The fact that the Oakland Gnomes story has advanced to a point of being a New York Times article, and without anyone in Oakland asking why there aren’t black gnomes, is a sad statement on Oakland today.
To rap, an unnamed artist has been painting renditions of gnomes on power poles around Oakland’s Lake Merritt area. And so many that there are 2,300 gnomes populating our city. Residents questioned where they came from, and some took of defense of them when Pacific Gas and Electric Company threatened to remove them from the polls.
To “Save The Oakland Gnomes” a number of people got into the act and created Facebook Page of the same name. All of that’s well and good, but this blogger’s really concerned over Oakland’s future, that not one person, not even Zac Wald, chief of staff to Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney and who was mentioned in the LA Times, has asked where are the black gnomes?
Does Oakland Still Want Racial Diversity?
Oakland’s proudest legacy has been it’s love and desire for racial diversity. In 1994, when this blogger was a columnist for The Montclarion here in Oakland, we issued a 60-question survey that I designed. My objective was to gain a pattern of the person we call “The Oaklander,” and what I discovered in the results was heartwarming.
The Montclarion gave me the entire op-ed page section and ran the survey for an entire week. Readers sent back 600 responses – the largest mailed volume ever for that small community newspaper. In the results, one question was this: “Why do you chose to live in Oakland.” It was a write-in question – that is you could pen-or-pencil-in your written response. 60 percent of the respondents wrote in one answer: diversity.
Think about that.
First, it was amazing that Oaklanders who read The Montclarion would take time to fill out the survey, but it went beyond that – far beyond that. People made copies of it, and shared it with their friends. Others shared the survey with people they didn’t even know. And because of that, it reached beyond The Montclarion’s Oakland Hills subscription base, and down into the flatlands. And with all that – with all of the sharing of the survey – we got a really great picture of the people of Oakland and why they’re here.
But today, that Oakland seems to be on the wane. It was an Oakland that had a number of black elected officials, and in Lionel Wilson and Elihu Harris had twice elected black mayors, and then did so again with Ron Dellums in 2006.
That Oakland seems to have given way to a new Oakland – one that’s experienced an incredible explosion in size of a vibrant, young, white population of people who mostly come from other parts of America as much as they moved over from San Francisco. They’re the result of the election of Jerry Brown as Oakland’s Mayor in 1998; what now-Governor Brown did just by his time as Mayor was to make Oakland safe for white people.
Prior to that, Oakland was not a place that was frequented often by anyone white who did not live here. My city was made fun of, skipped over in travels from San Francisco, and painted as consistently crime-ridden by the San Francisco-biased mainstream media. But Jerry Brown made Oakland a hip place to be, and his “10K” program – which this blogger helped promote as a consultant to the City of Oakland in 1999 – gave new, market rate housing for them to live in and be “urban pioneers” living in Brown’s idea of “elegant density.”
Now, we have an Oakland much like the one I predicted it would evolve into in 1994, and again, in The Montclarion: a town that’s almost perfectly racially mixed, with no one dominant ethnicity anywhere. Indeed, while Oakland was considered a “black town” in the 1980s and 1990s, from a U.S. Census perspective, it was a place where there was no census tract that had just one color of people.
Oakland has never been a place where one color of people enjoyed their culture and didn’t share it with others. But the new Oakland is, sadly, somewhat different. It seems to be splitting into racial pockets: mostly whites here, mostly blacks there, some places where it’s really well mixed, and others where it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not becoming San Francisco, but we’re also moving away from what we have been historically – just a bit.
The Gnome Issue Is A Warning
I say that to emphasize that this is a ‘check’ on where Oakland’s going – a warning signal to avoid a future that few would publicly say they want if they were quizzed. Oakland should not allow itself to degenerate into a racially-divided city. It’s not enough to say it will not happen, and it’s everything to make sure it does not occur.
We have to consistently question the images we send out in Oakland. The Oakland Gnomes are a good thing, but they become a great thing, a beautiful thing, if they reflect the diversity of Oakland.
Oakland has never been a city to exclude anyone racially. It should not start now, even if the population happens to be 2,300 painted gnomes.
The best solution is for someone to paint some of them black, Latino, and Asian. Perhaps add in one or several turbins to reflect Oakland’s religious diversity. And why not make one female?
This may comes as a shock, but there are female gnomes, and black gnomes too. On my YouTube video, some commenters wrote vile messages around the idea that gnomes are only white. It’s that perception – the idea that one image has to be one racial identity, when in point of fact, that’s not true – that I’m fighting against.
You should too.
We can’t make Oakland for burning. The legacy of Oscar Grant goes beyond police brutality, and to racial diversity, curiosity, understanding, and acceptance. When I get into a cab on the way to First Friday from The Alley on Grand Avenue, and white men yell at me “Black guy getting into a cab to go uptown,” as happened Friday night, I fear for my city. When whites get on BART in Oakland, see an open seat next to a black man, and keep walking rather than sit down next to that person, I am concerned for my town. It’s too the point where, in personal protest, I stand while riding BART, rather than sit down. (And I’m toying with the idea of putting what I see on video, just to give a clear picture of this ugly reality.)
That’s not the Oakland I want, and I hope it’s not the Oakland you want either. The Gnomes of Oakland should reflect Oakland’s diversity, and for the sake of Oakland’s future.