Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
West Side Stories is a primer for newcomers and a forum for longtime residents.
It goes on and on, the roster of African American political and cultural icons who’ve called West Oakland, California, home. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters once headquartered there. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wrote the Black Panther Manifesto on 57th Street, and rallied in DeFremery Park. The Pointer Sisters, MC Hammer, Bill Russell, and Curt Flood grew up nearby.
Since the 1950s, West Oakland has remained predominantly black. And while it’s seen its fair share of luminaries, mostly it’s been a community of middle to low-income families.
But that’s changing, with the Bay Area’s booming economy, and an exodus of black families to the suburbs. Over the past decade, West Oakland’s white population has nearly doubled. The share of Asian and Latino residents are rising, too. Property values are going up. And to some, the 6.5-square-mile neighborhood’s iconic legacy is at risk of disappearing.
West Side Stories aims to be an intervention of sorts. A multimedia, interactive map, the project profiles the neighborhood’s residents, landmarks, sights, and sounds, capturing a sense of the area’s past alongside personal tales of the dramatic transitions currently underway.
It also happens to have been produced by the Oakland-based non-profit Youth Radio. If you’re a public radio fan, you’ve probably turned up the volume on their segments before. Since 1992, Youth Radio has trained high schoolers and young adults to report and produce professional radio journalism, serving as the official youth desk for NPR. More recently, it has expanded to digital apps and interactives.
In one of West Side Stories’ geo-tagged audio clips, longtime West Oakland resident Joyce Elaine Carter (“Miss Cookie”) describes watching black families begin to move away in the early 2000s as property values rose. It was “stupid” when black children who inherited West Oakland homes from their parents turned around to sell them to whites, she says, adding, “I’m staying right here.”
Around the corner, 19-year-old Kevin Sosa says that while his family has been able to keep their house and “escape gentrification,” he’s seen lots of friends forced to move. Malik Byers, 22, says he likes a lot of the change, such as a cleaned-up BART station and a natural food co-op. But he’s also disappointed: “It’s come about because of the white people coming in,” he says. “[Black people] shouldn’t let outsiders take our neighborhood from us.”
At a nearby property viewing, couples talk about what attracts them to the neighborhood. “Something that has a little more diversity, a little more flavor than we’ve been able to find on the San Francisco side,” one man says. A woman explains she and her partner want to put down roots: “We’re planning on staying the East Bay for the foreseeable future. We want to have a family here.”
This multiplicity of perspectives was one of the main goals of the project, says 18-year-old Senay Alkebulan, who helped lead the map’s conceptualization and design (and contributed his own reporting). The Youth Radio alumnus has lived in West Oakland for most of his life, and like others, has watched black families become displaced by more affluent newcomers.
Still, he says, “I’ve come to realize that when people come to a neighborhood and contribute to gentrification, it’s not necessarily a predatory thing. Sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of the repercussions, and other times it’s circumstance.”
There’s also a knowledge gap about West Oakland between newcomers and longtime residents, says 20-year-old Storm White, another Youth Radio student who played a key role on West Side Stories. That’s why the map intersperses tidbits of history linked to the neighborhood’s buildings, parks, and signature mass-transit performance style.
“[The team] was very passionate about not just showing what’s being gentrified, but what it’s being gentrified from,” says White. “It’s important that you understand what these landmarks mean.”
The ability to communicate place-based stories is part of what can make multimedia maps so powerful. That’s why the adults of Youth Radio have ambitions to expand the project, eventually opening up the map so that users from the around the Bay Area (and possibly beyond) can add their own perspectives.
The non-profit is also launching a collaboration with UC Berkeley information scientists to develop a tool called Local Ground. It’s an easy-to-use database that lets someone who doesn’t have much GIS experience create their own data-driven map. Although students conceptualized, reported and designed West Side Stories, professional developers had to build it out. With something like Local Ground, “kids can have full ownership” of future mapmaking projects, says Tapan Parikh, one of the lead Berkeley researchers.
Ultimately, giving young people the opportunity to take charge of such projects all over the country is the key goal. “We’re the ones who are going to be coming out of college, joining the work force, looking for a place to live, [and] having an effect on these people and places,” says Alkebulan. “We are the future, and we’re going to have to deal with gentrification—for better or for worse.”