only they had something else to do, if they had a place to go or some organized community something that was happening that they could take part of, maybe they wouldn’t have been off getting into trouble.

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What do you like about the current changes?

I like that you don’t have to leave Oakland to have these varied experiences. There are new businesses opening up. The lake is going to be as beautiful as it should have always looked. The changes are really kind of bringing out what we always knew Oakland could be and should be.  And so now we’re getting that, and it’s great to see it.  I like to see, you know, the new buildings going up, at least aesthetically. I know what that development means and you know, the impact but I like to see some of the old lots now providing places for people to live. I wish there was a way that you could have more community development and that includes the people who have been in the community. I always think about the difference between community development and gentrification kind of pushes people out, but community development just kind of brings in new stuff for the people who are already there. I do like to see the look of the city changing our, just the growth and the modernization of it.  I do like to see that. I’d like to see new businesses opening up. I like to see new parks sprouting up. I’d like to see people out about walking. and that’s always been there. But I like the way it looks now. I just wish it was more Oaklanders who got to be a part of that look.

How does it feel to be an Oakland Native and home owner in Oakland?

It feels good. It feels really good. I will share a part of this story, but it’s really Ryan’s mom’s story. Ryan’s mom is a real estate agent. I think in 2016 she decided that she wanted to use all the skills that she had developed over the years, getting other people in the homes to make sure that her children could buy a home in Oakland. She really put it down. She got Ryan’s brother and his fiance now wife into their home. Then we got in later into our home later that year. So it feels good to be able to live and work in the same city, it feels good to own a home in the city that I grew up in. It feels good to still, be tied to this community. A lot of people move away, it’s just natural attrition. A lot of people, go away to school, maybe stay where they were at or people leave for various reasons. But I’m very proud that we have been able to grow up here and still be here and own our piece so we can be part of the community development. There are changes that we want for our community but it’s for the betterment of everybody who’s already been here and who would come here, as opposed to just changing it for the people who are coming. we own a piece of that. That gives us a say in the conversation. It gives us an investment in the neighborhood, we’re homeowners in this place and that gives us a voice and agency to advocate, to see the community change for the community.

Ryan Nicole Austin now speaking: We are African American people who have been nomadic by circumstance and it’s why many of us don’t have five generations in Oakland.  It’s why many of us go as deep as maybe three generations in Oakland because so many of us migrated from slavery context. To be able to own a piece of land in America period is a goal and a gift. But to own it in the city where, for all intents and purposes, you began your legacy is the establishment of our own personal legacy. It is like the first generation of real African American newness. I mean, you know, and I even say that with some quotations, but we can at least say our son will have a piece of property, he’ll have some land that he can call his own.

My parents have been able to do that for themselves, but my dad’s mom was able to do that for herself. But that’s, that’s where it ends, you know? So many of us, even in the rest of our family, don’t have, haven’t had that opportunity yet. So again, to be able as African American people to own a piece of the land is finally for me feeling like we’re able to set roots. We don’t have to be connected to this nomadic nature and we can say that this is our home. I don’t know what tribe I come from. I know I come from East Oakland and I know my baby gets to be right next to that.

 

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