Over the weekend, I was at a benefit event for the Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland. Started six years ago by Anyka Barber, Betti Ono is as much a community space as it is a gallery. Recently though, its impending displacement from downtown has made it a sort of poster child for the rapid change that is both giving Oakland its new vitality and pulling it asunder.
It’s the classic gentrification catch-22: Betti Ono, and other spaces like it, gave downtown the coolness and legitimacy that attracted the well-funded businesses and well-paid residents that are now pushing the gallery and its ilk out.
Because of this, Barber started a crowdfunding campaign to “Help us stay in the community we created and fight for a critical five year lease.” Part of the messaging is taglines, like “Keep Oakland Creative” and “Power. Love. Resistance.” — both look real good with a hashtag in front of them.
So there we were on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Lost and Found Beer Garden, and it was beautiful. Not just because of the lovely weather but because, on the timeline of gentrification, Oakland is in a really special place. From a guy wearing a shirt that said “I Love my Blackness and Yours” to the knuckle-to-neck tattooed white folks playing corn hole, to the multiethnic babies toddling around trying to put the world in their mouths, my heart smiled at the diversity that surrounded me.
Right now, Oakland is in that place where decades-old cultural institutions sit side by side with brand new businesses, and both support and appreciate the other, wanting to see each other succeed. And this was at the heart of so many conversations that day: How do we keep Oakland in the space it is now?
All Oakland has to do to see it’s possible future is look across the Bay and see the greed machine that is unraveling San Francisco.
My dear friend Sayre Piotrkowski is a cicerone (a sommelier for beer), and he teamed up with Craftsmen Brewing to throw the Betti Ono fundraiser at Lost and Found. His reason for doing so is exactly the response to the question of the day. When the East Bay Express asked him about the event, he said, “I think the Oakland Craft Beer community owes some reciprocity to the Oakland Arts community. There are now nine beer gardens thriving in the downtown area and that would not be possible if people like Anyka and spaces like Betti Ono had not come first.”
If everyone who has recently moved to Oakland — or plans on moving — had that mindfulness, The Town could legitimately become the best in America. Imagine if, when Uber moves into downtown Oakland, they made it a policy that 50 percent of all new hires would be Oaklanders. What if they used their vast wealth to help develop affordable housing in all those empty lots in West Oakland? What if they used their power to back progressive candidates in local government instead of buying corrupt ones like they’ve done in San Francisco. What if Uber and everyone else who is eyeing Oakland as the next big thing actually gave a shit about Oakland? Luckily, Oakland sees what its future might look like. The question is whether there’s enough people who think like Sayre and Anyka, people who do care about Oakland and want it to remain a place of diversity and open-mindedness, to be able to save Oakland from its future self.
Wanna help the Betti Ono Gallery survive? Go to BettiOno.com to learn more and donate.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.