There is a sizable population of tech workers based in Oakland who would evidently rather commute one or two hours to South San Francisco or parts of Silicon Valley for work, than call San Mateo, Mountain View or similar towns home.
In talking to local tech folks who’ve made Oakland their base, one of the big refrains we heard is: I didn’t want to live in Silicon Valley, it’s way too suburban.
“I think you either are a suburban person or you just aren’t,” said Oscar Aguilar, who works for Google but says he never considered living in Mountain View. “I feel more at home in Oakland; those are my people.”
Among others we talked with, common sentiments included: The Valley is too spread-out and suburban. Oakland’s walkable–and great. And it doesn’t feel like a mall.
For some local tech folks, San Francisco is too expensive–and too upscale–for their tastes. “San Francisco is now populated by the bourgeoisie,” says Alyssa of Edmodo, and Google’s Oscar Aguilar agrees, adding, “The difference between San Francisco people and Oakland people is not as stark, but it’s there. To me, San Francisco is too glamorous.”
“Oakland has an amazing sense of community,” said Steve McClellen, a software engineer for Google, “and it has certain cachet as a home for radical socialists, artists, feminists, queer people, and people of color.”
Whether you disagree with that sentiment, have felt that way for a long time, or had no idea that young, affluent professionals would find Oakland desirable, the tech industry is paying attention. Technology companies in the Valley and San Francisco have bolstered their transportation facilities in order to compete for the talent pool that insists on living in Oakland. Those big buses ride through more and more parts of Oakland every day.
But if our sample is any indication, it seems many folks working in tech choose to live here precisely because they want to avoid the dreaded “techie-gentrifier” type that has become the target of so much contempt.
“I completely sympathize with the Google bus protesters,” said Googler Steve McClellan. “And it breaks my heart to be seen as, or to in fact BE, a gentrifier in Oakland. But my sympathy and heartbreak won’t mean much to the people who’ve been displaced. So I do my best to be a positive contributor to the community here. I spend my money at locally-owned businesses, I support local artists, and I contribute to local non-profits. I try to be aware of my privilege and listen to what more marginalized people are saying. And I try to impress upon other Googlers the importance of doing the same.”
Victoria Morales, of Genentech, similarly identified herself in opposition to gentrifiers and says she is truly engaging with Oakland community. “Although my day job is biotech, I am also involved in active community organizing. I am a member of a few East Bay-focused groups: a non-profit, a church, and a family support group, among others. My family and I are not focused on changing our neighborhood or city to suit us, but rather focused on building relationships and working with community to build connections on shared interests.”
And not all tech folks moving to Oakland have levels of income that keep them safe from Ellis evictions and gentrification’s push on market prices for housing. Alyssa, a Bay Area native who was priced out of her previous location says she is “involved and getting more involved in the diversification of the tech industry, both because I’m creating communities for women of color in tech and I AM a woman of color in tech. I’ve been pushed out of my own home by gentrification, so I’m highly conscious of my affect on others’ communities.”
So, does the increase in tech workers moving to Oakland mean that the Fruitvale will inevitably go the way of the Mission?
You are as qualified to play that speculation game as I am.
To the extent that gentrification is a systemic market force, it seems likely.
To the extent that gentrification is more than just a numbers game, that it has a human side that can be more or less brutally exploitative, maybe there is reason to be optimistic about Oakland.
The tech economy and culture has certainly made it to the East Bay but that doesn’t mean it must bring Silicon Valley with it. One thing that can be said for certain is techies and gentrifiers in general no longer have the indulgence of obliviousness; the discourse has made its way to the front of everyone’s mind.